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Digital Subscriptions >  Blog > The UK's new gay MP's

The UK's new gay MP's
Gay Times

The UK's new gay MP's

Posted July 2, 2015   |   6483 views   |   Men's Interest   |   Comments (0) Britain now has the most out gay MPs of any parliament in the world. We talk to some of the record 32 LGBT politicians taking their seats and find out what’s next in the fight for equality.

It was barely a generation ago that it was unimaginable an out gay person would run for office. When Chris Smith – now Lord Smith of Finsbury – acknowledged his homosexuality at a rally against Section 28 in 1984, he was met with an aghast British establishment.

He, of course, was not the only gay in the chamber. Parliament has housed gay MPs for as long as it’s housed MPs at all – as Chris Smith would contest himself. But for generations, being open about one’s sexual preferences was not the way of the ruling elite. When Stephen Twigg overturned the seat of Michael Portillo in 1997, it was a political earthquake. But it was also a cultural one. He was the first openly gay candidate to be elected; replacing an MP whose sexuality had been much sniggered at behind closed doors.

There are now 32 gays and lesbians in Parliament – 13 Labour, 12 Conservative and seven from the SNP. The most of any parliament in the world. And it’s likely that there are more – still many choose to keep their sexual preferences private.
Ben Howlett has just been elected as the Conservative MP for Bath, aged just 29. He’s been out and proud for years – and now, so is his party.

“Over the past decade I’ve seen a dramatic shift within the Conservatives,” he tells us. “When I first joined in 2004 and attended party conference, LGBT members were whispered about. In 2015, the party is more open on equality issues.”
It was, after all, a Tory Prime Minister who pioneered same-sex marriage – something frankly unimaginable under previous administrations.

Ben led the Conservatives’ youth wing prior to becoming an MP. The generational divide in attitudes is something he’s seen first hand. “It’s now more frowned upon to hide the truth than champion equal rights,” Ben says. “I think the debate over equal marriage was generational.”

Many of those 32 out MPs are taking their seats for the first time. It’s a young group of gay men and women – from a generation when gay rights aren’t really questioned.

But what’s it like finding yourself perched on the green benches next to people who once used their power to stop equal rights?

“I’m very good friends with some colleagues who voted against the [same-sex marriage] bill and I respect their decision,” he says, diplomatically. “Some have told me that they would have voted differently with hindsight.”

Support for gay rights is now a rite of passage for political leaders. Like holding babies, eating pasties or inviting camera crews into their kitchen(s), paying platitudes to the Pink Vote is a part of modern politics.

Justine Miliband, wife to former Labour leader Ed, commented on the campaign trail that she’d “met more political husbands than wives!” This was partly from the increase in women running for parliament, of course, but also the radical shift in openly gay candidates – there were more than 100 in total.

When Wes Streeting – a new, gay Labour MP – professed love for his other half, a man, in his election acceptance speech, it drew little response. It may seem ridiculous to mention, but such casual openness would’ve been much harder for public figures just a generation earlier.

Wes, 32, spent his time before parliament as NUS President and heading up education for Stonewall, so he’s no stranger to gay rights issues.
“I joined The Labour Party because I’m from a working class family and know what life at the sharp end of inequality feels like,” Wes begins.

“When I signed up, aged 15, I was in deep denial about my own sexuality. Tony Blair’s leadership on LGBT equality and trailblazers like Michael Cashman, Chris Smith, Angela Eagle and Stephen Twigg made me feel accepted and comfortable in my own skin.”

It speaks volumes that he was elected in Ilford North, a constituency with considerable Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.

“I’m proud to be an openly gay MP for one of the most religiously diverse constituencies in Britain. But we can’t be complacent. There’s so much more to do to ensure equal treatment and representation,” he says.

The big battles of legal inequality have now been won. Having out figures in public life, like Parliament, is itself a part of the next challenge. To stop it even being a talking point; because being gay has never been abnormal, but being out has.

But, somehow, opposing equality still isn’t a block to attaining power.

The new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, has voted against gay equality throughout his time in Parliament. It should come as some relief to him, then, that there are no gays in the arts(!). As too has the new Minister for Equalities, Caroline Dinenage – something of a tradition for equalities ministers of late, it seems.

Meanwhile, the last election saw almost four million votes for UKIP – making them the third party in popular vote. It’s no secret they represent a backwards vision on gay rights and that mindset shouldn’t be forgotten in light of such a large scale electoral endorsement.

We might not see those quiet bigots walking through our town centres with placards, but their votes clearly outnumber those of our own community. Not to mention the more immediate question marks: the abolition of the Human Rights Act and a referendum on the EU.

The HRA is set to be replaced by a similar British Bill of Rights. But that could seriously set back the protection of gay asylum seekers fleeing to Britain. As could leaving the EU.

“It’s about so much more than an economic union,” Wes argues. “I hope that LGBT people will recognise the importance of the EU, not only for our own rights and protections, but for furthering equal rights for LGBT people right across Europe.”

MPs like Ben and Wes – talented, young and ambitious for their causes – now carry the baton for protecting LGBT rights. Both say they’re excited, if not incredibly nervous, to begin their new political lives. And both understand what it’s like to face prejudice. As out gay politicians, they represent not only their local communities, but, too, the gay community.

And who knows, maybe one could become our first openly gay Prime Minister?

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