They’re out and they’re in the House

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When I was born in 1985, there was a fe­male prime min­is­ter. Mar­garet Thatcher’s name was like a swear word in our house, and she’s hardly a fem­i­nist icon as far as I’m con­cerned, but the fact re­mains, I grew up in a world where that was at least a pos­si­bil­ity; a woman could achieve the high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice in the UK. But just 100 years ago, in 1917, women didn’t yet have the right to vote, and it would be another two years be­fore a woman took her seat in the House of Com­mons.

Progress – both in terms of gen­der and sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion – has been rel­a­tively swift. As I write, there are 191 fe­male MPS in the UK par­lia­ment, and with 32 LGB MPS (there are cur­rently no out trans­gen­der MPS) it’s been called the gayest par­lia­ment in the world. Les­bian, gay and bi­sex­ual MPS make up al­most 5% of the Com­mons, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the per­cent­age of the UK pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mated to be LGBT. 26% of the House of Lords are women. In North­ern Ire­land, 28% of the coun­try’s assem­bly are women, while in Wales it’s a whop­ping 42%. And in my na­tive Scot­land, one third of MSPS are fe­male. We have a fe­male first min­is­ter, lead­ing one of the few gen­der-bal­anced cab­i­nets in the world, and the other three main party lead­ers (Kezia Dugdale, Ruth David­son and Pa­trick Harvie) iden­tify as LGB.

To­day’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape for women and LGB peo­ple is a far cry from the 1970s, when Mau­reen Colquhoun, Labour MP for Northamp­ton North, was outed by Daily Mail gos­sip colum­nist Nigel Dempster. Colquhoun had left her hus­band, a Sun­day Times jour­nal­ist, for a woman, and Dempster some­how got ahold of a change- of-ad­dress card sent by Colquhoun and her part­ner Bar­bara Todd, which ap­par­ently fea­tured a “sap­pho mo­tif”. Colquhoun later faced de­s­e­lec­tion from her party for what was de­scribed as an “ob­ses­sion with triv­i­al­i­ties such as women’s rights”. Dempster de­fended his ac­tions, claim­ing: “All I was do­ing was bring­ing to a wider pub­lic what she her­self had ad­ver­tised.”

Labour’s An­gela Ea­gle was the next MP to go pub­lic about her sex­u­al­ity. She came out in Septem­ber 1997, 20 years after Dempster’s out­ing of Colquhoun, but says it wasn’t an easy de­ci­sion to make. Clearly, Colquhoun was still fresh in her mind. “She had been outed… in very nasty cir­cum­stances, to mass ridicule. It wasn’t ex­actly a great prece­dent. But I had de­cided to move in with my part­ner and I was ready to do it. It does free you up to be your­self. I think, in pol­i­tics, you have to be your­self. It just makes you a bet­ter politi­cian.”

Colquhoun’s ex­pe­ri­ence had long been for­got­ten by the time Jus­tine Green­ing, Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary, came out on Twit­ter last year, gen­er­at­ing 6,495 retweets – ba­si­cally in­ter­net tum­ble­weed. In stark con­trast to Colquhoun’s “mass ridicule”, the re­ac­tion to Green­ing’s low-key an­nounce­ment was pos­i­tive, but quiet. And Kezia Dugdale had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence when she went pub­lic about her same-sex re­la­tion­ship for the first time in an


in­ter­view with the Fabian Re­view in April 2016. The SNP, which boasts eight LGB MPS – in­clud­ing four women – has re­ceived lit­tle back­lash for be­ing the “gayest po­lit­i­cal party in the world”, de­spite count­ing no­to­ri­ous Sec­tion 28 backer Brian Souter among its sup­port­ers, and it seems Britain, in the words of jour­nal­ist An­drew Reynolds, has reached a “post-ho­mo­pho­bic state of grace”.

“The im­pres­sion I gained from be­ing on the doorsteps with LGBT can­di­dates,” writes Reynolds in the New States­man, “was that, if it mat­tered at all, the can­di­dates’ sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion was of lit­tle con­se­quence to the av­er­age voter”. What a time to be alive.

Or is it? The num­bers sure do paint a pos­i­tive pic­ture, and it’s great that we’ve moved be­yond the witch­hunty, pitch­fork-style tabloid out­ings of the 70s, 80s and 90s. But the re­al­ity isn’t quite so rosy. Women MPS are sub­ject to ab­hor­rent sex­ism and misog­yny on­line – check out Jess Phillips’ bril­liant book Every­woman for a fas­ci­nat­ing and hor­rific in­sight into the life of a fe­male MP – and just last year, Ea­gle found her­self on the re­ceiv­ing end of in­tim­i­da­tion, ho­mo­pho­bia and death threats from within her own party when she had the au­dac­ity to chal­lenge Jeremy Cor­byn’s lead­er­ship. There was also a brick thrown through the win­dow of her con­stituency of­fice in Wal­lasey, Mersey­side, which an in­ter­nal Labour in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­cluded was con­nected.

Let’s not for­get, ei­ther, that while there might be 32 LGB MPS in the House of Com­mons, only nine are women, and they are all white and cis­gen­der. Only two women in the House of Lords are out – Baroness Barker and Baroness Hil­ton – and anec­do­tal ev­i­dence sug­gests there are still many MPS who are fear­ful of com­ing out lest they be tarred with the same brush as Colquhoun. And that’s wor­ry­ing, be­cause LGB MPS like An­gela Ea­gle, Mhairi Black or Jus­tine Green­ing are quiet rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who change so­ci­ety’s per­cep­tion of sex­ual mi­nori­ties sim­ply by be­ing.

“The very pres­ence of LGB MPS can have pro­found ef­fects on peo­ple far be­yond par­lia­ment,” says trans­gen­der writer and ac­tivist Paris Lees. “I kind of hate to say this, but it’s re­ally im­por­tant to have val­i­da­tion by the state. It was a huge deal for me just to get a Bri­tish pass­port that said I was fe­male. And, also, find find­ing out that [trans ac­tivist] Chris­tine Burns had been honoured by the Q Queen. Where I came from, I just felt like I was a freak, some­thing to be as ashamed of, so to have peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent ac­tu­ally re­spected in pub­lic life – to have them ac­tu­ally voted in – is re­al­lyrea im­por­tant.” It’s an any­one’s guess what par­lia­men ment will look like in another 100 years, and un­less there are sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance­ments in med­i­cal science, I won’t be around to see it. But I’ll be cross­ing my fin­gers from be­yond the g grave that there will be a q queer women of colour in the hig high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice in the UK b by then.

“The very pres­ence of LGB MPSs can have pro­found ef­fects on peo­ple far be­yond par­lia­ment”

Mau­reen Colquhoun MP

Jus­tine Green­ing, Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Kezia Dugdale, leader of the Scot­tish Labour Party Ruth David­son, leader of the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tive Party

An­gela Ea­gle, the first MP to come out as a les­bian

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