Why we need our out LGB MPS
On the last Saturday in June last year, I was working on an outside broadcast at Westminster, one of a horde of journalists discussing and dissecting the UK’S decision to leave the EU, just 36 hours before. The lawns outside the Houses of Parliament were busy and noisy, with reporters and camera crews from all over the world interviewing politicians and commentators about the ramifications of the vote.
It had been a crazy period for all our teams, who’d been putting in long hours to report the historic decision. Then, as the day drew on, there was a different kind of buzz in the distance – because it was Pride weekend in London, and I could hear cheers and chants from the good-natured crowds on the parade. ( When I interviewed the MP Chris Bryant, we half-jokingly observed that we should be there with them having fun, rather than working.)
As I checked social media, one tweet jolted me: it was from the then International Development Secretary Justine Greening. “Today’s a good day to say I’m in a happy same-sex relationship. I campaigned for Stronger In but sometimes you’re better off out!”
The Conservative MP for Putney instantly broke through a barrier, becoming the first out female cabinet minister in this country. I remember being so thrilled to read that simple sentence. Whichever party you support, it can only be positive to have people in public life being honest about who they are.
How are teenagers, people in their 20s, sometimes even older (as in my case) going to be able to be comfortable with their otherness if there is no- one showing them that their orientation isn’t a barrier to success, professional achievement, and most importantly, happiness?
I recently heard Justine Greening, now Education Secretary, talk about her decision to come out; she made it clear that the timing of the tweet was carefully thought through – and paid particular tribute to other gay politicians who had paved the way. She was speaking at a fundraising dinner for Stonewall, and it was striking to look around the room and see how many MPS, from all parties, are now open about their sexuality. It’s another reminder of how far we’ve come since Labour’s Chris Smith, now Lord Smith, came out in 1984. He became the country’s first openly gay Secretary of State in 1997 – and later that year Angela Eagle came out publicly. The Labour MP for Wallasey was, for my generation, groundbreaking. She was treading a difficult path: there hadn’t been a lesbian MP for a very long time – the last being Maureen Colquhoun, who was outed by a tabloid newspaper and then deselected by Labour in the 1970s.
Angela Eagle has said, “I think in politics you have to be yourself. It just makes you a better politician”. True, of course, and that is why every organisation, every business, benefits from allowing and encouraging their staff to be who they are, because they will, quite simply, perform better at work.
But it’s not just about doing the job well – it’s also important that our elected representatives reflect the country as a whole. When laws are passed that affect all our lives, shouldn’t every background and every experience be represented among those who are drawing up the legislation? It’s worth remembering that overall female representation remains poor – the House of Commons is still only 29% female. ( The figure for the Scottish parliament is slightly better at 35%; the Welsh Assembly has the strongest representation, with 42% women AMS). This figure leaves the UK parliament lagging behind that of numerous other developed countries, including Sweden, Belgium, Iceland and Argentina. And while we can be upbeat about the strides made by gay men and lesbians, there are still few out bisexual MPS and no MP is openly transgender. There is much to be celebrated in our democratic institutions, but still plenty to do.
It’s striking how many MPS from all parties are now out