OUT IN THE HOUSE

GREAT BRI­TAIN HAS THE LARGEST NUM­BER OF OPENLY LGB MPS OF ANY COUN­TRY. CARY GEE LOOKS AT THE REA­SONS WHY

Pride Life Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Your LGBT Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment

“Good af­ter­noon. I’m Chris Smith. I’m the Labour MP for Is­ling­ton South and Fins­bury, and I’m gay.” With these words, spo­ken at a rally in Rugby, War­wick­shire, against a pos­si­ble ban on gay em­ploy­ees by the town coun­cil, Chris Smith changed his­tory. He be­came the first sit­ting mem­ber of the UK par­lia­ment to come out.

It was 1984, four years be­fore Mar­garet Thatcher’s gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the shame­ful Sec­tion 28, and two years be­fore leaflets de­pict­ing an ice­berg were dropped through ev­ery mail­box in the UK, warn­ing us against un­pro­tected sex. Jenny still lived with Eric and Martin and the sound of closet doors be­ing slammed shut com­peted with the shrill hys­te­ria of the ho­mo­pho­bic es­tab­lish­ment.

How things have changed. There are now 37 out LGB mem­bers of par­lia­ment, as many Con­ser­va­tives as Labour, and Smith is now a Lord (Baron Smith of Fins­bury) and Mas­ter (of Pem­broke Col­lege, Cam­bridge).

He re­calls no par­tic­u­lar plan to out him­self.

“I was running for par­lia­ment in ‘83. I had never made any se­cret of the fact that I was gay, but had never stood on a pub­lic plat­form and said any­thing. Af­ter I was elected, I thought I should say some­thing. One or two of my par­lia­men­tary col­leagues were gay but very much in the closet. They had been pur­sued and hounded by the press. I de­cided the only way to stop that hap­pen­ing was to be ab­so­lutely open and can­did.”

Was this some­thing he had dis­cussed with his par­lia­men­tary col­leagues?

“Not with col­leagues. I did dis­cuss with my elec­tion agent what would hap­pen if my sex­u­al­ity came up dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign. I said very firmly that the only re­sponse must be, ‘ Yes, I am. So what? Next ques­tion.’ It never ac­tu­ally arose but I de­cided that at an ap­pro­pri­ate mo­ment I did need to say some­thing.”

Per­haps be­cause of Smith’s open­ness the sub­ject never arose dur­ing his se­lec­tion ei­ther, a time dur­ing which the pec­ca­dil­loes of would-be can­di­dates are often sub­jected to ruth­less scru­tiny by mem­bers of their lo­cal party. “Prob­a­bly all of my lo­cal party knew al­ready,” he says.

“We were in a very hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. I re­mem­ber graph­i­cally one mo­ment in Com­mons af­ter the of­fices of Cap­i­tal Gay news­pa­per had been fire­bombed and a Ne­an­derthal Tory MP [Elaine Kel­let-Bow­man] shouted out, ‘Quite right too!’”

Was this hos­til­ity re­stricted en­tirely to the Con­ser­va­tive benches or did Smith face op­pro­brium from those on his own side as well? “There were a few Labour MPs, who, though not overtly hos­tile, said we shouldn’t be wast­ing our time on this sort of is­sue.”

Al­though Smith was aware he was far from the only LGBT MP he says he had no idea of the true num­ber, such was the per­ceived need for se­crecy. Did he feel any re­spon­si­bil­ity to come out?

“I’ve al­ways thought so much is gained by peo­ple in prom­i­nent roles in so­ci­ety - pol­i­tics, sport, busi­ness, me­dia - stand­ing up and be­ing counted for who they are, that it is ab­so­lutely to be en­cour­aged. How­ever, I’ve never be­lieved peo­ple should be forced to come out. It has to hap­pen vol­un­tar­ily if it’s to have the im­pact it should. Forc­ing some­one into the open re­moves the real suc­cess that comes from say­ing, ‘I am, and I’m proud of it.’”

With so many gay MPs from all sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum tak­ing their seats in the House I won­der whether we have reached some kind of crit­i­cal mass, enough to al­ter per­ma­nently the very way in which par­lia­men­tary busi­ness is con­ducted?

“LGBT MPs come in all shapes and sizes. I’m not sure it nec­es­sar­ily has an im­pact on the spe­cific style of par­lia­men­tary dis­course, but hav­ing 30 or 40 LGBT par­lia­men­tar­i­ans does make it im­pos­si­ble to re­treat from the progress to equal­ity we have made over the course of the last fif­teen years.

How would Smith judge his own place in LGBT his­tory? Does he con­sider him­self a pi­o­neer?

“Well, it felt quite lonely. It was nine or ten years be­fore any­one else came out. Yes, at times it felt pioneer­ing but I wouldn’t claim much beyond that. I hope that it helped. The most heart-warm­ing thing was that I re­ceived a lot of let­ters, say­ing well done, con­grat­u­la­tions. But the let­ters that meant the most said thank you. Let­ters from peo­ple who re­alised they were gay but were ter­ri­fied about what it might mean so­cially, for their ca­reers, their fam­ily. Here was some­one in a highly-pub­lic role say­ing, ‘Yes, it’s OK to be gay.’”

Did Smith ever imag­ine a time when there would be an equal num­ber of Tory LGBT MPs in the House as there are Labour?

“It took a long time for the Tory party to ad­just to be­com­ing more gay-friendly. I still re­mem­ber dur­ing the ‘87 elec­tion a Tory bill­board fea­tur­ing a photo of the book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin be­side the slo­gan ‘Labour’s Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy’! To have moved from that to the party that in­tro­duced equal mar­riage rep­re­sents a deep, deep change.”

It’s a change Smith, per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly,

at­tributes to the progress the gov­ern­ment of which he was a mem­ber in­sti­gated. “The equalling of the age of con­sent, the re­moval of Sec­tion 28, equal ac­cess to goods and ser­vices and the in­tro­duc­tion of civil part­ner­ships all pre­pared the way for equal mar­riage.”

So should we anoint Tony Blair as a gay icon?

“Hmmm,” pon­ders Smith. “Blair’s gov­ern­ment made a lot of progress but in the very early days he was re­ally ner­vous about equal­is­ing the age of con­sent. He wor­ried about the po­lit­i­cal im­pact, but once that was achieved, and the roof didn’t fall in it be­came a lot eas­ier to race ahead with ev­ery­thing else.”

Of all his achieve­ments what would Smith like to be most re­mem­bered for? Our “first” gay MP, or per­haps the Sec­re­tary of State (for the De­part­ment of Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport) who en­shrined free ac­cess for all to our na­tional mu­se­ums and gal­leries?

“I hope I’ll be re­mem­bered for both, and hope­fully quite a lot more be­sides!” he says.

Smith is now en­joy­ing be­ing Mas­ter of his old alma mater, Pem­broke Col­lege, Cam­bridge. “I love it. I’m sur­rounded by highly in­tel­li­gent peo­ple do­ing ground­break­ing work.”

But wasn’t that the case in Par­lia­ment?

“Dare I say it? Not by ev­ery­one!” Par­lia­ment is a lot less lonely now, if you hap­pen to be gay. At the 2015 gen­eral elec­tion 32 openly gay MPs were elected. Even the Tories joined the party, field­ing 39 gay can­di­dates, and 3 les­bians. Of the 12 Con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates seek­ing re-elec­tion 11 were suc­cess­ful, sug­gest­ing that vot­ers place a can­di­date’s sex­u­al­ity low on a list of pri­or­i­ties.

Since the elec­tion a fur­ther three MPs, Labour’s Nia Grif­fith, SNP’s Han­nah Bardell and Tory front­bencher Jus­tine Green­ing have outed them­selves, bring­ing the to­tal num­ber to 37, or just over 5 % of the leg­is­la­ture. This is in line with Stonewall’s es­ti­ma­tion that 5-7 % of the UK’s pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as LGBT, and is more than any other com­pa­ra­ble democ­racy.

And there could be more. While preparing this fea­ture I in­ad­ver­tently in­vited an MP, who I be­lieved to be gay, to take part. He de­clined on the per­fectly rea­son­able grounds that he was ac­tu­ally het­ero­sex­ual but sug­gested I speak to a num­ber of his col­leagues, many of whom I had not even con­sid­ered for in­clu­sion!

Al­most two decades af­ter Tony Blair ap­pointed Chris Smith as the first gay Sec­re­tary of State David Cameron ap­pointed David Mundell as Scot­tish Sec­re­tary, mak­ing Mundell the first openly gay Tory cab­i­net mem­ber.

You could ar­gue that Cameron had lit­tle choice. Mundell is in fact the only Tory MP to hold a seat in Scot­land, but the deafen­ing si­lence which greeted his pro­mo­tion to the front bench is a sure sign that the Con­ser­va­tive party is no longer viewed as the nat­u­ral en­emy of LGBT progress.

Mundell does not iden­tify him­self specif­i­cally as a “gay MP”.

“I’ve never felt lonely or iso­lated, more a mem­ber of a very warm fam­ily of peo­ple across par­ties,” he says. “Part of the change is that none of us spend a lot of time to­gether, al­though I’ve been to a num­ber of events.

“There was a very ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse from par­lia­ment to the Or­lando mas­sacre. We went to the vigil in Soho, but what’s more im­por­tant, re­gard­less of sex­u­al­ity, is mak­ing sure ev­ery­one’s con­tri­bu­tion is of equal value. There are times when it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to speak out, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the same-sex mar­riage leg­is­la­tion or when an is­sue has a very spe­cific LGBT an­gle, but gen­er­ally we’d rather be judged on our own mer­its, rather than our sex­u­al­ity.”

A di­vorcee with three chil­dren, one of whom, Oliver, is a mem­ber of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment, Mundell’s com­ing out took a rather more cir­cuitous route than Smith’s.

“I’d been on a jour­ney. It just came to­gether and was the right time. I’d had an in­cred­i­ble busy po­lit­i­cal pe­riod be­fore­hand, my son was get­ting mar­ried, and I didn’t want to cre­ate a dis­trac­tion. There were so many events that pre­cluded the emo­tional en­ergy needed to come out. But it was the be­gin­ning of a new year and time to make a new start.”

Mundell, once an SDP sup­porter, does not be­lieve it would have been any eas­ier to come out as a mem­ber of a dif­fer­ent party.

“I don’t think it would’ve made any dif­fer­ence at all. David Cameron’s record on so­cial is­sues is out­stand­ing. He con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cantly to chang­ing at­ti­tudes across the UK. On these is­sues the Con­ser­va­tives are no less the place to be than any­one else,”

How­ever, he does warn against com­pla­cency.

“In 1984… Jenny still lived with Eric and Martin and the sound of closet doors be­ing slammed shut com­peted with the shrill hys­te­ria of the ho­mo­pho­bic es­tab­lish­ment”

“Ho­mo­pho­bia is still out there, par­tic­u­larly for young peo­ple, and there are lots of is­sues for trans­gen­dered peo­ple. We’ve come a very long way but there’s still a lot to do”

“Ho­mo­pho­bia is still out there, par­tic­u­larly for young peo­ple, and there are lots of is­sues for trans­gen­dered peo­ple. We’ve come a very long way but there’s still a lot to do.”

Does ho­mo­pho­bia ex­ist in the Com­mons too? “There are hun­dreds of peo­ple work­ing in the House of Com­mons. In­evitably, they are bound to re­flect traits within so­ci­ety. But I have not ex­pe­ri­enced any ho­mo­pho­bia in the House.”

Did Mundell ever imag­ine a time when the en­tire Scot­tish par­lia­men­tary Con­ser­va­tive party would be gay?

“Well, I never ex­pected there would only be one mem­ber of it!” he laughs. “At least, I’ve man­aged to agree with my­self on most is­sues!”

Mundell points out that both the leader of the Scot­tish Con­ser­va­tives, Ruth David­son, and lo­cal MEP Ian Duncan are also gay. Not so long ago Mundell might have wor­ried that com­ing out might threaten his tiny ma­jor­ity of 798 votes or 1.5 %. But not now.

“There’s not a shred of ev­i­dence that my be­ing gay would in­flu­ence any person in their vote. No one in my con­stituency has ever chal­lenged me on this is­sue. In fact ev­ery­one has been ex­tremely sup­port­ive. They judge me on what I do, not my sex­u­al­ity.”

Un­like Smith, Mundell did not see his com­ing out as any­thing more than a per­sonal is­sue. “It has made me much hap­pier. Sub­se­quently how­ever I’ve re­alised it does im­pact on other peo­ple and that by com­ing out I have helped oth­ers.”

Mundell is quick to re­fute that, hav­ing been mar­ried, he was in any way lead­ing a dou­ble life prior to out­ing him­self in Jan­uary 2015.

“I was never lead­ing a covert gay life. I was on a jour­ney”. Nonethe­less, the fact that he had to come out at all was an ex­pe­ri­ence leav­ing him feel­ing “as though I’d gone 15 rounds in the ring with Mike Tyson” is an ac­knowl­edge­ment that we still have some way to go be­fore we achieve full equal­ity.

“My ob­jec­tive is to get to a po­si­tion where it doesn’t mat­ter at all and the LGBT com­mu­nity is in the main­stream,” he says, some­thing which he be­lieves is achiev­able “within the fore­see­able fu­ture”.

Al­though Mundell is aware of the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of com­ing out as the first Con­ser­va­tive cab­i­net mem­ber, he does not claim to be a pi­o­neer.

Thirty two years af­ter Smith’s trail­blaz­ing an­nounce­ment it seems that there re­ally are no fron­tiers left for our par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, or in­deed, any­one else to cross.

CHRIS SMITH

DAVID MUNDELL

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