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