I fear that yesterday’s election may turn out to be the worst for LGBT rights in nearly thirty years. But there are still people ready to fight for progressby Beth Desmond / December 13, 2019 / Leave a comment
This morning, LGBT people around the UK woke up to the devastating news that the British electorate, in their infinite wisdom, had overwhelmingly voted to put Boris Johnson back into Number 10. The man who once famously wrote that Peter Mandelson’s resignation would upset “tank-topped bumboys,” who compared gay marriage to marrying a dog, and who attacked “Labour’s appalling agenda, encouraging the teaching of homosexuality in schools,” has been rewarded for his history of bigoted comments—which are well-known to the public—with the largest Conservative majority since 1987.
It was the year after that election when Margaret Thatcher introduced into law amendment commonly referred to simply as Section 28. This notorious piece of regressive legislation banned local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” or “[promoting] the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” After the 1992 election, her successor John Major launched the ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, seen by many as an attempt to promote the traditional—in other words, married and, implicitly, heterosexual—family unit.
Thankfully, the political homophobia of these Conservative years was swept away in a tide of red as the Labour government which was elected in 1997, 2001 and 2005 brought in a whole raft of changes to drastically improve the lives of LGBT people, including civil partnerships, discrimination legislation, adoption rights, equality in the age of consent, the repeal of Section 28 and the Gender Recognition Act (GRA), which allowed trans people to change their legal gender.
The Coalition and Conservative governments which followed in the next three elections were far from perfect—as their treatment of LGBT asylum seekers attests—but they did introduce equal marriage, and Theresa May went against the majority of her party in her plans to reform the GRA.
However, I fear that yesterday’s election may turn out to be the worst for LGBT rights in nearly thirty years.
The Conservatives have the weakest manifesto policies on LGBT issues of the three major parties. Unlike the other two, they have no plans to reform the GRA to make the process of changing gender easier, to improve PSHE and sex education on LGBT issues or to make it easier for people with HIV to access the important PrEP drug.
Unlike the Liberal Democrats, there’s no suggestion they will grant legal recognition for non-binary people, make gender identity a protected characteristic under the Equality Act or look at reforming the process by which GBT people can donate blood.
When the LGBT website PinkNews granted Boris Johnson an interview, he spent much of it evading difficult questions about his views and his history. Had he apologised to Peter Mandelson for his aforementioned comments? “I’ve never intended to cause hurt or pain to anybody.” To his own party’s LGBT organisation? “The LGBT+ Conservatives have accomplished an enormous amount.” Why didn’t he vote on extending equal marriage to Northern Ireland? “We are extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.” Why did his party have no trans candidates? “We are committed to improving the diversity of parliament.” Would he condemn the US government’s homophobic and transphobic policies? “I have certainly had frank discussions with a number of leaders about the moral necessity of LGBT+ equality.”
And finally, what was his pitch to LGBT voters? Surely, he could think of something specific to our community where his party was strongest? “To move on and focus on the priorities that matter to LGBT+ voters, we need to get Brexit done.”
Quite apart from sending a man with a history of homophobic comments back to Downing Street and all but eliminating any chance of the GRA being reformed within the next five years, this election has also lost LGBT communities an outspoken advocate of trans rights. Jo Swinson has frequently been questioned about her support for pro-trans reforms—in a way that no politician who opposes them ever is—with male journalists asking bizarre questions about whether gender-neutral passports would stop us being able to catch terrorists, and telling her how, if they had the choice, they’d like a woman to pat them down at airport security.
In each interview she faced the questions well, making her knowledge of the issues and the sincerity of her beliefs obvious. Sadly, she was squeezed out of her seat by the slimmest of margins, whilst her successor will be joined in Parliament by Neale Hanvey, a man who was suspended by the SNP over antisemitism allegations and has tweeted that reform to self-ID could “be abused by sexual predators.”
If all this is getting you down—and, let’s be clear, it should—let me reassure you that Swinson isn’t alone in her values. There are many MPs still on the green benches who have shown a willingness to stand up for trans people: for example Labour frontbenchers Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler, the SNP’s Hannah Bardell and Mhairi Black, Green MP Caroline Lucas and, of course, former Prime Minister Theresa May. More importantly, let’s not forget that as long as we can make it through the next few years, progressives will have the opportunity to take the fight to Boris Johnson again, with a new leader and radical policies to give Britain a properly pro-LGBT government once more.
After all, Labour’s anthem for the 1997 election and the well-known campaign founded to fight against LGBT suicides have one important thing in common: they both agree that things can, and will, get better.