With Pride in London this Saturday it is a great opportunity to reflect on how attitudes towards Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people in the UK have shifted over the last 50 years, but also how the work is far from over.
Since the 2017 General Election we have elected 45 parliamentarians to the House of Commons that are openly LGBT making it the ‘gayest’ parliament in the world. This is an incredible achievement particularly in light of historical attitudes towards LGBT people including the one highlighted in ‘A Very English Scandal’, the story of Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe and his love affair with Norman Scott in the early 60s and 70s, which hit our screens in May. Back then it would have been unfathomable for a young person growing up to envision a day when we have so many MPs who are openly LGBT at all levels of government and across the major political parties.
Still, we are seeing more MPs, especially from the Conservative benches, saying that if the vote for gay marriage were to happen today they would vote differently. This is an unbelievable shift and showcases the persistence of the LGBT community to advocate that their community is just as valuable as any other. I remember vividly in May of this year Conservative MP Bob Stewart apologising publicly in the House of Commons for voting against gay marriage. He wasn’t swayed due to massive protests or demonstrations, but as he put it, because of the “joy it has given to so many people”. Arlene Foster, the Democratic Unionist party leader, recently attended an event in Belfast hosted by Pink News, the first time a DUP leader has addressed such an event. In her speech, she mentioned that we should respect each other’s beliefs and work amicably towards a better society. I agree with her; in life we will never encounter someone who completely agrees with our point of view, but by working together we can get to a point in society where we all benefit. This reminds me of American President Abraham Lincoln who, once elected, appointed individuals to his cabinet who he disagreed with, so that they could come together to find a way to work together.
LGBT people are gradually gaining equalised rights across a variety of sections of life yet the story isn’t completely, pardon the pun, rainbows. Many LGBT people still face discrimination, physical attacks and verbal abuse on a daily basis in all parts of the world and even in the UK. So it was welcomed when the government last year ran a consultation to seek views from LGBT people about how they access public services and the types of discrimination they face. The consultation garnered a staggering 108,000 responses, the largest ever for that type of survey in the world, highlighting some of the barriers that individuals still face in 2018. Of the statistics, one of the most impactful was that 65% of respondents do not feel comfortable enough to hold their partners’ hands. This is such a fundamental gesture of companionship, but to this day is still barred to these individuals for fear of what it could mean if someone were to take offence.
Following the consultation, this week saw the launch of the LGBT Action Plan containing more than 70 actions for the government to take forward to tackle issues of discrimination in the workplace, schools, healthcare, and internationally. Some of these actions include: outlawing gay conversion therapy; providing a dedicated national LGBT health advisor; a government LGBT advisory panel; and tackling the root cause of hate crime. This progress was welcomed by all members of the House when minister for women and equalities, Penny Mordaunt, made a statement in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Her Labour shadow, Dawn Butler, rightly highlighted that although she broadly welcomed the recommendations from the action plan, there is still more that needs to be done.
We tend to focus on what I would call ‘mainstream’ LGBT issues. Issues pertaining specifically to gay or lesbian members and sometimes forget that the community is far more complex. So a keen focus needs to be placed on continuing to engage with those who might not identify within the spectrum that we set up and that their input is of equal value. An attitude shift needs to take place across various sectors of society including health, social services, local authorities, and national government and these concrete steps in the LGBT Action Plan will start to address some of the problems that modern day LGBT people still face.
To finish on a happy note, luckily we are seeing more and more businesses, charities, government departments, sports clubs, and other groups endorsing and taking part in the celebration of LGBT lives through various campaigns throughout the month of June and July.
Pride in London is taking place this Saturday 7 July, marking the end of the month-long celebration of LGBT people, but we can’t allow these conversations to take a back seat. It is the responsibility of all those in the LGBT community to continue to hold government and businesses to account if they want continued change.