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First One Out – Britain’s Gay and Lesbian MPs

February 28, 2019

Another LGBT History Month has drawn to a close. At the various events I’ve spoken at or attended in Bristol people have been asking me about my experiences as an openly gay politician. I was the first and so far openly gay MP in Bristol. I was also the first openly gay Liberal Democrat MP and the first gay Lib Dem to hold government office. I’m using deliberately the word “openly” as there is clearly a difference between someone who is known to be gay or lesbian by the voters before an election and someone who outs themselves or is outed by others after their election.

Of course there have always been politicians who engaged in same sex relationships. But until 1967 (in England and Wales) their relationships would have led to a prosecution.  Gay MPs would have led clandestine sex lives, such as John Hervey and Stephen Fox, MPs in the early 18th century and the first MPs who can be identified with some certainty as to the gay or bisexual nature of their relationships.

Others, such as William Bankes, were exposed and their lives ruined and political careers terminated.  Some historical figures faced down revelations about their private lives, the most famous perhaps being the Liberal Leader Jeremy Thorpe. For most of the 20th century gay MPs walked a tightrope, their private lives being known to many people in high society but as long as they were discrete they avoided exposure and ruin. Many of these characters feature in the blog I wrote for last year’s LGBT History Month, featuring famous characters and the houses, museums and other places that can be visited, which are associated with them.

In the last decade of the 20th century and the first years of the current century it has gradually become easier for candidates to stand for office and be open about their sexuality. However, the first sitting MP to voluntarily reveal her sexuality exposed herself to prejudice and bigotry.  Maureen Colquhoun is a figure almost forgotten by political historians but she deserves to be better known and lauded for her bravery.  She was elected as the Labour MP for Northampton North in February 1974. After her decision in 1975 to leave her husband and live with her lover Barbara Todd (publisher of the lesbian magazine Sappho) her constituency party disowned her and she was defeated at the 1979 election.

The first out gay male MP had a happier coming out experience.  Chris Smith was elected as Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury in 1983. A year later he announced at a public meeting that he was gay. In 1997 Tony Blair appointed him as Culture Secretary, the first openly gay minister. It was also in 1997 that the first two openly gay MPs were elected.  Stephen Twigg’s victory in Enfield Southgate was for many people the defining moment of the 1997 election, ousting Michael Portillo. The journalist Brian Cathcart gave his book about the election the title, “Were you still up for Portillo?” Twigg’s victory was a major upset and it’s possible that not many electors knew about his homosexuality. But there was no doubt at all in Exeter where the Conservatives ran a nasty homophobic campaign against the Labour candidate Ben Bradshaw.  The electors of Exeter were not impressed and Bradshaw gained the seat with a majority of over 11,000 votes.

In 1997 I was a councillor in Bristol.  When I was first elected in 1993 I was pleased to be known as the youngest councillor (aged 26, doesn’t seem so young now!) in the region but was not known to be gay.  It was actually that year that I gradually started coming out to friends and party colleagues.  As the Lib Dem opposition leader I defended the council grant to Freedom Youth, a charity that worked with teenage gays and lesbians. In early 1999 I was selected as the Lib Dem candidate for my home seat of Bristol West.  Although my sexuality was known to most people in Bristol’s political circles I decided to get the issue properly out in the open via an interview in what was then Bristol’s news and entertainment magazine, Venue. In the same interview I also advocated the decriminalisation of cannabis.  The reaction was mostly positive, though some of my local members were angry about my loony views on drugs! But a small group were also furious about me talking about my sexuality and worked to undermine me as the candidate for several years. I’ve said to people many times that while the Liberal Democrats are undoubtedly Britain’s most liberal party that does not mean that the party is entirely liberal on all issues. The voting records of some of my later MP colleagues and the behaviour of a contemporary who became party leader show clearly this homophobic blind spot among liberals who had otherwise impeccable views on civil rights.

The local press didn’t help the situation by referring to me as the “gay Lib Dem candidate”, despite my remonstrations to them that I was a Liberal Democrat who happened to be gay.  When Charles Kennedy made his first visit to Bristol as party leader in the autumn of 1999 the BBC asked him about his gay candidate.  Charles handled it brilliantly but it wasn’t the news story I wanted. From 1999 through to the 2001 general election I received a steady stream of hate mail, some of it anonymous, some on headed note paper.  I was generally considered to be a vile piece of work, someone too dangerous to be allowed to visit schools and who would probably burn in hell. In the election campaign itself party workers were told by several people that they would not vote for me as “they had been told by another party” about my sexuality.

I lost the 2001 election but did take the party from third to second place.  Some members said to my face that if only I had kept my mouth shut about my sexuality then the result would have been better. Almost two decades on it all seems quite extraordinary.  But the pain of 2001 gave way to elation four years later when I won a comfortable victory over Labour.  I became the Liberal Democrats’ first openly gay MP and was only the fifth from any party, following Twigg and Bradshaw plus Adam Price and Chris Bryant who had been elected in 2001.

My main political interests that I wanted to pursue as an MP were education and health inequalities.  But I was mindful that my new role also gave me an opportunity to advance gay rights. In 2006 I persuaded my colleagues on the Education Select Committee to take evidence on bullying in schools. We questioned the Bristol based charity Education Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) about the extent of homophobic bullying in schools.  We also took evidence on racism and bullying of children with SEN.  Our report recommended policies for all schools to adopt on all forms of identity related bullying.  I held events about the issue in Parliament and also proposed a motion to the Lib Dem conference. The Department of Children, Schools and Families adopted our proposals.  Over the last decade it has been a source of pride every time I visit a school when I see posters on the wall about homophobic bullying.  I hope my intervention has made schools safer places for all children to learn and flourish.

In 2009 I proposed to the government that the 2011 census should include questions on sexual orientation. I thought it was absurd that the census might show how many motorbikes or hot water taps were in existence but the number of gay, lesbian and bisexual people would not be counted.  The government refused and the Daily Express dubbed me a “loony liberal”, a badge of honour!  Ten years on I am pleased to see that sexual orientation is going to feature in the 2021 census.

In my second term the big issue was securing same sex marriage.  This was something I had supported for the previous five years, when speaking at events saying that civil partnerships should not be the end of the story in relationships equality. Labour and the LGB pressure group Stonewall did not agree.  At the 2010 general election I had been joined by the Lib Dems’ second openly gay MP, Stephen Gilbert, who had won Newquay and St Austell. Stephen proposed a motion to the Lib Dem Autumn conference in favour of equal marriage.  The Liberal Democrats became the first party to support same sex marriage.

Lynne Featherstone was the Lib Dem minister for women and equalities at the Home Office.  With the backing of David Cameron, Nick Clegg and the then Home Secretary Theresa May, Lynne was able to lay the legislative foundations for same sex marriage. After a consultation in 2012 the measure was announced in the Queen’s Speech for the 2012/13 session of Parliament.  Lynne had in the meantime moved to the Department of International Development. The legislation would now be carried through the Commons by the Conservative DCMS and Equalities minister Hugh Robertson. I went to see Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem and Deputy Government Chief Whip.  I told him that it was important for the party to be closely involved with the Bill in all its stages and also that a gay MP should be seen to be playing a leading part.

Alistair agreed and I spent many months in 2013 meeting with Hugh and his officials about the details of the Bill and also considering other measures that might be tacked on to it. I also had conversations with Lib Dem parliamentary colleagues who had concerns about the legislation. Some, such as Gordon Birtwhistle (Burnley) just thought the whole thing was wrong and he could not be reasoned with.  Bob Russell (Colchester) had a poor voting record on gay rights issues in earlier sessions.  But he was a colleague with whom I got on very well and in the end he supported the Bill.  Catholic colleagues were divided.  Charles Kennedy and Dan Rogerson were very clear that equal marriage was a liberal measure.  But Sarah Teather (like Shirley Williams in the later House of Lords stages of the Bill) could not support it, despite the Bill being permissive for all religious denominations, other than the Established Church of England and, ludicrously in my opinion, the disestablished Church in Wales, where same sex marriage would be banned.

Other colleagues had particular concerns, mainly to secure protection for what they considered to be important religious freedoms for council registry office staff. Alan Beith and Simon Hughes were struggling with this issue.  I was supported in many of these conversations by LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, in particular Ed Fordham, who sent briefings to all my colleagues.  The most tortuous conversations were with Tim Farron, who was also party president.  Essentially he was having a three way struggle: his religious conscience versus his liberal beliefs and also his political ambitions. As party president he should surely vote for a measure that was party policy. Voting against would risk damaging his positive image among party members as a coalition sceptic. My own advice to him was to be true to his real convictions and come up with a liberal defence of his right to hold religious beliefs that occasionally were in conflict with his party.  Tim tried to please everyone, a position that came back to haunt him in the 2017 general election.

Once the Second Reading debate was out of the way we settled down to several weeks of Bill Committee sessions.  We started by taking evidence from witnesses for and against different provisions of the Bill, including several bishops. Then we moved on to the detailed line consideration of each clause of the Bill. I put down two amendments.  One was to open up the existing civil partnerships to opposite sex couples.  The other was to give legal recognition to humanist wedding ceremonies.  After a debate I withdrew the CPs amendment as in several conversations with colleagues in the DPM’s office it was clear that Cameron was implacably opposed and changes to the Bill would put its passage at risk.  I intended to do the same for my humanism amendment but the response from the second Tory minister on the Bill (Helen Grant, from the Ministry of Justice) was so rude that I pressed it to a vote.  The result was a draw so the committee chairman Gary Streeter used his casting vote to keep the Bill as it was drafted, as per convention.  The Bill left committee otherwise unscathed, despite the efforts of two Tory committee members (Tim Loughton and David Burrowes) and the sole DUP member.

Throughout the various stages there were groups of supporters demonstrating outside Parliament and I went out to speak to them to keep them up to date.  These gatherings continued right through to the summer and the final passage of the Bill through the House of Lords.

Looking back now on my ten years as an MP I am proud to have helped achieve two measures that have undoubtedly advanced gay rights.  Tackling homophobic bullying is now a mainstream activity for children’s charities and is a core policy in schools. Thousands of same sex marriages have taken place in the last four years.

In the 2017 Parliament there are now 45 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs but sadly none are Liberal Democrats. Without an openly gay or lesbian MP (there are some fantastic peers such as Brian Paddick and Liz Barker) the party is at a severe disadvantage in trying to win over what should be our natural supporters in the LGBT community.  I hope this will be rectified whenever the next general election comes along. In the meantime, here is my own list of the lesbian, gay and bisexual parliamentary trailblazers.

House of Commons

First sitting MP to come out as lesbian:

  • Maureen Colquhoun (1975, Northampton North, Labour)

First sitting MP to come out as gay:

  • Chris Smith (1984, Islington South and Finsbury, Labour)

First sitting MP to identify as bisexual

  • Simon Hughes (2006, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, Liberal Democrat)

First gay MPs (by party) to be out before being elected:

  • Stephen Twigg (1997, Enfield Southgate, Labour)
  • Ben Bradshaw (1997, Exeter, Labour)
  • Adam Price (2001, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Plaid Cymru)
  • Stephen Williams (2005, Bristol West, Liberal Democrat)
  • Nick Herbert (2005, Arundel and South Downs, Conservative)
  • Martin Docherty (2015, West Dunbartonshire, SNP)
  • Stewart McDonald (2015, Glasgow South, SNP)
  • Stuart McDonald (2015, Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, SNP)
  • John Nicolson (2015, East Dunbartonshire, SNP)

First lesbian MPs to be out before being elected:

  • Margot James (2010, Stourbridge, Conservative)
  • Mhairi Black (2015, Paisley and Renfrewshire South, SNP)
  • Angela Crawley (2015, Lanark and Hamilton East, SNP)

First bisexual MP to be out before being elected:

  • Cat Smith (2015, Lancaster and Fleetwood, Labour)

National Assembly for Wales/Senedd

First bisexual AM

  • Ron Davies (1999, Caerphilly, Labour)

First lesbian AM

  • Hannah Blythwyn (2016, Delyn, Labour)

First gay AMs

  • Jeremy Miles (2016, Neath, Labour)
  • Adam Price (2016, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Plaid Cymru)

Scottish Parliament

First gay MSP

  • Iain Smith (1999, Fife North East, Liberal Democrat)

First lesbian MSP

  • Margaret Smith (1999, Edinburgh West, Liberal Democrat)

Northern Ireland Assembly

First gay MLA

  • John Blair (2018, South Antrim, Alliance) [nominated by the Alliance Party to replace David Ford MLA under the rules for replacing resigning MLAs]

 

NOTES

My blog in 2012 in support of introducing same sex marriage:

https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2012/03/05/why-i-support-gay-marriage/

My contemporaneous blogs in 2013 on the Same Sex Marriage Bill:

https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/marriage-same-sex-couples-bill-commons-debate/

https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2013/02/26/extending-civil-partnerships-to-opposite-sex-couples/

My blog on the 2018 Supreme Court ruling in favour of opposite sex civil partnerships:

https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/time-for-full-equality-in-our-marriage-and-partnership-laws/

My blog on heritage sites associated with LGBT history, including several MPs:

https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2018/02/27/my-best-lgbt-heritage-sites/

I have not included MEPs or list members of the devolved parliaments as they have not been elected as individual candidates.  However, Wikipedia does include them in a list of British politicians known or believed to be lesbian, gay or bisexual:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_LGBT_politicians_in_the_United_Kingdom

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2020

In January 2020 Layla Moran MP (Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon) announced that she was in a same sex relationship but identified as pansexual, the first MP to do so.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Reid permalink
    March 1, 2019 8:10 am

    Very interesting as you say  sexuality is not an issue any more so you can just concentrate on the Issues!

    I was quite taken with BREXIT last week & obviously I have a stake in being Allies of the Warsaw Pact Countries

    due to my gargantuan  effort in Poland in 1979 prior to Solidarnoscz so I lay claim to having preceded Lech Walesa

    I append the document Poland for you to make your own judgement but I should not be castigated for having promoted

    a mini Revolution  for Her Majesty in honour of 303 Squadron & in revenge for Auschwitz. You have been there too but I nam a sensitive Man

    & I imagined myself back in 1943 in the Gas Chamber! I wanted the Poles to be Free as I was rapidly falling in love with Ewa Kwasniewska

    My account ,as always, is 100% True. I have kept a low profile because of possible recriminations from Russia but they should be Our Allies too

    as they lost 20 million in World War II…………..we lost 6.5 million in total  Brits, US, NZ, Aus So we owe them a debt of gratitude & if only diplomacy

    mirrored my view then  “detente” would be reestablishe & away we would go ?

    Thanks for listening  I also append Greece 1994…………………..GOD exists, deal with it.

    Have a great day & remember Churchill had a tear off notebook saying  “ACTION THIS DAY!!!” & woe betide anyone who didn’t comply with his instruction!

    All the Best, My Fellow 2005 Gen Election Candidate………..remember?

    Douglas

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