There’s been a flurry of news stories in the past week, most likely to coincide with the country’s first same-sex marriages starting next Saturday, regarding how the bill came to pass. Firstly, we had television personality Paul O’Grady describe David Cameron as a “twat” and state the Lib Dems were “as much use as men’s tits”. Then, a few days later, Ben Summerskill tried (very unconvincingly) to attack the Lib Dems for being “opportunistic” on same-sex marriage. And finally, Tony Blair said that “in hindsight”, he would’ve pushed for marriage equality whilst Prime Minister. All this leads me to think one thing: both Labour and Stonewall seem to be very keen to take the credit on LGBT equality, especially with a general election round the corner. But this credit is perhaps undeserved, especially as they both seem to have done everything they could to stall it.
I shan’t go into details about Summerskill’s statement too much, given the several bloggers that have talked about this week; I’d recommend Stephen Glenn’s post on the matter. But I do agree with the majority of the LGBT community and activist network that it’s very laughable that a man who stated his opposition to marriage equality eighteen hours before the Liberal Democrats made it party policy to claim anyone to be “opportunistic” on the matter. If they were being opportunistic, wouldn’t they have supported it after Stonewall did? Neither was Summerskill saying something off the cuff; the policy motion was being talked about in the gay press at least a month before, eliciting responses from most LGBT groups except Stonewall. As Michael Cashman indicated in the radio programme accompanying this week’s coverage, Summerskill’s opposition was shared by the board of trustees, who had financial incentive in opposing it.
But even more interesting is Blair’s comments in supporting marriage equality. And, probably moreso than Stonewall, is indicative of jumping on the equality bandwagon now that it’s supported. After all, David Lammy, whilst he was a minister, stated that the Government was fundamentally opposed to same-sex marriage, even if it was only so a hundred couples could stay married throughout a partner’s transition. This was Government policy until at least 2006, when Celia Kitzinger and her wife Sue Wilkinson lost their high court case seeking to have their Canadian marriage recognised.
This is something that crops up time and time again when it comes to Labour’s record on LGBT rights. When many LGBT Labour supporters telling me that they should receive the credit for their record on LGBT rights, I ask them, what record? Is it the record of losing a vote to equalise the age of consent in 1994 due to several shadow ministers opposing it? Is it the party that opposed private bills to repeal Section 28 or introduce civil partnerships before several years later doing the same? Perhaps it’s the party that was forced by the European Court of Human Rights to introduce a gender recognition bill, eight years after the first private bill was presented? It could even be the government who fought to turn away LGBT asylum seekers whilst having a gay immigration minister, whilst allowing rape shelters to refuse access to trans women. Or even the party that floated the idea of opposing a coalition marriage equality bill, because they couldn’t stomach the idea of anyone but them getting the credit.
Labour’s record on LGBT equality has been paper thin in the past, and whilst it’s pleasing to see people like Kate Green or Gloria de Piero talking about it more seriously, we have to recognise the past. In most cases regarding LGBT equality, the Blair and Brown governments were too cautious to act, too scared of religious reprisals that never came, and too timid to be the first people to talk about equality, unless it was for a small set of politically active middle-class white women.
This history goes back to even the early eighties, just before the AIDS crisis hit. The LGBT movement was experiencing pushback due to the decriminalisation of homosexuality just over a decade later, and homosexuality was still a taboo subject. Parties on both the left and the right were opposed to homosexuality: the right because it was immoral, the left because it was too bourgeois. A lot has been said about the Liberal role in the Bermondsey by-election, but very little has been said about the at-least equally homophobic response Peter Tatchell got from members of his own party. The only clean candidate in that election was arguably Lord Sutch. And while the Liberals learnt to use bar-charts instead of innuendo, Labour homophobia, while also dwindling, took nastier forms. Like alleging your opponent to be a paedophile, and then getting your party to fund your appeal against disqualification. Indeed, one of the strongest voices against Labour during the Miranda Grell saga was… Peter Tatchell, who described the campaign against her Liberal Democrat candidate as worse than the campaign against him in Bermondsey.
Labour supporters, for their part, seem to be swinging towards innuendo these days. After the infamous Rose Garden press conference in the first day of the Coalition, many people made jokes about how Cameron and Clegg sounded more like romantic and platonic partners than political partners. The Guardian even published some slash fiction! But four years on, the jokes wear thin and it’s firmly become homophobic innuendo against Clegg. Being “in bed with the Tories” may be a turn of phrase to signify ideological marriage, but from the tone of some people in Labour, even LGBT Labour members, you’d think that David Cameron brings out the handcuffs and whips once the door to Number 10 closes. And when they go on Pride marches, they’ll denigrate gay Tories with their “Never kissed a Tory” stickers, different only to the Gay Liberal “I’ve Never Kissed Peter Tatchell” stickers in the font that’s used. And that’s just homophobia; Labour transphobia would probably fill up another post on its own, and probably will do in the future.
Of course, it’s not completely isolated to Labour. Nearly everyone left of Cameron on the political spectrum does it, whereas people right of Cameron, such as the Tory backbenchers or UKIP, will engage in more direct homophobia. And, just as feminists on the Left are finding it hard to find a party where they won’t be subject to harassment or even sexual assault, LGBT activists are finding it hard to find a party where they won’t be denigrated every day for the sexuality or their gender identity. And even in organisations where that doesn’t happen, unless it’s specific to LGBT issues, there will always be co-option of the struggle into their major political aim. The male socialists that tell us that the revolution will magically fix sexism. The cis anarchists that tell us that the end of the state will end transphobia. There’s few people willing to fight for equality for its own sake.
Whilst the Liberal Democrats can be quite rightly criticised for many of the things that they’ve allowed the Tories to do in the coalition, there’s no call for homophobic innuendo against them. And indeed, the Lib Dems seem to have taken the fight for equality on its own sake somewhat to its heart. I can’t think of any communities outside them or the intersectional activist communities that will put equality as a part of its agenda as much as the Lib Dems will do. Even if there are black spots in the history, such as Bermondsey or Rennard, I get the feeling they’re at least trying. Faint praise, but only because the bar has been lowered.
For most political activists, trans equality isn’t something that’s thought of. But within the Lib Dems, it seems that people are innately in favour of it. There’s a reason that Lynne Featherstone and Julian Huppert are among my political idols, because they do more than any politician has done before for us. Because of them, the party is one of the few safe spaces for a trans woman to be in the political movement. For me, that’s very important, and, more than anything, is why I still retain my links to the party. I deeply, deeply hope that more politicians that are viewed as being in the mainstream are going to join the fight for equality for its own sake, because it needs to happen. Otherwise, I fear that future government equality agendas will only serve the most privileged, as opposed to a true equality agenda.