LGBT issues on the agenda at the Conservative Conference

Publish Date: 05/10/2011

‘Ensuring LGBT representation in public life’ Stonewall with LGBTory Speakers Nick Herbert MP, Marina Yannakoudakis  MEP,  Stuart Andrew MP, Matthew Sephton (Chair, LGBTory) and Ben Summerskill (Chief Executive, Stonewall).

Marina spoke first with reference to her work with the European Parliament’s Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality which she said she would like to refer to wider equalities. ‘We need to encourage more people to come out’ she said and ‘I would like to see gay and lesbian people be treated equally but it isn’t just about ‘window dressing’.

Stuart Andrew MP for Pudsey wanted the Conservative party to stop apologising for the past and acknowledged that it was a fantastic achievement that there were now 12 out MP’s in the party.

‘The public don’t give a damn if you are a gay MP they just want a good candidate for their area’ he said. But as well as having more out MP’s it was important he felt that there were more out Conservative local counsellors and that more people were encouraged to come out in the world of sport too. ‘I don’t like labels’  he said, mentioning that there was a need to tackle the fear of coming out and  that all political parties have in the past  used sexual orientation against a gay or lesbian candidate particularly when the individual was standing against a so-called ‘family man’ for example.

Nick Herbert the policing and justice minister, and Arundel MP had just returned from the main arena and a debate on prison reform and  one particular ex offenders determination to change his path in life reminded him of the changes the Conservative  party had undergone, particularly with regard to LGB&T issues.

‘This party is a far more progressive party then we are often given for,’ He said. ‘When Civil Partnerships were mentioned in David Cameron’s first speech as leader in 2006 it received a  spontaneous round of applause from conference  and it was then that I knew the party had changed form the leadership through to the grass roots.’

Mr Herbert highlighted the government’s LGBT Action Plan which tackles things like better recording of hate crime, the new advice on blood donations from gay men, erasing historical convictions for gay sex and same sex marriage-something that David Cameron has personally assured will happen in this term of office.

‘Leadership in this area is just as important as legal change’ Mr Herbert said. ‘Labour’s record in progressing equality could not be denied but the willingness of all politicians of all parties to make changes should be recognised too’.

He also commented on the leadership needed in policing, schools and in sport. ‘We need role models to feel able to come out and this will connect with young people’ he said.

Until everyone feels they are free to be whoever they are from a very young age this agenda must continue’ he added.

Ben Summerskill acknowledged the achievements of the coalition government so far and said that these should not be underestimated, ‘there have been some massive steps forward’ he said.

Mentioning David Cameron directly he said that the prime minister had committed personally to same sex marriage in this parliament and had changed his view on some issues in recent years. ‘We are all in the business of trying to change people’s minds’ Mr Summerskill said and ‘when someone does change their views after we have spoken to them, we should encourage them’.

Discussing further the progression of same sex marriage equality Mr Summerskill added a word of caution ‘Don’t think that even if it is relatively simple to get same sex marriage through the House of Commons that it will be the same with the House of Lords’ .He encouraged everyone in the room to discuss same sex marriage with other MP’s to ensure a favourable majority when the issue is discussed.

‘LGBT people should be represented at every level of public life but we won’t see the next generation of LGBT People standing up and coming out if they have been bullied at school because of their sexual orientation,’ He added.

Mr Summerskill mentioned that he himself had been bullied when he was 12 years old and had his arm broken by homophobic bullies. ‘Young gay people need to be able to walk tall and stand proud’ he said.

Stuart Andrew shared a similar story: ‘I was beaten up once because I was gay and I felt terribly let down by the police response but I was too frightened to do anything about it’ he added.

Peter Golds the Conservative leader of Tower Hamlets was in the audience and added that he himself had been the victim of homophobia and has not received the support from the police that he expected. You can read about his story here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/8570506/Police-covered-up-violent-campaign-to-turn-London-area-Islamic.html

Nick Herbert acknowledged that while it was difficult for the police to challenge cultural issues and homophobia this needed to be addressed.

Ben Summerskill added that it was frustrating that when reporting homophobic hate crimes often people are told they will have to wait to speak to someone who was trained to deal with this issue. ‘Surely all Police should be able to deal with hate crime’ he said.

Stuart Andrew mentioned that in his own constituency homophobia was a big issue with the BME community and he knew of many gay Asian men who were terrified of discussing their sexual orientation with their family.

As with all gay debates at the moment the topic of conversation soon turned to the gay blood ban debate and the panel were asked to comment on their thoughts about the current 1 year ban on men who have sex with men.

Matt Sephton for LGBTory said that while he understood the ban was based on medical evidence it was interesting that sexual orientation was deemed to be chosen as the reason for the deferral over sexual behaviour.

Ben Summerskill added that he was alarmed to hear that sexually active heterosexual people were allowed to give blood while monogamous gay men were not.

Stuart Andrew agreed that there really shouldn’t be any restrictions.’ You give blood on trust’ he said and you have to rely on the individual to disclose their sexual orientation before giving blood.

It was mentioned that some countries that have improved their testing facilities have less restrictions on gay men giving blood and while it was agreed by all that significant progress had been made in reducing the blood ban, it would be important to target risky sexual behaviour over sexual orientation.