I congratulate Nick Herbert on securing this debate, ahead of tomorrow’s International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. I join him and others who will celebrate the gains that LGBTQI people in the UK have made since the decriminalisation of homosexuality over 50 years ago. It is a mark of how far we have come that this debate is taking place and that both major parties finally recognise the inherent justice of treating LGBTQI people as equals, at least in law if not quite yet in reality.
I am especially proud to have been a part of the Labour movement that recognised at its Bournemouth conference in 1986 that LGBT people needed particular protection after the oppression visited upon them by the odious section 28. That disgraceful and overtly discriminatory measure was put on the statute book by the Thatcher Government, egged on by the red-top tabloids in full cry. It effectively singled out LGBT people as a threat in our schools, treated them as though they were alien and delegitimised their very existence in law by referring to their relationships as “pretend”. It caused untold misery and suffering.
As the first openly out lesbian Minister in any UK Government, I was very proud indeed to have been part of a Labour Government who largely achieved equality in law for LGBT people during their 13 years in office. Indeed, the civil partnership legislation normalised LGBT relationships by granting legal protections equating to marriage. These were landmark social reforms, but their achievement was not inevitable. Positive change was not accomplished easily. Each reform was hard fought and resisted by the very forces that had given birth to section 28 in the first place.
Eliminating discrimination against LGBT people in UK law required heavy political lifting. It was undertaken out of conviction and it carried considerable political risk at the time, even if it seems in retrospect that it was all straightforward. I got fed up of seeing the Labour Government I was part of characterised in the tabloids as being obsessed with LGBT rights or seeing us being lampooned as being run by a “gay mafia”. Section 28 was not repealed easily, as those of us who were there will attest. It took three years to get it through the House of Lords, and the Conservatives fought tooth and nail to keep it. Equalising the age of consent was not achieved easily. We had to invoke the Parliament Act to get it on to the statute book after three attempts because the Lords simply would not vote for it. They also outdid themselves in the debates by comparing gay sex to bestiality.
Now we have a welcome agreement across political parties that LGBTQI people should not face legal discrimination, and I speak in this debate as just one LGBT MP in what has been called the “gayest Parliament in the world”. Who would have thought it? As we celebrate that progress, though, we have to remember that the forces of reaction have not been vanquished completely here and certainly not in the rest of the world, as the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said. IDAHO day calls on us to contemplate the work we still need to do to ensure that our LGBTQI sisters and brothers across the globe are able to achieve their own liberation from discrimination and bigotry.
That moment is a long way off, however, when we realise that 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and that this involves the potential application of the death penalty in 11 of them. Stonewall’s international work shows that one quarter of the world’s population still believe that being LGBTQI should be a crime. LGBTQI people are losing their lives as a result of the bigotry and violence directed against them; it is estimated that there is a killing every two days.
So while we have seen the forces of progress advance in recent years, there is still much work to be done. We cannot and must not be complacent about what has been achieved, because we are in an era of backlash, and that should remind us that things can go backwards and that rights, once achieved, can be taken away. In 2019, the warning lights are flashing. The 2019 Rainbow Europe list shows that LGBTQI rights are even going backwards in Europe for the first time in 10 years. As the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, Turkey is failing to uphold fundamental civil rights, and Bulgaria has repealed a law allowing trans people to change their names and gender. Poland has made it harder for lesbians to access reproductive rights. Everywhere, the rise of the far right is threatening work to counter bigotry and discrimination against LGBTQI people and in some cases it is reversing gains already made.
The far right use the politics of hatred and resentment to foster blame against identified groups of people whom they can scapegoat for all society’s ills. They are organised globally and they often adopt similar tactics, wherever they appear. Call them right-wing populists, call them the alt-right; they are hostile to difference and they wish liberation movements, be it for LGBT people or women, to be crushed. They want us back in the closet and back in the kitchen. They also direct their ire at the black and ethnic minority communities, religious minorities and foreign nationals. I believe that there is a connection between all forms of prejudice and bigotry, and we are undoubtedly living in an era when discrimination is accelerating in its most reprehensible forms. It must be exposed and opposed.