– in the House of Commons at 1:26 pm on 2nd February 2023.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered LGBT history month.
It gives me great pleasure to open this debate. The beginning of this year’s LGBT history month gives the House a timely opportunity to consider the progress that we have made as a country in guaranteeing respect and freedom from discrimination for our diverse communities. It also gives us a chance to look at the progress, and sometimes the lack of progress, in the rest of the world. The all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT rights, which I co-chair with Elliot Colburn, who is in his place, is especially concerned with that global aspect.
Here in the UK, we have come a long way from the dark days when homosexuality was criminalised and LGBT people were forced by the prejudice in society to live their lives underground, constantly in fear of being discovered, mocked, blackmailed and punished. It gives me great pride to stand in what has been described as the gayest Parliament in the world—perhaps that is the law of unintended consequences. If I had been told on my first day in this place more than 30 years ago that we would have achieved this much progress during my membership of the House, I would scarcely have believed it, although I would have been very happy.
I am particularly proud of the role that the last Labour Government played in ridding the statute book of discriminatory anti-LGBT legislation. We did that not only in the area of outdated sexual offences, but in the workplace and in equal access to the provision of goods and services across our society. The battle to repeal the odious and harmful section 28 was particularly hard fought, but its removal was an essential requisite if we were to begin to rebuild the safety and wellbeing of LGBT+ pupils in our schools, which had been destroyed by that piece of prejudice masquerading as legislation.
This morning, it gave me great pleasure to do an interview about those doughty abseiling lesbians who dropped themselves into the House of Lords 35 years ago today. They waited until the Lords had voted to include section 28 in the Bill; they did allow the debate to go on before they made their protest. They smuggled in a washing line from Clapham market under one of their donkey jackets. People like that who fight for LGBT rights when they are under the most attack are our heroines in the liberation movement.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her personal role in many of those struggles over so many years. We all stand on the shoulders of that today, but does she share my deep concern that, despite all that fantastic progress, there is a reversion in a number of areas? There is currently a petition before this House suggesting we should go back to the dark days of section 28, we see daily attacks on the trans and non-binary community, and in last year’s figures we saw the sharpest rise in hate crime against people on the basis of their gender identity and sexuality.
I thank my hon. Friend. I am not sure about him standing on my shoulders; I am not sure I could quite cope with that, but I understand absolutely the points he made and, unlike my response to them, they are very serious. They are a serious cause for concern and should concern everybody in this House.
Returning to the transformative work of the last Labour Government in this era, I recall that we needed to invoke the Parliament Act, no less, to equalise the age of consent in the face of massively ferocious opposition and ongoing vetoes from the House of Lords. This was the heavy lifting and it was done because it was the right thing to do. These progressive gains have made our society a better and more supportive place for everyone, and they finally allowed LGBT+ people to be respected and included and to enjoy equal rights before the law.
I see the effect of these gains especially in the increased visibility of LGBT+ people and their willingness to live their authentic lives in the open at last.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the real gains from being able to teach about LGBT people in schools is that young people—when I say “young” I probably mean those under 35 or under 40—in this country have a very low rate of problems with LGB and T people and they find many of the debates we are currently having on the roll-back completely bemusing, because for them it is just normal to have diversity in sexuality and gender?
It is almost like my hon. Friend can read my mind—which is a slightly worrying prospect—because I am going to come on to make precisely that observation.
These gains have led to the increased visibility of LGBT people and confidence among our community for them to live their lives as they wish, in the open. I also see it in the recent census returns, which show an increased propensity of young people to define themselves as LGBT+ without the stigma that that label would have presented in the past. There are those who regard this as a bad thing and call it a “social contagion,” but I regard it as a welcome freeing of our society from oppressive norms which imprisoned people and narrowed their lives, depriving them of the chance to flourish and live their lives more truthfully.
None of this was easily accomplished. None of it happened automatically as if there was always going to be an inevitable progression from less enlightening times to a more enlightened present day. This progress was not inevitable. It had to be campaigned for; it had to be fought for; it had to be won. And it was won, often in the teeth of fierce opposition from the red-top tabloids and some in the Conservative party who put section 28 on the statute book and blighted the lives of generations of children—although I am glad to see that there has been progress there too, and I genuinely welcome Conservative Members to the ongoing fight to maintain and strengthen the gains we have made, because there is no doubt that there is a backlash, as my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty pointed out, and a threat that we may go backwards here and in the rest of the world.
In the UK, we are approaching the 20th anniversary of the repeal of section 28, the 10th anniversary of the equal marriage Act and, incidentally, the 25th anniversary of my own coming out, but there are still things on our immediate to-do list. First, the Government must fulfil their pledge to legislate for a comprehensive ban on conversion therapy. That must include all LGBT+ people and not be rendered ineffective by either a religious or a consent loophole. For let us be in no doubt: conversion therapy is torture, it is inherently abusive and damaging, and five years after pledging action it is past time for this Government to act. I hope we can hear from the Minister in his response some indication of precisely how and when the Government will do that. I note the recent announcement of a draft Bill, which is welcome, but as yet there is no detail on when it might be enacted, or what it will actually consist of. As the delay lengthens, vulnerable LGBT+ people are left at risk of this unacceptable abuse.
Secondly, the Government should be tackling the rising tide of anti-LGBT+ hate crime. Currently in the UK, the atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile, with a 42% increase in reported hate crime targeting sexual orientation and a 56% increase in the targeting of transgender people. Some of this is associated with the backlash I mentioned earlier, to which I will return. Some of it, I am sad to say, has been provoked deliberately by the disgraceful targeting and problematising of transgendered people by some members of the Government and their enablers in the press.
We are currently in the middle of a full-blown hysteria which targets transgender people using many of the tropes and smears which those of us who lived through the ’80s remember only too well being used against gay men and lesbians. Trans people, especially trans women, are disgracefully being portrayed as automatically predatory, inherently dangerous to women and children and somehow responsible for all the violence against women which plagues our society. That is an offensive caricature which does not bear relation to the truth.
The Prime Minister spent his leadership election campaign pledging to save, and I quote him, “our women” from the supposed threat of trans people, and we currently have an Equalities Minister—not the Minister opposite, Stuart Andrew, I hasten to add—who feels able to use the term trans women and predator in the same sentence, as if the two were somehow inherently the same. Although she appears to have lost the battle, it was reported that she wished to exclude trans people completely from the proposed ban on conversion therapy even though they are more likely than anyone else to be subjected to it.
For the record, I believe that the cause of equal rights best advances when the interests of all those who have suffered discrimination in the past advance. We advance together. There is no contradiction between LGBT+ rights and women’s rights that is not adequately covered in the Equality Act 2010. Trans rights which grant them respect and dignity are not a threat to anyone, and I say that as a lifelong feminist and a lesbian.
It is obvious that we are now in the midst of a well-organised global backlash against LGBT+ rights. It is well-funded, ferocious and potentially deadly for LGBT+ people. Its adherents range across the globe, from President Putin to Steve Bannon, from Viktor Orbán to ex-President Trump. Its aim is to reverse progress and, sadly, our own country is by no means immune to these global issues. The Government’s announcement of a review of those countries whose gender recognition certificates they will recognise is ominous, with rumours circulating that the Government are seeking to delist as many as 18 countries whose gender recognition certificates we currently accept. That is so that they can justify their use of section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 to strike down the recently passed Scottish law on gender recognition. Surely the best way forward would be to have, not that confrontation, but a sensible discussion to find a way through. I urge the Government to reconsider their confrontational stance. I hope the rumours of delisting are not true and that the Minister can reassure us on that point, because such a move would take away existing rights.
Many countries are at risk of going backwards on LGBT+ rights. Russia legislated for a modern version of section 28 and then extended its so-called anti-LGBT+ propaganda laws across society. That follows the vicious persecution of LGBT+ people in Chechnya; legislation has been passed in Hungary, with so-called LGBT-free zones appearing across the country, and anti-LGBT law is also being passed in Ghana, accompanied by open persecution of LGBT+ people.
On that point, I wonder if the Minister might be able in his response to scotch persistent rumours that the Government are in the middle of trying to negotiate a Rwanda-style deal with Ghana. The implications of that for LGBT+ asylum seekers are too horrendous to contemplate, so I hope the Minister will be able to put all our minds at ease that that is not currently on the Government’s agenda.
I am very concerned to hear what the hon. Lady has just said; I had not heard that rumour, but many of us are already expressing grave concerns about Rwanda’s record on LGBT rights. Does she agree that this House and the Government in particular would do well to focus more on the terrible abuses of LGBT rights abroad, particularly where people’s lives are at risk in other countries?
I agree with the hon. and learned Lady about the work that the Government should be doing abroad. To be fair to the Government, they do use and are using diplomatic channels, particularly to try to further decriminalisation in those countries that still criminalise LGBT relationships. While I have to give the Minister 10 out of 10 for his tie at the Qatar world cup, I can give only five out of 10 for his Government as a whole for their work across the world, simply because there are such contradictions between doing good, progressive things in some areas and then contemplating really not very progressive things at all in others. I hope that he will be able to reassure us that sending asylum seekers to Ghana is not on his Government’s to-do list.
No fewer than 300 anti-LGBT+ laws have been introduced by the Republicans in the USA, attempting to create a new era of repression that includes, significantly, the rolling back of women’s abortion rights and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. As I have said, in the fight for equality, we advance together or not at all. If we start losing LGBT+ rights, women’s rights will not be far behind.
After all those warnings, I wish to end on a positive note. There has been an increase in nations decriminalising LGBT+ relationships, and equal marriage legislation has progressed across the world, which means 33 countries have such laws, covering 1.3 billion people. I am already taken, Madam Deputy Speaker, but 1.3 billion people is quite a big pool to fish in.
No, I certainly am not—I am making a general observation, as my hon. Friend knows.
There is progress in the world, but there is also regression. It is up to us all to put our collective shoulder to the wheel in this House and push our country and the world towards progress and liberation.
I begin by congratulating my co-chair of the APPG on global LGBT rights, Dame Angela Eagle, on her excellent opening speech. It is always a pleasure to work with her on the APPG, and I look forward to all the work we will continue to do together in this space. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for making time for this debate, particularly during LGBT History Month. I know time is precious, particularly with the recess in February, so I am grateful for the Committee’s attention.
I also welcome the Minister; I am happy that it is this Minister who is responding to the debate, and I particularly want to pay tribute to him; I know he is sick of hearing it, but his bravery in wearing the “One Love” armband in Qatar sent a strong signal. I commend him and am grateful to him for that; it is important that we remember that act of bravery.
We are now 50 years on from the Stonewall riots in the United States, the first ever pride rally in London and the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the UK. We stand here in not only the mother of all Parliaments, but what was, until recently, labelled the gayest Parliament in the world. I think that is a term of endearment and very much a good thing; while I must heap praise on and congratulate our Commonwealth partner New Zealand on recently nicking that title from us, I am sure that we will get it back before too long.
We are here to talk about LGBT History Month, and of course LGBT history stretches much further back than just 50 years—believe it or not, we have been here much longer. For as long as there has been love between humans, there has been LGBT history. In fact, throughout history LGBT love has not just been limited to humans. Historians consider that the first chat-up line ever recorded took place between two ancient Egyptian gods. It is said that the deities Set and Horus argued for nearly a century about who should be the rightful ruler on Osiris’s throne. Considering a different approach, Set turned to Horus and said, and I quote:
“How lovely are your buttocks! And how muscular your thighs…”
One thing led to another and, as they say, the rest is history—I promise that was not from the Grindr profile of Sir Chris Bryant.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the priests and priestesses of the goddess Ishtar were bisexual and transgender. One of the aspects of the goddess that was considered most awe-inspiring was her ability to turn men into women and women into men. Her father-god Enki is said to have created a third gender, neither male nor female; what today we would refer to as a non-binary gender was first recognised more than 3,000 years ago and a third gender was created by divine will.
We have come a long way since dodgy chat-up lines from the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians—[Interruption.] The point bears repeating that we can find evidence of LGBT people and LGBT history across human history for thousands and thousands of years. Same-sex relationships and gender fluidity were considered very common in many parts of the world, and distinctions concerning sexual and gender identity and prohibitions on such relationships and identities only appeared in recent centuries.
The first recorded criminalisation of homosexuality in England appeared in the 13th century, when sodomy and sorcery were considered punishable by being buried alive. Henry VIII’s Buggery Act 1533 reinforced that, and he exported it across the world. For hundreds of years, that led to the promotion of long-lasting discrimination against LGBT people, which in many places can be seen today.
I do not often praise Napoleon, but the French were way ahead of us: in the early 19th century, the Napoleonic code effectively decriminalised homosexuality for many countries. Despite the absence—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda has got to stop giving a running commentary on this speech.
I am always happy to be commentated on by the hon. Member—but I digress.
Despite the absence of laws criminalising same-sex relations, many countries still impose restrictions on LGBT people in other ways. The legal position on homosexuality softened in the 19th century with the more progressive and modern move—some might say—from “punishable by death” to just life imprisonment. The lack of sufficient evidence to convict all those suspected of having engaged in homosexual activity led to the introduction of the “blackmailer’s charter”, which criminalised gross indecency between men. That was the legislation under which many people, including Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, were convicted, and it also affected transgender people.
The prohibition against cross-dressing started to take off during the 19th century, and to this day at least 15 jurisdictions across Africa, Asia and the middle east still impose criminal sanctions against people whose gender expression does not align with their sex assigned at birth. In the early 20th century, Australia introduced legislation specifically to criminalise sexual acts between men, which directly influenced legislation in many other countries including Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda.
“Gross indecency”, as defined in law, was limited to men until the 1920s, when people discovered that lesbians existed. English lawmakers identified an anomaly in the law, and attempted to criminalise same-sex relationships between women. Fortunately those attempts failed, but the damage had already been done internationally, and many former British colonies went ahead and adopted the criminalisation of lesbianism. Today—this was a point made very ably by my friend the hon. Member for Wallasey—at least 43 countries continue to criminalise sexual activity between women. Some do so explicitly by criminalising intimacy, while others do so through other gender-neutral provisions.
The hon. Gentleman is making some extremely important points. Does he agree that it is a tragedy that countries that stood up against colonialism and imperialism are seeking to entrench what were colonial and imperialist exports of this country through the criminalisation of those very people?
The hon. Member makes an excellent point, and I absolutely agree with him.
I commend my hon. Friend and Dame Angela Eagle for the important work that they do in co-chairing the APPG, but does my hon. Friend agree that there is a role for all of us, as parliamentarians, in reaching out and working with people in other countries to help them change the regressive laws that he is describing?
I agree entirely, and I commend my right hon. Friend for all the work he has done in paving the way for many of us in this place.
Let me now turn to some of the UK’s more recent history in this regard. As I said earlier, the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships in the UK finally occurred in 1967. By the turn of the century, LGBT people could serve in the armed forces and the age of consent had been equalised.
We should note, however, that when same-sex relationships between men were legalised it was due not to some euphoria about gay rights, but to a conservative view held in many quarters that we should look after these sorry, poor, gay individuals who were likely to be blackmailed. While that was a step forward, the transformation in people’s minds in relation to how to consider gay people took many more years. Are there not similarities with the way in which some people talk about trans people now? Perhaps we are on that journey as well.
The hon. Gentleman is right. This was not a euphoric overnight decision in 1967 after which everything was OK; things took much longer. Of course, the circumstances were very different, but the hon. Gentleman has made an important point.
I was talking about some of our more recent successes. The passage of the Equality Act 2010 protected LGBT+ people from discrimination, harassment and victimisation in many areas of public life, and the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013 and equivalent legislation across the UK—passed in 2014 in Scotland and 2019 in Northern Ireland— finally enabled LGBT+ people to marry.
We have come so far, and it is easy to reel off a long list from the history of discrimination, but it is important not to forget the implications of that history. If many of us—here in the Chamber and outside it—had been born just a few heartbeats earlier, our lives would have been completely different, and would have been hell. That was the reality for millions of LGBT+ people throughout history—our history. We must never forget the struggle that they underwent, and the sacrifices that they made, to lead to the great advances that we enjoy today, but we should also remember that for too many people around the world, that struggle is still all too real. LGBT+ people are still criminalised and persecuted because of who they are and who they love in 67 countries across the world. Half of those are Commonwealth countries, where homophobic and transphobic laws and attitudes exported and implemented by the UK have still not been repealed.
There is hope, however: I want to emphasise that. Recent years have seen an increase in the decriminalisation of LGBT+ people. Just last year, same-sex activity was decriminalised in Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Singapore and Barbados, with many more countries likely to follow. Equal marriage legislation has progressed across the world, in countries including Cuba, Slovenia and Mexico last year. I look forward to visiting the Czech Parliament later this year: it is currently considering its own equal marriage legislation. Thirty-three countries now have equal marriage laws, which means that 1.35 billion people now have access to the joy that is marriage.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous to me. Does he note with disappointment Bermuda’s repealing of same-sex marriage legislation, and this Government’s failure to intervene to prevent it despite their ability to do so? They did intervene to prevent Bermuda from legalising cannabis, so they have no problem with intervening, but they did not intervene on the human rights issue of same-sex marriage, which was such a disappointment.
I agree that that is a great disappointment. It also harks back to the point made by the hon. Member for Wallasey about not taking rights for granted, and the fact that the fight for LGBT+ rights does not always move in a linear, A to B direction. There is always a struggle. We have to remember that and always be conscious of it, and the hon. Gentleman has given one such example.
India and Pakistan recently passed legislation supporting the protection of trans people against discrimination in education and healthcare. Further progress can be seen, with Cyprus, India, Canada, New Zealand and indeed the United Kingdom now considering banning conversion practices, or currently legislating for them. I want to go into a bit more detail on conversion therapy, because we have been talking about it for a long time.
A ban was first announced back in 2018, as part of the LGBT action plan. I welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, at the conclusion of our proceedings on the Online Safety Bill, that the Government intend to publish the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny in the current parliamentary session, and that it will be trans-inclusive. However, I hope that the Minister will either be able to give us a bit more of a timeline today or commit himself to sharing that information with us soon, because we have been waiting for this for a long time. Pre-legislative scrutiny is a rare tool for Parliament to use. I understand why the Government wants to ensure that legislation is done well and done right—Parliament’s job is, after all, to produce good, well-worded legislation—but I sincerely hope the Government will not allow pre-legislative scrutiny to enable a watering down of the Bill, and I hope that we can have that commitment from the Minister.
I have one final thing to touch on—I realise that I am being very selfish with my time—which is the current discussion around the trans debate, gender recognition reform, the use of section 35 in Scotland, and the potential for delisting countries for acceptance of gender recognition certificates. The hon. Member for Wallasey put it very well indeed when she said that there seems to be hysteria around trans issues at the moment. Often, discussions on those issues have become so blown out of all proportion and so lacking in any fact that we have lost sight of what people are attempting to do.
Public opinion polls have shown that, overwhelmingly, the British people come at this issue from a position of compassion. We might not necessarily understand all the issues, we might not necessarily think that everything that some people propose is correct, but the British people are overwhelmingly compassionate in this space and really want Parliament to get a grip of what has become a very toxic public debate. This is a failure of this place to get to grips with difficult issues, to calm things down and to talk about issues on the basis of fact and move the conversation on.
We will not always agree—I know that. We have seen examples of that with the passage of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in Scotland and the subsequent use of section 35. I do have concerns that there seems to have been a lack of discussion between Holyrood and Whitehall in the run-up to the passing of the Bill. I appreciate that it took a long time for all the amendments to be considered in the Scottish Parliament, but the Government have indicated that they are willing to accept a form of gender recognition reform Bill in Scotland if certain criteria are met. That is all well and good, but I do not think that it has been adequately explained exactly what that framework would look like—what the Bill would look like.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many lawyers that we have received evidence from on the Women and Equalities Committee and beyond, the statement of reasons for the section 35 order are shaky. I worry about the Government going into legal proceedings—inevitable legal proceedings—against the Scottish Government not only because of the effect that will have on the Union and the constitution, but because it will bring trans people into a very public fight.
Again, I understand where the Government are coming from: they say that this is about procedure and not the policy itself. I hope that the Government and everybody in this House can understand the problem that many trans people have in believing that at the moment. It is because the talk about trans issues has become so toxic in Parliament, in the media and beyond. The idea that there is any sort of goodwill or benefit of the doubt that this is more to do with procedure and constitutional issues than trans people is hard to believe, whether or not it is true.
The hon. Member is making some very important points. Does he agree that one thing that we can all do in this place, across the House, is speak to and listen to trans and non-binary people? Quite frankly, much of the debate that goes on is about people without our having listened to them and their lived experiences.
I agree with the hon. Member. Indeed, in the Women and Equalities Committee we have had some very fruitful discussions with the trans community in this space. It is worth remembering that the UK does now have the first ever trans MP sitting in this House. We do need to be mindful of the way we approach this issue and of tempering our language.
There is one thing that I am struck by when it comes to gender reform—[Interruption.] I promise you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I am coming to the end of my remarks. In the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry, and in discussions that we have had beyond that, there is an overwhelming consensus among both those who are in favour of reform and those who are against that the current legal framework for gender identity in the UK is very confusing, is now out of date and requires updating. There is obviously a debate to be had among parliamentarians about what that update looks like, but the current legal framework is very confusing, particularly the interaction between the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and the Equality Act 2010 and the exemptions within it. We have a duty to address that matter as parliamentarians, because the law currently is in a very difficult place.
I wish to leave with one final point: LGBT History Month is important for us not just to reflect on the past, but to send a message to the LGBT community more widely that they are heard and they are valid—their existence is valid. We are standing here in the name of LGBT History Month not just to explain and explore the past, but to show that we as a community do have a future.
It is a great pleasure to follow the honourable, cheeky wee monkey—Elliot Colburn. I should point out for the record that I am not on Grindr, but I note that he basically admits that he is, because otherwise how would he be able to look at anybody else’s Grindr account?
I will focus primarily on history, for a very important reason that I think will become clear. On
This is what happened on
“Yesterday morning, at an early hour, considerable numbers of spectators assembled before the Debtors’ door at Newgate, to witness the execution of William North, convicted in September Sessions of an unnatural crime. The wretched culprit was 54 years of age, and had a wife living. On his trial, he appeared a fine, stout, robust man, and strongly denied his guilt. On his being brought before the Sheriffs yesterday morning, he appeared to have grown at least ten years older… His body had wasted to the mere anatomy of a man, his cheeks had sunk, his eyes had become hollow, and such was his weakness, that he could scarcely stand without support… At five minutes past eight yesterday morning he was pinioned by the executioner in the press room, in the presence of the sheriffs and officers of the gaol. As St. Sepulchre’s church clock struck eight, the culprit, carrying the rope, attended by the executioner, and clergyman, moved in procession with the sheriffs…on to the scaffold. On arriving at the third station, the prison bell tolled, and Dr. Cotton”— the priest—
“commenced at the same moment reading the funeral service, ‘I am the resurrection and the life,’ of which the wretched man seemed to be totally regardless. On his being assisted up the steps of the scaffold, reason returned;
he became aware of the dreadful death to which he was about to be consigned;
his looks of terror were frightful;
his expression of horror, when the rope was being placed round his neck, made every spectator shudder. It was one of the most trying scenes to the clergymen they ever witnessed—never appeared a man so unprepared, so unresigned to his fate. The signal being given the drop fell and the criminal expired in less than a minute. He never struggled after he fell. The body hung an hour, and was then cut down for internment.”
We have had horrible laws in this country. Sometimes, when we tell children in school this, they find it completely incomprehensible. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington referred to the 1533 Buggery Act of Henry VIII, which classified sodomy as an illegal act between man and woman, man and man, or man and beast.
Formal court indictments in this country for many centuries used the same formula:
“The detestable and abominable crime, among Christians not to be named, called buggery”.
Often the court records did not even use the full word “buggery”; they just put “bgry” or “sdmy”, because it was not to be named. When Sir Robert Peel introduced the Offences Against the Person Bill in the Commons in 1828, which included a clause aimed at making it easier to obtain sodomy convictions, he did not even say the phrase
“the crime, amongst Christians not to be named”.
He said it in Latin instead, such was the degree of shame.
We were still executing people for sodomy up until 1835—James Pratt and John Smith were the last two—and the death sentence was still pronounced on men, right up until 1861. Then it was penal servitude for life. When it was said in the House of Lords at one point that that meant being sent off to Tasmania or Botany Bay, somebody pointed out that it was perhaps a bit counterproductive to send lots of homosexual men to a single sex colony on the other side of the world.
Once we got rid of the death penalty, we added other laws on importuning under the Vagrancy Acts, which were introduced after the Napoleonic wars. Anybody caught was called a rogue or a vagabond. Repeat offenders were known as incorrigible rogues—which is how I often think of myself. The 1898 Act added another clause, which was importuning for immoral purposes, under which hundreds and hundreds of men were sentenced right up until 2003. Two men were sentenced to nine months of hard labour and 15 strokes—corporal punishment was a part of it too—in May 1912. The appeal court at that time pronounced
“if ever there was a case for corporal punishment it is for that particular class of offence of which these applicants have been guilty—soliciting men for immoral purposes”.
All they had done was hold hands.
And of course gross indecency was introduced by Henry Labouchère at the very last minute in an amendment in a late-night debate in 1885, under a catch-all clause that applied to events not only in public but in private. It was later interpreted as meaning as an attempt to commit any of those things as well, which meant, for instance, that during the second world war Sir Paul Latham, a Member of Parliament, tried to take his own life when letters of his were found that suggested he wanted to have an affair with another man.
In 1926, a 61-year-old vicar—I am 61 and I used to be a vicar—was sentenced to six months on eight cases of gross indecency, even though the judge recognised that the time might come when such cases would be treated medically. Of course, that is what happened next: it was a sin and then it became a medical condition. If there is one thing I feel more strongly about than any other in the trans debate we are having at the moment, it is that I do not think we should be treating it as a medical condition. I do not think that the allocation of a certificate should be done by a medical practitioner, because that makes people leap through a medical hoop and implies that what is intrinsic to them is somehow a physical disorder. We can, of course, count many instances of versions of so-called therapy that were inflicted on people —medical castration, actual castration and all sorts of different therapies—of whom Alan Turing is the perhaps most renowned instance.
Homosexuality remains a criminal offence in 34 out of 54 countries in the Commonwealth—a pretty bad record for British exports—in large measure because we exported our strict laws around our empire. Homosexual acts still carry the death penalty in Iran, Brunei, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar—several of us have been to Qatar and told them this; I think it came as a bit of a shock to those running the World cup when it turned out that more than half the British delegation was gay—Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. Two men were hanged in a prison in the north-western city of Maragheh in Iran in February 2022 after spending six years on death row. Even in the United States of America, the land of the free, Pastor Dillon Orrs of Stedfast Baptist church in Texas believes that homosexuals
“should be sentenced with death. They should be lined up against the wall and shot in the back of the head”.
I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that all the advances we have made today are not something we should take for granted. I have said before in this House that, in the 20th century, the most liberal place in the world for gay men was Berlin from 1928 to 1931. By 1936, gay men were being carted off to concentration camps, and we do not even know how many lost their lives under the Nazis. It is one of the reasons I have always felt a very strong alliance with Jewish people, who suffered that same appalling holocaust.
The new French penal code of 1791—in the 18th century, not the 19th—did not even mention sodomy, and nor did Napoleon’s version in 1804, which rapidly spread around the globe. Yet we did not achieve that in this country for nearly two centuries. Most other nations never executed people for homosexuality at all, and those that did abolished the practice long before the 19th century—Germany’s last case was in 1537, Spain’s in 1647, Switzerland’s in 1662, Italy’s in 1668 and France’s in 1750. Only the Netherlands kept going until the 19th century and their last execution was of Jillis Bruggeman in 1803. Yet between 1806 and 1835, 440 men were sentenced to death for sodomy in England and 56 of them were hanged. Peru and Paraguay legalised homosexuality fully in 1924, Uruguay in 1934, Iceland in 1940, Switzerland in 1942, Greece in 1951, Thailand in 1956 and even Hungary in 1961. We only did it partially in 1967. It did not really come until the Labour Government in 1997 that we fully legalised homosexuality and introduced an equal age of consent.
The gays have phenomenal powers, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have been blamed for all sorts of things. In 1978, the drought in California was blamed on that state’s liberal attitudes towards LGBT people. After
“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle…all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Hurricane Sandy, which hit the east coast of America in 2012, was described by a US rabbi as a divine justice for the state of New York legalising gay marriage a year earlier.
At the same time, a press release from Pastor Steven Andrew of the USA Christian Church stated:
“God’s love shows it is urgent to repent, because the Bible teaches homosexuals lose their souls and God destroys LGBT societies”.
In the UK, in 2014, the UK Independence party councillor David Silvester said that floods had happened after David Cameron had acted “arrogantly against the Gospel” by legislating for same-sex marriage. And, of course, most recently Patriarch Kirill blamed gay pride marches for the war in Ukraine.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sorry this is slightly different from what others may talk about, but I want to talk about the Bible arguments about homosexuality because this is still a very live debate in many communities up and down the country and it worries me. Some people point to Leviticus:
“You must not lie with a man as with a woman;
that is an abomination.”
It is true that that is in Leviticus. But other things thought of as abominations are eating shellfish, touching the skin of a dead pig, which would make lots of sports quite difficult, combining fabrics—I’m looking at you, Madam Deputy Speaker—and sowing crops side by side. I do not know if any of us have done that. Many of those things we see very differently today, but there is a bigger point.
First of all, the Bible is a bundle of books that were written by different people at a variety of different times. There have been lots of rows about which books should be in and which books should not be in. Different versions of Christianity have rowed about that. A man told me once that the Bible was written by King James in 1605 and we should all get used to it. Ignorance is a blessing sometimes, I suppose, but the truth is that the Bible is a translation. Often, it is a translation of a translation, and it may be a translation of a translation of a translation. It has to be read very closely. If I were to ask you, Madam Deputy Speaker, how many commandments there are, you would probably say 10. But if I asked you to delineate which the 10 are, you would find it difficult because different versions of Christianity lay them out in different ways. That is one of the reasons why we have a different view about what craven images constitute and why Orthodox churches do not have three-dimensional imagery. For that matter, if I asked you, Madam Deputy Speaker—I know this is not a quiz for you—who were the 12 disciples, you would find it difficult because there are different versions of the names of the 12 and you would have thought that that was an important thing to get right.
My point here is that the Bible has to be read carefully. We cannot just pick little bits because they fit what we like. We have to read it in its context and then hold that up against the context of today. I do not think the story of Sodom is about homosexuality at all. It is about rape. It is probably also about how you should behave towards foreigners and strangers coming into your community—even if they were angels, so it is obviously a slightly different story.
We obviously do not today sanction selling daughters into slavery, which is a good thing, but Leviticus does. Likewise, we do not sanction slavery at all, yet most of the Bible thinks that slavery is a perfectly acceptable system. Jesus actually said that there are two commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”,
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Some might think, “Oh, neighbour just means my next-door neighbour,” but of course that is not what it means, because Jesus tells whole parables, including that of the good Samaritan, about how your neighbour is all sorts of people you might not think of as your neighbour. Incidentally, the point about the good Samaritan is not that he is rich, but that he is a good neighbour to someone who is not actually his neighbour.
All of that is to say that I just hope every Christian person who cares about their faith will look again at this question of same-sex love, because if they read the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the form of solemnisation of matrimony, they will see that three reasons are given for matrimony, namely
“the procreation of children…a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication…the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”
Is that not what every single marriage and relationship of love between two people is all about? You cannot do either of the other two things unless you have the third, too. I just hope that every Christian person in the land will think long and hard about where the Church goes in the near future.
We look around the world and we see so many people still living under the conditions of 200 years ago that I referred to at the beginning of my contribution. I hope that one of the things we can give back to the world, having been one of the nations that gave the toughest laws on homosexuality to many other countries, is to be the country that gives hope, liberation and a sense of joy.
If I may, I will just end with RuPaul, because it is always best to end with RuPaul. RuPaul says:
“If you can’t love yourself, how you gonna love somebody else?”, and it is true. I think one of the things that has become possible for so many gay men, lesbians, trans and non-binary people over the past 30 or 40 years is that they have felt able to love themselves, even though they were brought up to hate themselves. When I was a child, all the teaching at school was, “It’s moral delinquency, a perversion, a medical condition—it’s something to be erased.” “Out, damned spot” was the feeling. So many people tried to overcome it by marrying, because they wanted to inflict it on somebody else, or they crammed themselves into a straitjacket of their own life, which meant that they never managed to have any joy or give joy to other people.
I knew so many priests in the Church of England when I was training who had devoted their lives to the Church. If they went on holiday to Sitges or somewhere like that, they would probably have a fumble somewhere. They might have an occasional lover. They could never bring them into the vicarage or rectory. Then, when they got to 60, they would become terribly, terribly bitter, because they felt they were not able to share their life with somebody else. They were not able to be honest and open. They were not able to know the love and the fullness of life that the Christian faith is meant to be all about. Then, they became quite nasty people sometimes. I just hope that the future will be very different from what we were brought up with. Frankly, there are almost too many of us in this House these days—and yes, it is great.
There are not enough of you lot! [Laughter.] It is a great joy that things have changed dramatically, but there is still so much more to change.
It is a real privilege to follow my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant, and I thank the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) rights, my hon. Friend Dame Angela Eagle and Elliot Colburn for securing this important debate. I commend them both on their superb speeches.
As I stand in Parliament as an openly queer woman, I am standing on the shoulders of giants. In particular, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, who was the UK’s second openly lesbian MP and the first openly lesbian Government Minister. I also want to mention my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who made history a few years ago as the first MP to come out in this Chamber as HIV-positive. I pay tribute to my city. Nottingham was home to Britain’s first licensed gay club, the first professor of gay and lesbian studies and the first LGBT trade union group.
The labour movement has a proud place in LGBT+ history. It was Labour in power that decriminalised homosexuality, equalised the age of consent, gave legal recognition to same-sex couples and brought in the Equality Act 2010. But our rights were not just given to us; they were won—won by people who were rejected by society, ridiculed, demonised by the media and criminalised by Governments. Our movement has faced resistance every step of the way, and as the current backlash threatens to roll back the progress we have made, we must not give an inch but keep fighting for more.
I was seven years old when section 28 was finally scrapped. It is thanks to years of struggle, including by people in this room, that my generation could go through education without it and not be taught that who we are and who we love is too shameful even to be mentioned. Now we have another generation of LGBT+ youth growing up in a dangerous climate of hostility. Trans children are every day hearing their very existence and human rights being subject to debate, and witnessing media figures speaking of them as potential predators and politicians using them as a political football. Some of the tropes against trans people today sound awfully familiar—like attacks used against gay people in the 1980s—and it is opening the door to wider homophobia, too. Let me say it clearly: our community will never be divided. There is no LGB without the T.
Throughout history we have suffered together, struggled together and as we win together, we will win for all of us. For a trans person growing up in the UK, it might feel like the whole world is against you. I assure you that there are MPs in here who are on your side. We see your struggle for rights and dignity. We are proud to march with you in the streets and to stand up for you in Parliament. We will not give up on this fight, and believe me when I say that we will win. Just like those who came before us defeated section 28, together we will beat this wave of transphobia and consign oppressive laws to the past.
The history of Pride is a history of resistance. Pride is not owned by corporations that want to profit from us and our community but then throw us under the bus when convenient. Pride is not the Home Office posting rainbows on Twitter and then deporting LGBT+ asylum seekers to Rwanda. From the days of the Stonewall riots, to the fight for queer lives during the AIDS crisis, to the campaign against section 28, to the ongoing struggle against conversion therapy, and from Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners to Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, our movement has always been diverse and has often been led by those who are most marginalised. That is in recognition of the fact that there is no pride for some of us without liberation for all of us. We do not need allies who pick and choose. LGBT+ history is still being made, and everyone in this building has a choice whether they want to be on the right side of it or to be remembered as obstacles to progress who will ultimately be defeated.
May I start by congratulating Dame Angela Eagle on securing this debate? I also publicly thank her, as I have done before, for coming out when she did in 1997. It was a very powerful moment for lesbians of my generation to see a Member of Parliament come out so publicly and so strongly, and I will never forget it. It was also good to hear her mention the abseiling lesbians. I remember seeing that on the 6 o’clock news 35 years ago when I was studying for my finals, just a couple of years after I first came out. It was a great moment of lesbian visibility. I also thank Sir Chris Bryant for his speech, which I found very moving—particularly the beginning. It is a great reminder to us that much of our focus as human rights activists should be on supporting LGBT people in countries where they are still put to death—that still happens, as we have seen in the middle east—and where they do not have basic civil rights. I very much endorse his plea for the Christian churches to take a more tolerant approach towards same sex love.
LGBT History Month should be a time of celebration, but many lesbians do not feel like celebrating. I would like to explain why, using the words of my constituent Sally Wainwright—not the Sally Wainwright who writes “Happy Valley”—who, like me, is a lesbian. Sally is a left-wing activist and author. In recent years she has spent a considerable amount of time volunteering to support refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. Last month, The Times published a column that Sally wrote about her fear that lesbians—women who love women—are being forced back into the closet. I want to read out some of what she said, because lesbians who feel like her do not have much of a voice in our current public discourse on LGBT issues. I want to give them a voice in this Parliament. Sally wrote:
“I choose to spend much of my free time in the company of lesbians and other women. This is essential for my personal happiness and wellbeing. I find women-only gatherings a world apart from mixed ones, gaining support as well as friendship.
The atmosphere, our shared experiences and understanding and much more, are unique — not only in the privacy of our own homes, but also in our social and cultural activities, even walking groups, that are open to all lesbian women.”
“In 1988 the Thatcher government introduced Section 28, prohibiting local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. In response, a friend and I founded the Deckchairs Collective, which organised annual lesbian gatherings. The point was to assert our right to exist and to ensure lesbians were not afraid to be ‘out’ in the aftermath of that appalling homophobic legislation.
I was unprepared for the fear lesbians experienced. One woman rang to say she and her partner were teachers but hid their relationship from everyone for fear of the consequences of being discovered. She was too frightened to tell me even her first name or the town where they lived, but phoned just for the opportunity to speak to another lesbian.”
Sally went on to say:
“With the reversal of Section 28, changes in public attitudes, eventually the introduction of gay marriage, I thought lesbians would finally be able to live free from prejudice, and certainly without state interference. For a few years that was more or less true—homophobia persisted of course, but we were able to organise lesbian discos, bookshops, nights out, walking groups. Naively, I thought that we had achieved an unchallengeable right to live publicly as lesbians. How wrong I was.”
Sally goes on to describe the challenges that some lesbians now face while defending our right to meet as lesbians, without men who identify as women demanding access to our events. She said:
“For some years now, lesbian groups have been forced to organise and meet in secret, taking care how we advertise our activities or invite new members. Almost all our social spaces and meetings closed.”
I can vouch for that. You will not find lesbian bars anymore in the United Kingdom, which is a real shame.
“Women self-excluded from previously safe lesbian spaces and events which had, de facto, become mixed.”
Sally went on to describe how and why many lesbians feel unwelcome at Pride marches. She said that lesbians who feel like her have been betrayed by the political class. She sees politicians as happy to watch while lesbians who feel like Sally are erased from our culture and young women who are gender non-conforming are encouraged only to think of themselves as trans, rather than to acknowledge that they might just be lesbian. She believes some politicians are pandering to homophobia.
The experience of Sally and her friends is shared across the United Kingdom. Here is what a group of lesbians from Wales have said about it:
“lesbians are facing enormous challenges defending our rights to meet as lesbians. We hear the stories regularly. Online groups being assailed by demands for access, even if only to a book group.”
They said that dating apps are filled with males seeking “friends, maybe more.” They went on to speak of:
“Young lesbians, including university students, unable to find safe spaces without men telling them to hate their love of women. Events facing at best constant efforts to join in and at worst full scale picketing and aggression.
Lesbians have always faced challenges from men unable to accept our independent sexuality, but in the last five years we have seen such attacks ramp up every month. The number of assaults and the vitriol aimed at us has grown beyond many women’s ability to manage. The organisers of such spaces sometimes give in to these demands. Maybe they are not too concerned about lesbian boundaries, or they sincerely welcome male-bodied people into their organisations. That’s not a problem, so long as everyone knows what to expect… But we hear too often from women saying that they don’t believe they have any legal choice, but to allow men into women’s spaces. Or they are scared of the doxing and abuse that frequently follow when women say ‘no’. We are seeing lesbians forced into gathering in secret, meeting behind closed doors or passwords, and using false names in social situations.”
Those are the words of lesbians from an organisation called LGB Alliance Cymru. They say that they refuse to go back in the closet and to return to hiding. They think those days are over. Like Sally, those Welsh lesbians believe that lesbians who want mixed spaces are welcome to have them but, equally, those who want to meet, socialise and interact only with other lesbians must be allowed to do so.
I recently met in this House a delegation of lesbians from Women’s Declaration International, who shared those concerns and had come to lobby parliamentarians. Despite voices to the contrary, those concerns are widespread across the lesbian community in the UK. I do not say that all lesbians think the same, but I simply wish to give a voice to those who express such concerns.
I do not have time today to set out the solution to those concerns, but as a lawyer, inevitably I see it involving the proper application of the right to single sex spaces in the Equality Act, the recognition that sexual orientation is a protected characteristic, and lesbians not being discriminated against, harassed or victimised on account of their sexuality and their same sex attraction. The solution would also involve the recognition of the rights of lesbians under the Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights to safety, dignity and privacy, freedom of belief, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Earlier this week, the Women and Equalities Committee heard some interesting evidence about the legal rights issues from the barrister Naomi Cunningham, who is an expert in equality law, and the constitutional law academic Michael Foran, himself a gay man. I commend it to those interested in learning more about the legalities around these issues.
My point today is that in LGBT History Month we should be able to say that lesbians are women who love other women. That is our history and we should be free to say it, so I am saying it here in this Parliament that is supposed to represent the voices of everyone in the United Kingdom. No doubt, because I have made this speech, someone will call me a transphobe and a bigot. In previous weeks, I might have expected to be shouted down, but after recent events, MPs have learned that shouting down their colleagues when they are talking about LGBT and women’s rights is not a good look.
Some lesbians have faced losing their livelihoods for saying what I am saying. They have faced threats of sexual violence and death threats for sticking up for their right to love other women. But they have stood up and fought, and they deserve a voice in this Parliament. I am thinking in particular of Kathleen Stock, Jo Phoenix, Julie Bindel, Shereen Benjamin, Allison Bailey, Rhona Hotchkiss, Bev Jackson and Kate Harris. Those two last women set up an organisation to represent the interests of lesbians who are same sex—not same gender—attracted. It is called LGB Alliance and it is currently facing what I consider to be a malicious lawsuit akin to a SLAPP to remove its charitable status. It is very important that organisations such as LGB Alliance should be allowed to organise on the basis of same sex attraction. That is their legal right under the Equality Act and human rights law. I believe that LGB Alliance will prevail and that lesbians will prevail. In this month of lesbian history and in future months, we will stand up for who we are and for our rights with pride.
I just want to say “Thank you so much” to the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Members who proposed the debate and all hon. Members on both sides of the House for their speeches on the important issue of LGBTQ+ History Month. It is so important for the visibility that it affords people across our community. For all those who are anxious about who they are, it can be affirming and even life changing to celebrate the history of people like them—people like us—and to see out and proud and politically active people making a difference in the world.
It is a privilege to stand alongside and follow trailblazers, including Members present such as my hon. Friend Dame Angela Eagle, who is a dear friend of mine. Is she right hon.—did I get it wrong?
That is an absolute travesty—we should sort that out.
My hon. Friend has led the way through such tricky times and through such prejudice. She has been a champion and was the visibility that we needed through my childhood and that of many others. That was really courageous. I was seven in 1997. I came out at 14 and went back in the closet. “Gay” was the biggest insult that could be said in the playground, and “lesbo” was used as well. It was not a safe space to come out, so I went back into the closet until my early 20s, when I went to university and had the freedom to be who I truly am.
As a bi woman, it is interesting to see and hear even Members of this House trying to erase my identity on radio programmes such as “Woman’s Hour”, accusing people who happen to be bisexual, who fall in love with someone of the same gender and who happen to have that happiness recognised in a marriage, of cosplaying. I am not cosplaying. I am bisexual. I have loved men, I have loved women and I think that should be celebrated.
This is a debate about love. It is also a debate about hate—they are two sides of the same coin when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community. We will always have to resist, and it is that resistance that allows children, young people, older people and people going into care homes in their 70s to be out and proud. It is a constant battle and, as many have said, we must be vigilant.
We could all do with remembering that it is not just in other countries that people are losing their lives to prejudice, whether through lynching—unfortunately, that happens in some countries—or regressive laws. Society continues to peddle hate, to peddle fear and to tell people, “Hate yourself. Do not love yourself. You are not valid. You are not welcome in our society. You should change and hide yourself to be in our society.”
In 2021, Just Like Us, the LGBT+ young people’s charity, surveyed 2,934 pupils aged 11 to 18. More than 1,000—1,140—pupils identified as LGBT+. It found that 68% of LGBT+ young people had experienced suicidal thoughts, compared with 29% of young people who were not LGBT+. For lesbians, it was 74% and for transgender, 77%. They were most likely to experience suicidal thoughts and feelings. Nearly a third of LGBT young people have self-harmed, compared with only 9% of non-LGBT young people. Of the black LGBT young people surveyed, 89% had experienced suicidal thoughts and feelings, compared with 67% of the wider LGBT+ young people surveyed. Those statistics should absolutely shame us. I think that we can sometimes feel that we have reached equality and that we can be who we want to be, but those statistics paint another picture. That is why it is so important that we can talk about LGBT+ experiences in our schools and colleges.
When I did sex education at school, someone rolled out the VCR—that is showing my age. For kids watching at home, that was a tape that we put in a machine to play a video. We were separated from the boys in our class and put in a hall. Someone had started their period, so it was felt that we needed to know about what being a woman was and what being a woman meant. The video had this poor actress on an escalator. She got on, and the video said, “Being a woman: there are ups”—the woman went up the escalator—“and there are downs”, and she went down the escalator. That sticks with me and is the only thing that I remember about the video, because the rest of it was not relevant to me and my identity. It was very prescriptive. It was all about, “This is what happens to make a baby. There you go—job’s a good’un. Don’t do it before you’re ready”. Obviously there was no mention of condoms, because that would be ridiculous. That was of its time in the ’90s and the early ’00s. Section 28 was still in force and there were whisperings about which teachers might be gay, but they were not able to talk to us about it. They could not say, “Yes, I am, and I am proud of it.” That was really harmful.
People make assumptions about sexuality and what it means. People—even within our community—still see bisexual people as a threat to lesbian or gay areas. We are told, “Pick a side.” We are considered hyper-sexualised, not real and living in a fantasy land. That is absolutely not the truth for every member of every category in LGBTQ.
Some people may say, “Why does that acronym keep on getting bigger and longer? Why is it growing?” I am glad that it is growing, and I hope that in 50 years’ time when openly gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, queer and non-binary people and whoever else stand up here, they can look back, quote our speeches from today and say, “How horrifying that in 2023 politicians were standing up and saying this.” I hope they challenge us and that we continue to develop our understanding, acceptance and tolerance of people.
We need to recognise that, behind every LGBTQ+ person, there is a family. I am pleased that that family is now mostly made up of relatives: the people who have brought that person up, loved them and supported them. However, there is still a family around every LGBTQ+ person, and they might not be people they are related to, because there are still young people who have to flee from prejudice in their own homes. At 16, 17 or 18, they still have to leave home and leave the people who are meant to love and protect them to get to a place of safety and escape persecution and conversion therapy. As has been said, that is torture.
I wonder how the many of us in this House who are parents, aunts, uncles or grandparents of trans children must feel having to tolerate the discussion of how there are failings in the way we love our family members, how we are creating a threat to society and how we are allowing our medically ill loved ones to act in a way they should not. I just think it is absolutely abhorrent. Actually, I say to anyone who is supporting a trans young person—or anyone who is trans themselves, or non-binary, lesbian or gay—“You’re welcome, and please continue to stand in solidarity with the person you love, whether that is through a relationship or as a relative or a friend.”
Love is so, so important—it feeds each of us, and it is as important as water and food to the human condition—and the dehumanising nature of the debates we have seen over recent years has led me to be very concerned about where we are at the moment. We have heard far too often even our children being painted as predators, perverts and somehow a danger to others for just being who they are. However, this debate reminds us that LGBTQ+ people are everywhere, and have been throughout our history, as was eloquently put across by Elliot Colburn.
The whole idea of being in the closet hinges on the mismatch between someone’s internal emotional life and how they appear to other people, and the mismatch can often be dramatic. Being in the closet is something I have experienced, and it is horrible—not being able to be your true self is really difficult. For some bisexual people, being in a heterosexual relationship is enough for people to say they are not really bisexual—that can be both ways, with people saying either, “They’re actually a lesbian” or “They’re actually straight”—or even that they are appropriating gay culture. It is a denial of their internal emotional life: a “prove it” culture that colludes with the worst kind of homophobia to say, “If you’re not going to be gay in the way we say you should be gay, get back in the closet.” At its worst, it stops many from ever coming out at all. This does not only happen to people in the B category of LGBTQ+. The tension between the internal experience of what and who you are and the way the world expects you to be is rife across the whole spectrum of the Pride progress flag: “Be gay, but not like that; be lesbian, but not like that; be—especially—trans, but not like that”.
I know some people find the word “queer” difficult. It rakes up old or maybe even recent memories of being abused, just as “gay” and “lesbian” were used against us in the playground. I realise the pain and hurt that that word may make people feel, but there is something about it that flips the “but not like that” attitude. Queer culture exists, and we live messy lives, feel messy feelings and express ourselves in numerous and various ways—exciting ways—in great spaces that are the most welcoming I know. For those who use the word, queerness celebrates the way that people’s experiences of themselves do not ever quite fit with the labels and stereotypes. I celebrate that, because stereotypes can be toxic, as we have heard with the risk of suicide for younger LGBTQ+ people.
That is especially so when we look at public policy. Look at the way we treat LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. We changed the law about the evidence that they need to provide to claim asylum for being LGBTQ+ to the satisfaction of the people making judgments on their sexuality, but border officials may have no experience, lived experience, understanding or, for that matter, even training about what being LGBTQ+ is. People have often been hiding their entire life for fear of persecution just for who they are. It could even be that the way they express their sexuality—for example, the language they use to talk about it—is specific to their culture, and is not even recognised in the interview room. Their future wellbeing is held to ransom by the extent to which they conform to the received stereotypes of the interviewer.
The debate on trans rights is similar. Trans people are caught in the crossfire of being expected to conform to gender stereotypes by medical professionals and policy makers, but when they do, they are told that they are just replicating and internalising damaging gendered expectations and are therefore anti-feminist. Non- binary people do not even fit into that framework of understanding, and they are not even acknowledged as existing. Well, I see you: I see non-binary people and I recognise non-binary people. Their experience is absolutely valid and is beautiful. I am so proud that we are getting to a point where we can get outside these boxes.
This approach to the public discussion of LGBTQ+ people must end. Instead, we should respect and take seriously the actual lived experience of all LGBTQ+ people, not dismiss them as illegitimate, appropriationative —that is not a word; well, it is now—or suspicious. That means taking the Government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 seriously, and listening to the people who go through the process of getting a gender recognition certificate. Their testimony is harrowing. They talk about being dehumanised and humiliated for simply trying to get the world to acknowledge their existence and who they are. That process must be transformed, and it needs to be de-medicalised. We need to get rid of the medieval spousal permission rules, of course, but that cannot be all we do. We must end all aspects of the process that reinforce the outdated and old-fashioned expectations of how men and women should behave.
It also means brushing up on the law. The Equality Act 2010 is a beautiful piece of legislation that allows people to stand with pride, dignity, respect and honesty and makes me proud to be a Labour MP. It has been a huge leap forward in fighting discrimination and tackling bigotry, allowing young people now to come out proudly to communities and be accepted for who they are.
The term “gender recognition certificate” appears once in that Act, in a point about getting married. GRCs are not related to how the Act defines a transgender person or what it says about trans people’s access to single-sex services. Today in the UK, we do not need a GRC to access a public toilet, changing room or any other single-sex service, just as we do not need our birth certificate to access them either. It is a red herring to say that we cannot have GRA reform because of the Equality Act. The only way the two are related is that both are about making life better for people who are marginalised and discriminated against. They are a way of recognising as a state that people exist, rather than pushing them back into a Narnia-like wardrobe that will have endless people in it if we continue down this road of trying to deny their existence.
We are not going anywhere as the LGBT+ community. We are proud, we are here and we are staying. For years, we have been told to get back in the closet because we are troublesome, we are perverts, we are a risk to children and we are somehow troublesome to society, rather than just enjoying our lives and loving who we can in a legitimate way. While the history of LGBTQ+ people in the UK shows that we have come a long way, the fact that our existence continues to be challenged within those stereotypes is a shame.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Member’s speech. She touched on how our community has always been around and we are not going anywhere, but I would like to pay tribute to the people whose views have changed, even since my childhood in the ’80s—the people who go to Pride, celebrate it and recognise us as part of the community. It is important when we debate matters in this House that we do not leave children, or people who are starting to work out what they are in life, thinking that the world is really different from how it is. The vast majority of heterosexual people, frankly, could not give two hoots and would quite enjoy a nice party. I want to add that balance to her serious point. Does she agree?
Absolutely. As I have said throughout my speech, I do not think prejudice is defined by one part of this. We are learning collectively, and I am happy for people to make mistakes, get language wrong and learn, but I want people to be on the right side of history on this. We know that people in this House and the other place have said horrific things about gay people in the past, but they have been on that journey, and I welcome that allyship. I married a straight man—a heterosexual man—and I welcome that allyship, but we need to recognise where we are at the moment and the dangers we are facing as a broader community.
We need to take pride in ourselves. We need to be at those Pride marches. We need to be the ones who are educating. We need to be the pioneers. We need to be the ones who are saying, “Love is love. Hate is hate”, and calling that out and spotting that difference. Through the determination of our continued struggle, we continue to tackle stereotypes that are just as harmful for heterosexual men as they are for gay men. A lot of people like to talk about toxic masculinity, but there are lots of different stereotypes that are harmful.
Everyone is an individual. Everyone’s individual love and individual identity is valid, wonderful and beautiful to me, and is why humanity is so exciting. It is so great to represent communities with all of that in. It is the fantasticness of being human. We need to stop dehumanising people and recognise that humanity is fantastic, and that has to include every part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Obviously, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and pay tribute to my hon. Friend Dame Angela Eagle and Elliot Colburn for securing it. This debate has been one of the most interesting and inspirational that I have had the privilege of being here for in a long time in this House. I thank everyone who has contributed so powerfully, especially those who have shared sometimes very personal experiences. That came across in the previous speech from my hon. Friend Olivia Blake. Many have been trailblazers in the journey towards greater LGBT+ representation in this House and campaigned for the transformational change in LGBT+ equality that we have seen over the past 30 years. In this debate, it has again been remarked that we have the gayest Parliament in the world, but I repeat what I have said before when that comment has been made: no Parliament in the world is likely to contain no LGBT people, it is just that in our country people can be who they are and can love whom they love.
We gather together in LGBT+ History Month to celebrate progress towards LGBT+ equality, where this has been achieved, and those who secured it. For me, equality is about everyone having a fair shot at life and a fair opportunity to achieve, and removing barriers and discrimination based on whom you love or who you are. Those are British values and what our country is built on: inspirational people who have worked hard to achieve their dreams and have changed the world.
The contribution that LGBT+ people have made to this country is nothing less than awe-inspiring. We have heard so much about that this afternoon, and I felt that awe last summer when I visited the new Queer Britain Museum in London and its fantastic celebration of our country’s LGBT+ history, in all its glory. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington detailed that rich history, but of course my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant, who is not in his place, indicated that although that has been a history of tremendous resilience, it has also been one of utterly appalling prejudice and oppression. I recommend to everyone in this House, although many will have seen it, the Pride of Place website that was created in collaboration with Historic England, which shows how that history of LGBT+ people is so important to every part of England. There are incredible stories on that website.
Those incredible stories are clear from our LGBT+ role models. I cannot help but mention my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey at this point, as others rightly have. She was a redoubtable member of the Government when she was one, and she is an Opposition Member who, it is fair to say, very much strikes fear into current Ministers. She has been such a steady campaigner for LGBT+ rights. Of course, it is people such as her and other pioneers of LGBT+ rights in our movement, from Maureen Colquhoun to Chris Smith and many more, who make me proud not only of my party, but of this place.
When we look back at that history, I am proud to see that it was Labour that voted, in 1985, for a resolution committing to lesbian and gay rights; that we removed the terrible section 28 law from the statute books in 2003; that we passed the law that gave trans people the right to legally change their gender; that we introduced the Equality Act, which others have mentioned; that we lifted the ban on lesbians, gay men and bi people serving in the armed forces; and that we introduced civil partnerships and laws to allow unmarried couples, including same-sex couples, to apply for joint adoption—both of those were done in the face of hostility and strong opposition. My hon. Friend Nadia Whittome set out that although those advances were made, so often that was in the face of tremendous hostility.
However, we need to do far more, because many LGBT+ people and their allies feel they may not have much to celebrate this LGBT+ History Month. So many promises have been made, from the LGBT action plan and the LGBT advisory panel, which of course has been disbanded, to the international conference that did not take place and the GRA reform that has not happened.
These are worrying times. Hate crime has increased across all categories, but particularly anti-LGBT+ hate, including acts of physical violence. Waiting times have soared for the services that LGBT+ people need, and particularly for gender identity services. Meanwhile, conversion therapy is going unchecked, as we have heard many times in this debate. I fear that future historians may not look kindly on every detail of this period of LGBT history; I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance today that I am wrong.
Like other hon. Members, I have some simple questions for the Minister. Five years after the promised ban on conversion therapy, can he guarantee that a Bill will definitely be introduced in the current Parliament? Will it definitely protect trans people? Will the Minister for Women and Equalities actually support it? Will it finally close the ridiculous loophole that allows adults to consent to being subject to abuse? What are the Government doing to address the awful rise in hate crime? Five years have passed since the Law Commission first recommended equalising the law so that perpetrators of anti-disability and anti-LGBT+ hate crime get longer sentences. Can the Minister explain why the Government have not acted on that recommendation? Finally, what discussions has the Minister had with colleagues about bringing down waiting lists for gender identity clinics? Where, for example, are the three new clinics promised by Elizabeth Truss? I do hope that the Minister will answer those questions today.
We need a different approach: one that does not treat LGBT+ rights as a political football or an afterthought, but that restores our country’s reputation as a beacon of LGBT+ freedom and equality. I take as my guide the legacy of the 1997 to 2010 Government, who worked hard to bring people together to deliver greater LGBT+ equality even when that was difficult. Labour did not duck the big challenges then, and we will not do so now.
The next Labour Government will break new ground by introducing a full, trans-inclusive ban on conversion therapy, and we will do so without putting legitimate talking therapies at risk. We will fix the historic injustice by equalising the law so that crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender identity and disability are treated as aggravated offences. We will keep our promise to modernise the process of gender recognition to remove indignities while upholding the Equality Act, including its provision for single-sex spaces.
We will appoint an international LGBT rights envoy to raise awareness and improve rights across the world—rights on which many countries are sadly going backwards, as has been so ably detailed in this debate. We will bring in a new deal for working people that will require employers to create and maintain workplaces free from LGBT+ harassment, including by third parties. We will undertake one of the biggest expansions of the NHS workforce in history so that everyone, including LGBT+ people, can access the treatment they need on time.
LGBT+ History Month teaches us that positive and enduring change for LGBT+ people is possible when Governments have the bravery to deliver. That is what the next Labour Government will be determined to do, because everyone deserves equality, dignity and respect.
I thank Dame Angela Eagle and my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for securing this debate and for their really important work with the all-party parliamentary group. It is a real pleasure to close today’s debate: not only has it has been moving—at times very moving—and funny, but it has been the House at its best. ve-line3The tone that all hon. Members have set in their contributions today has been a fitting tribute to an important date in our calendar.
As we have heard, LGBT people have existed throughout history, long before the first Pride march wound its way through the streets of London in 1972. I put on record my thanks to and my admiration for a former Member of this House, Eric Ollerenshaw, who was one of the participants in that Pride march back in those very difficult days.
LGBT people have existed at every level of society in all periods of our long and rich history, but much of that history, including the numerous achievements and experiences of people whom we would today call LGBT, is sadly lost to history. Although, the chat-up lines of bygone days, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington alluded, made me blush for a moment.
On our journey from partial decriminalisation in 1967 to the modern day, we have seen increasing visibility and acceptance of LGBT people. Today, we rightly celebrate their contribution to a modern United Kingdom. Gone are the days, thankfully, when LGBT people had to live secret lives for fear of imprisonment or death, which was no better articulated than by the many examples given by Sir Chris Bryant.
Today, LGBT people are able to be themselves, whether they are openly serving in our armed forces, working in the NHS as doctors and nurses, teaching in our schools or working in any other workplace. In fact, when I first stood for election to this House, it was noticeable that people were more interested not in the fact I am gay but in the fact that my partner works for Marks & Spencer and I can get a 20% discount.
We should also be proud that this Parliament has the most LGBT parliamentarians, or did until recently, of any democracy in the world. I place on record my thanks to those who made that possible by being open when it was challenging to be so, including Lord Smith of Finsbury. They paved the way for others, like me, to follow.
As we look back, as a community and as a nation, we have much to be proud of. This year marks a decade since the introduction of same-sex marriage in England and Wales, a process since repeated in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is great that, since then, tens of thousands of LGBT couples have taken the opportunity to stand in front of friends and family to declare their love and commitment to one another, safe in the knowledge that their relationship, their family, is no less recognised or valid than any other.
However, as great as our accomplishments may have been, challenges remain. Harassment, discrimination and violence against LGBT people continue to exist in our society, and the Government and I are clear that everyone should be free to be themselves, without fear of harm. I say that as someone who, some years ago, was knocked unconscious in a queer-bashing episode. The episode itself was hard enough, but it was being locked up at home afterwards that I found really challenging. For me, tackling that sort of prejudice will be a key priority in this role.
That is why we will publish a draft Bill to ban conversion practices, also referred to as conversion therapy. It is important that we end practices that falsely claim to cure or change LGBT people to something that is considered far more preferable. Let me make it perfectly clear that such practices are harmful and do not work. Being LGBT is no less valid or fulfilling a life than any other. We only have to see films such as “Prayers for Bobby”, which gives a true account of what actually happens when people are forced into conversion practices. Rather than changing someone’s innate feelings, such practices leave victims with lasting mental and emotional trauma and have no place in society.
We also know that, sadly, these practices continue across the UK, which is why the Government will publish draft legislation in this parliamentary Session to ban this targeted threat to our LGBT citizens. This ban will include targeted efforts to change someone from being or to being transgender. This Bill will go through pre-legislative scrutiny, and my officials and I look forward to progressing it in the coming months.
The sympathy of the whole House is with the Minister for his sad and difficult experience of gay bashing. What kind of timetable do the Government envisage for this Bill, because draft legislation can hang around for a very long time? Will he take this opportunity to confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Bill will not have loopholes that allow people to consent to conversion?
The allocation of parliamentary time is not within my gift, but I assure the hon. Lady that we are working extremely hard to get this done as quickly as possible. Many of the points that she has raised explain why we will go through pre-legislative scrutiny process.
In the meantime, that is why we funded in October a conversion therapy victim support service, providing expert advice and assistance in a safe and confidential environment. I urge anyone who has been a victim or is undergoing any experience of conversion practices of any kind to get in touch with that service through its website or helpline.
As I touched on a moment ago, too many people sadly experience violence and discrimination because of who they are. In the UK, the police and the courts have considered the aggravating factors when determining sentences, but we know that we must do more. For me, that will also start with education. We cannot deal just with the symptoms—violent acts. We must educate people about the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect. That is why, since 2020, age-appropriate sex and relationship education in primary and secondary schools across England has quite rightly included LGBT families and relationships. Not only does that reflect the reality of modern society, teaching our young people that families come in many forms; it is also vital for our LGBT youth, so that they know that they are not alone, that they are valued, and that they can lead full, open and happy lives. That will, I hope, reduce many of the awful suicides that Olivia Blake quite rightly mentioned.
The hon. Member for Rhondda spoke about faith. I have also talked in this place about faith and my personal battles. Faith is not the preserve of heterosexuals. That is something that I have sometimes had to reconcile myself to, but I have come to the conclusion that he is my God, too.
We have learned a lot along the way, and as global leaders on LGBT rights, it is also incumbent on us to support other countries, as hon. Members have said. That is why at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the UK announced just under £3 million to support civil society organisations in the Commonwealth to amend discriminatory laws and practices. It is why, since 2018, the UK has invested £11 million in the promotion of such rights across the Commonwealth. And it is why, in 2022, Lord Herbert, the Prime Minister’s special envoy on LGBT rights, was delighted to join Ukrainian LGBT organisations and activists for the joint Warsaw-Kyiv Pride in Poland. We continue to consider how the specific needs of LGBT people are met as part of the humanitarian response to the illegal invasion.
We are also working to encourage British overseas territories that have not put in place arrangements to protect LGBT people to do so. Nine of the overseas territories now have legal recognition and protection for LGBT people, and six have also introduced legislation on civil partnerships or have legalised same-sex marriage. We regularly engage with all the British overseas territories to ensure that their legislation is compliant with their international human rights obligations.
I will touch on health before concluding. We want to ensure that all our citizens, including LGBT people, are healthy and able to reach their full potential. I am pleased to say that the numbers of new cases of mpox—formerly known as monkey pox—have been steadily falling since the end of July. We have seen a negative growth rate in cases indicating mpox, and the UK is now in a declining epidemic. I am assured that the UK Health Security Agency is working closely with partners to increase awareness of the signs and symptoms, and of how people can seek vaccinations, information and help if they have concerns. We have provided more than £200,000 to fund an outreach programme to encourage hard-to-reach demographics to take up their first or second vaccines, and we will announce those bids very soon.
On our ongoing efforts to eradicate HIV and AIDS, I am really proud that we have committed to trying to achieve a target of zero new HIV transmissions and zero AIDS and HIV-related deaths in England by 2030. This is an important fight. I am pleased to see that the milestone ambition of an 80% reduction by 2025 is on track.
I am sorry if I am about to nick what the Minister is about to say, but next week is National HIV Testing Week. Does he agree that the indicative results from the roll-out pilots, particularly in London, have been very positive, and will he commit the Government to consider rolling out opt-out HIV testing nationwide as soon as humanly possible?
I am more than happy for my hon. Friend to steal my lines, because it means I have the chance to repeat the message and hammer it home. He is absolutely right: testing is an important part of this, and we are pleased that the opt-out HIV testing has resulted in more diagnoses. I will continue to have those conversations with Department of Health and Social Care colleagues.
While I am on this point, I want to take the opportunity to thank Ian Green, who has stepped down as chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust after almost seven years, and to congratulate Richard Angell, who has today been announced as the new CEO. I wish him the very best of luck in the role as he continues the trust’s inspirational work.
Finally, I want to talk about our transgender friends. I am glad that many Members have talked about trying to take the toxicity out of this debate. Mature discussion is how we will get to a compassionate and sensible solution, I am sure. We are taking meaningful action to address many of the problems of the long waiting list. We are doing that by establishing a more modern, flexible care model to support transgender people. We are working to tackle the long waiting lists and are establishing new pilot gender clinics, the first of which was opened in 2021. In addition, we have established four new community-based clinics in Manchester, Cheshire and Merseyside, and London and east of England.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way.
On the issue of transgender people, could he say something about the Government’s intentions with respect to the delisting of up to 18 countries that issue gender certificates via legal declaration rather than by following a medicalised model? It was announced in a written ministerial statement that the Government have launched a review.
I thank the hon. Lady, and I apologise that I forgot to mention this point. The Government will be updating the list of approved countries and territories. That power was part of the original Gender Recognition Act 2004, to ensure that the integrity of the Act was not compromised. The list was last updated in 2011 and needs to be updated again, as a commitment was made to keep the list under review. We are thoroughly researching each overseas system in question at the moment and will announce the countries that will be removed from the list via an affirmative statutory instrument in due course.
The Minister has just confirmed that there will be a removal of countries that are on the list. Are those the 18 that currently do legal declaration rather than a medicalised model? Are we looking at a huge change that will take away rights from transgender people in this country?
As I say, these lists are being looked at carefully at the moment, and none of this will be about retrospective stuff for transgender people in this country.
In conclusion, this debate has been really powerful. It has celebrated the accomplishments and contribution of LGBT people to this country since decriminalisation, which was extraordinary in itself at the time and something about which we should be immensely proud and glad. As Minister for Equalities, it is my privilege to work at building on the achievements of the past and furthering LGBT equality in the future, both at home and abroad.
Of the many commitments that I have outlined that advance LGBT protections and equality to the next stage, the publication of a trans-inclusive Bill to ban conversion practices is key, not only to protect LGBT people from harm, but to prevent efforts to invalidate our existence. I look forward to working with hon. Members on both sides of the House to deliver this landmark legislation for our community, and the many other important commitments that I have outlined. I join the hon. Member for Rhondda in quoting Ru Paul about love, because at the end of the day, that is what this is all about—simply, love.
It gives me great pleasure to wind up this extremely enjoyable and profound debate about LGBT History Month, which has demonstrated that there is much on which we can agree across the House and that there is much still to be done across the globe and in our society. It has also flagged up a couple of things that I worry about, not least the potential ongoing battles over GRA reform, which I had hoped we could avoid—the delisting issue is definitely a worry. I look forward to working with the Minister to achieve an inclusive and effective ban on conversion therapy sooner rather than later.
I have enjoyed, and hope to continue to enjoy, the work that the all-party parliamentary group is doing to assist those across the globe where LGBT communities still suffer from oppressive laws. We will continue to do all that we can to assist the Government and their diplomatic forces to minimise that. We have had some of the most profound and important speeches that I have heard in a debate. We have had some pretty good jokes and a bit of spicy stuff, which I will not repeat, in case Madam Deputy Speaker worries about it.
At the beginning of LGBT History Month, I leave the thoughts of the House with my predecessor, the first out lesbian Member of the House, Maureen Colquhoun, who was a doughty battler for the rights of lesbians and women. She was a feminist and a campaigner, and she was well ahead of her time in this House in the 1970s. She was fearless, committed and brilliant. We lost her last year, but as she was the first out lesbian MP—she was outed in the columns of the Daily Mail in terrible circumstances; what a surprise—we owe her a great deal. Those of us who are lesbians in this House have followed her trailblazing and we remember her today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered LGBT history month.