David Shariatmadari in The Guardian considers at length, with abundant examples from history and from interviews with candidates, why so many British MPs in the current parliament are openly non-heterosexual. Things have changed quite recently, it turns out, the old repressive cultures dying out with some speed.
As turning points go, it was a good one. A young Labour MP claimed the scalp of a senior Tory cabinet minister; the look of surprise and excitement on his face mirrored the mood of the country. After 18 years of Conservative government, everything was to be turned on its head. But that night in Enfield in 1997 was symbolic of more than just the first Labour landslide in a generation. Stephen Twigg was gay – a “practising homosexual”, to use a formula still popular at the time – and though rumours about Michael Portillo’s sexuality had been swirling for years, he was most definitely not. In fact, Portillo was the opposite: a buttoned-up member of a ruling class for whom discretion had long been the rule. His slaying felt like a cultural watershed.
Habits built up over decades, the instinctive default to repression, quickly began to melt away. The day after Twigg’s victory, Chris Smith, an MP since 1983 and out since 1984, became the first openly gay secretary of state – culture, naturally. Later that year, Angela Eagle came out: the first openly lesbian MP since Maureen Colquhoun, who had been deselected in the 1970s. The years rolled by and anti-gay legislation was rolled back. The despised section 28 was ditched, and civil partnerships then equal marriage made it on to the statute books. Now Britain finds itself with the queerest legislature in the world: 32 of the United Kingdom’s 650 MPs calling themselves gay, lesbian or bisexual. At 4.9%, this pretty closely reflects what researchers believe to be the sexuality of the population as a whole: an impressive achievement, still to be matched in matters of gender or ethnicity.
So who are the LGB MPs (the T, for transgender, is still missing, none of the four candidates who stood this election won their seat)? Twelve are Conservative, 13 Labour, the rest Scottish Nationalists. Among them are veterans such as Eagle, Chris Bryant, Alan Duncan and Crispin Blunt. Newcomers include former NUS president Wes Streeting, who follows in the footsteps of Twigg, also an NUS man. Overall, on 7 May, there were 155 out LGBT candidates. And in two constituencies last week – Lancaster & Fleetwood and Milton Keynes South – both the Tory and Labour candidates were gay or lesbian. At the end of the last parliament, the Conservatives had the most LGB MPs, ceding that position to Labour this time around. Proportionally, though, the SNP is now by far the gayest party in Westminster, with 12% of its MPs chalking themselves up as sexual minorities.
We may scratch our heads as to the meaning of these numbers: is it a surprise that there are so many out Tories? What is it about the SNP? But there’s a bigger question: how did we get here? How did a country raised on tabloid scandal end up so at ease with gay public figures? Homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967 by reforming home secretary Roy Jenkins (Northern Ireland had to wait until 1982), but prosecutions for sexual offences continued to snare many gay men into the 90s. In addition, a vicious press culture of blackmail and exposure made life difficult for gay people who wanted to participate in government and politics.