I was very happy to be invited to be one of the speakers at Nottingham Gay Pride’s Speaker’s Corner. Here’s what I had to say (minus the inappropriate jokes I ad-libbed on the day).
Hello, my name is Alex Foster and I am one of Nottingham City’s Lib Dem councillors. If you live near the Beechdale Baths, it could well be that I represent you. I’m also gay.
In fact, I’m in politics BECAUSE I’m gay, not in spite of it. Let me explain.
The first political thing I ever did was write to my MP about the age of consent. I’m 31 next week, so when I was in school, Parliament was having its great debate about whether the age of consent for gay men should be lowered from 21 to 18. I had found out all about this in the pages of Gay Times, and read about the Stonewall campaign, and it was because of them that I wrote to my MP.
I got a nice letter back – my Tory MP then was Peter Temple Morris – and although he didn’t agree with me he told me he respected my position.
There was a great debate going on at this time about this issue, and I got quite involved. I saw that the Lib Dems were arguing in favour not just of lowering the age of consent to 18, but of equalizing it with heterosexual people at 16. It was there in black and white in their 1992 manifesto:
Guarantee equal rights for gay men and lesbians through changes to criminal law, anti-discrimination legislation and police practices. We will repeal Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act. We will create a common age of consent regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
It was also in the 1987 manifesto – we wanted to create a single Human Rights Commission that ensured people were not discriminated against, including on grounds of sexuality. Over twenty years later, this has finally happened.
So it was issues of sexuality that first got me involved in politics. After that, I looked a little further into the Lib Dems to see what else they believed in. I found I agreed with them on student finance, just as I started my degree in Nottingham. I’m old enough to have got a grant, and I think we need to return to that state of affairs.
I also agreed with the Lib Dems on Europe. I was doing a modern languages degree, and I saw the need to work closely with our European neighbours. (Incidentally, have you ever been to Paris Pride? It’s great! And now you can get there directly by train with only one change!)
So in 1997, when I voted for the first time, I made up my mind to support the Lib Dems. Eventually I joined the party. I volunteered in Nick Clegg’s office when he was Nottingham’s MEP. And it was from there that I was asked if I would stand for council. They told me I’d never win, that I’d just be helping them out by being a candidate. And… I won.
MY FORTUNATE GAY LIFE
So I got the age of consent reduction just in time.
Under a Labour government, I got all sorts of new rights. I could now, if I wasn’t fat, unfit, asthmatic, and very short-sighted serve in the armed forces. I have the right not to be discriminated against at work. I can adopt children.
Hopefully next year, I’ll be getting married.
Half of me is grateful and appreciative to Labour for getting things done for gay people.
But my more political half remembers that they didn’t do it all willingly.
One of Labour’s first acts in 1997 was to fight in the European Court of Human Rights against gay servicemen who wanted to continue in the armed forces. It wasn’t until the Labour government lost the case there that the rules were changed. Even after that, it took some time before the armed forces were happy with personnel marching at London Pride in their uniforms.
Labour didn’t change the age of consent straight away. That too took a court case in the European courts before they finally changed the law.
Civil partnerships started life as a bill written by a Lib Dem member of the house of Lords, Lord Lester – and was only withdrawn when the Labour Government promised to introduce a similar bill and give it the parliamentary time it needed.
And although civil partnerships brings gay people many benefits, they’re not perfect. Labour were so in thrall to the faith lobby that they made it completely impossible to celebrate a civil partnership in a religious way – even if you belong to a religion that does recognise gay relationships, like Reform Judaism or some of the more liberal parts of the Anglican communion or the Quakers.
So far, I’ve only spoken of Labour and the Lib Dems, but perhaps I need to spend a few minutes talking about the Conservatives as well.
The Tories have a truly terrible history when it comes to the story of gay rights. It was their horrible policy to ban schools from even mentioning homosexuality in the infamous Section 28. Have you seen the drag Lady Thatcher here today?
All through recent years it has been Tory MPs and members of the House of Lords who have vigorously opposed equality across so many issues. Lesbian parenting. Equality of the age of consent. They made several attempts at introducing wrecking amendments to change civil partnerships.
Just a few years ago, David Cameron himself voted in the debate about the abolition of that same Section 28. In 2001, he voted to keep it.
The new Tory MPs elected in 2005 have been some of the most reactionary, right-wing, Thatcherite parliamentarians that this country has ever seen. They vote against gay rights, they vote against rights for women and they vote against abortion.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise that the Conservatives are trying to reinvent themselves in recent weeks as a gay-friendly party. What do they really believe – what they say now or what they used to say only a few years ago? And what will they say in the future if they find themselves running this country again?
A few weeks ago, Nick Clegg wrote this:
Gay rights, like all minority rights, should by now have become unquestionable. But in practice they are still too often treated like privileges, falling in and out of favour with politicians. David Cameron’s recent apology over Section 28 is a prime example. Leadership is about speaking out on issues when they matter, not simply when you judge public opinion has moved.
CAMPAIGNS FOR THE FUTURE
It’s tempting to think that all the gay community’s needs are met and that there are no more political campaigns needed, no more things to do to change our lives for the better.
That’s a complacent view. There are still issues out there that need resolving.
The blood campaign is a key one. Not to put too fine a point on it, people out there are dying because gay men can’t give blood. It’s ludicrous that we are all barred, regardless of how we live our lives. The rules on blood donation must be changed to reflect the real risks. It’s promiscuous people who don’t take precautions who are at greatest risk from HIV. It’s offensive to assume that all gay men and no straight people fit that category. The rules need to reflect behaviour better and not identity. I would give blood if I were allowed. I’ve even considered giving blood anyway – as my friends in medical professions have urged. But I don’t want to have to lie about who I am or who I am getting married to.
And incidentally, did you know? Although gay men are banned from giving blood, it’s still perfectly fine for us to go on the register of organ donors. I phoned their helpline to ask last year, and they categorically told me that it’s OK. So I’ve carried a donor card ever since, and I’ve let my next of kin know my wishes. I would encourage you to do that too.
Secondly, another campaign I strongly endorse is the DELGA – the LGBT Lib Dem organisation – campaign against homophobic bullying in schools. It’s damaging and upsetting that the epithet of choice in our schools is still for children to call each other “gay”. Our campaign calls for three things:
- Homophobic taunts and name calling in schools should be challenged immediately by staff.
- All schools’ anti-bullying policies should be required to include measures specifically to deal with homophobic bullying.
- At least one teacher in every school should undergo training which includes how to tackle homophobic bullying.
You can sign the petition at http://www.delga.org.uk
Thirdly, isn’t it concerning how few out gay people there are in some lines of work? We hear of openly gay politicians, but do we ever hear of openly gay newsreaders or broadcasters? Over a decade after Justin Fashanu’s death he is still the only footballer ever to have come out. There are gay people in every walk of life. We need to create the sort of society where everyone can feel comfortable with being out.
Fourthly it’s great that we in Britain have civil partnerships. It’s great that in France you can get a PACS and in Germany Eingetragene Lebenspartnerschaft. Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Washington DC and Vermont are the only places in the States where gay people can get married, but there are many more US states where civil partnerships can be entered into. Because understandings of these relationships varies across jurisdictions there are anomalies about how these separate states recognise each others’ partnerships. Visa recognition for spouses is complicated. I think we need international work to look at how this will work better in the future.
I will end by quoting our party leader Nick Clegg again:
I am determined that the Liberal Democrats will remain outspoken and steadfast in our defence of gay rights, from backing same sex marriage to stopping the deportation of gay asylum seekers to countries were homosexuality is punishable by death. There has been much progress in recent years, and much to celebrate. But as long as homophobia still rears its ugly head in workplaces, in classrooms, and even in the home – politicians must continue to speak out in favour of the values of gay rights. For me, it is quite simply one of the touchstones of what a liberal society should be: open, tolerant and free of prejudice.
You can come and have a chat with the Lib Dems each month at “Liberal Drinks” at the Lord Roberts – we’re there on the second Thursday from 7.30pm.
I have been Alex Foster. You can find me very easily on the internet or on twitter by googling “alex foster”
Thank you very much.