Here’s the speech I wrote to deliver to Speakers Corner at Nottingham Pride yesterday. However, my sleep-deprived brain let me stay up all night writing it only to leave the text behind on my desk when I left late to set up the Lib Dem stall at the Forest Rec.
The speech I gave was based on this A4 page of notes I scribbled down to give myself structure. Somehow from that, I managed to speak for about 30 minutes – much longer than I am ever usually allowed to speak anywhere. (Full Council meetings have strict time limits; committees are never usually a place for speechifying).
As last year, I began with inappropriate jokes – one of them stolen shamelessly from Iain Dale. This year, there was a sign interpreter. I didn’t get to look sideways and see whether she used the BSL for male or female orgasm.
Without further ado, here’s the text of the speech I would have delivered, if I had remembered the text.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
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 32 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.
Gay rights first appeared in the Lib Dem policy programme in 1975 – three years before I was even born and long before I discovered I was gay.
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 later this 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. Now, that’s routine. Just five years ago it seemed revolutionary.
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. My facebook friend Chris Morris was the brave young man, then under 18, who was prepared to be the person who stood up in court to argue for fairness.
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.
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 voted against gay rights, they voted against rights for women and they vote against abortion.
It was certainly the case that some of the newest Tory MPs were the most resistant to David Cameron’s attempts at moving his party on the centre ground.
Come the 2010 General Election, there are more new Tory MPs. The Lib Dems gain 1% of the vote in the country and as a result, lose a net 6 seats. It becomes clearer than ever that voting reform is needed.
And after a week of frantic negotiation, the coalition is born. And we all have mixed feelings about this, I am sure.
Theresa May becomes the Home Secretary, and as part of her remit becomes the Equalities minister. Her personal record in the field of gay rights is far from stellar. In 1998 she voted against an equal age of consent. In 2000 she voted against the repeal of Section 28. In 2001 and 2002, she voted against gays and lesbians being able to adopt. And in 2008 she voted against legislation which removed the need for a father in lesbians undergoing IVF treatment.
She has said subsequently she has changed her mind. We need to watch her closely to see how true this is.
Perhaps in a genius, move, though, the coalition representative in Theresa May’s department is the lovely Lib Dem MP Lynne Featherstone, who gets the rather unlovely title PUSS – Parliamentary Under Secretary of State – and is given the equalities brief.
Now Lynne I know well, and I know she takes equalities extremely seriously. A few weeks ago, the Lib Dems held a Special Conference to ratify the coalition. Lib Dem members went to a big shed in Birmingham to hold our parliamentary party to account and have our say on the new government. I was there (( and you can read my tweets from the day )) and I was listening when Lynne was talking about issues like this.
Three things from her speech then struck me as important. Firstly, she did a lot of the ground work in the recent Gender Recognition Act, which has been enormously important in setting up a legal framework recognising the changes transgendered people live with. It’s a very complex and sensitive area of law and there are all sorts of complications to take account of. And yet gender is at the very heart of our identity, and there has to be some sort of relationship between government and gender. And so Lynne spoke about this quite a lot and had to make rather nuanced points about a difficult area of social policy – and she had to do that in the rather unhelpful atmosphere of the House of Commons, where some MPs can get away with behaving badly. Her experience, she said, was that the Tory front bench were sensitive and engaged with the issues. But the Tory back bench were the rowdies and the idiots. And it was the Tory back bench who were cat-calling and shouting “pervert” at her.
Lynne’s second point was that in the coalition, it is not these bad-mannered backbenchers who are holding the Conservatives hostage, but the the Lib Dems. And that has got to be a good thing in the field of equalities.
Lynne’s third point was a battle cry that I was glad to hear: “Roll back equalities? Not on my watch!”
And indeed there have already been some positive signs that her views prevail. Our courts and our government have accepted that gay asylum-seekers from parts of the world where gay people cannot be expected to return home and “act straight” but can have a safe haven here in the UK.
Secondly this government has ended a historic injustice that means some men who had consensual sex 30 years ago have been on the sex offenders register and had to disclose their criminal convictions when applying for jobs. Their crime? Having consensual sex with someone under 21, but over 16 – something that was a crime but wouldn’t be today. This government will take action to end this injustice.
The Government is also going to take action against homophobic bullying. Last year, this was a Lib Dem campaign. This year it will be in the government’s programme for action. Some 6 in 10 children suffer homophobic bullying at school, so addressing this should improve the lives of not only gay children, but those caught in the much wider net of bullys.
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.
In just the same way, the NHS might not take our blood, but they are still happy to try and get hold our bone marrow and our sperm.
Recently I joined the Anthony Nolan Trust’s register of bone marrow donors, after a recruitment drive in the Council House, where I took what they call a “ten minute spit test.” It’s actually not as unpleasant as it sounds. Hopefully, I’ve been registered properly and should anyone in the future who is a match to me need bone marrow, I could get called to London to have a medical procedure done to harvest my cells.
Whilst talking about the gay blood ban, though, I must just mention the recent council debate on the subject. June 14th was both a Full Council meeting and World Blood Day – an international celebration of people who donate blood. The date is the birthday of Karl Landsteiner, who discovered the ABO system of blood types, which paved the way to making blood donation safe. I tabled a motion to council to celebrate this, to highlight the work of everyone in the blood service, to encourage all those who can give blood to do so, and one paragraph at the end saying that it is regrettable and discriminatory that no man who has ever had sex with another man is allowed to donate blood.
Under the current rules, a hypothetical straight man who has slept his way unprotected around Africa is barred from giving blood for a year, whilst a gay man who has had protected sex once in 1982 and subsequently joined a monastery and taken a vow of chastity can never donate blood again. It reminds me of that old suffragette poster “what a man may be and not lose the vote / what a woman may be and yet not have the vote.”
When I tabled the motion, I didn’t think it would be terribly contraversial. I thought all parties would agree. Indeed, the Tories did agree with the Lib Dems. Unfortunately, when it came to the debate, Nottingham’s Labour party didn’t agree. Two of their councillors tabled an amendment that removed all references to discrimination and urged us to wait for the outcome of the review that is currently in progress.
I have to say I was quite disappointed with this. As were, I know, a number of Labour councillors. Five of them could not bring themselves to vote with their party and abstained at the vote. This may not sound like much, but it is unheard of in the Nottingham Labour group. The Evening Post called it “the largest rebellion in 15 years.”
The blood debate is not over. SaBTO, the body responsible for setting policy for the NHS Blood Service, is still conducting a review into the issue – a review that has been underway for nearly two years already.
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. He was joined this year by Gareth Thomas, who plays rugby, and whose Wikipedia page says “Thomas is notable as the world’s only current professional male athlete in a team sport who is openly gay.” 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.
Thirdly 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 Fellows Morton & Clayton – 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.
Some web addresses that were helpful in writing all this:
Some of Lynne’s work on trans idenity (with a fascinating debate in the comments of the differences and values of transgender and transsexual people)