Whether the Conservative Party are unfairly maligned for their record on LGBT+ rights depends on which century you’re looking at.
Pre-Cameron, the Conservative Party’s record on LGBT+ rights was indeed poor. While Lady Thatcher was one of the few Conservative MPs to vote in favour of decriminalising homosexuality in 1967, 20 years later, the Lady was for turning when in a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in 1987, she said:
“Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life—yes, cheated.”
The following year in 1988, Thatcher introduced Section 28, banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools. When Blair’s new Labour government tabled a bill to repeal section 28 in 2003, 71 of the then 166 Tory MPs voted against it.
Section 28 has had a lasting legacy in Great Britain – as recently as 2019, there were protests outside primary schools that introduced LGBT+ equality education, notably in Nottingham and Birmingham. However, in 2019, the anti-LGBT+ protesters gathering outside English schools were rallying against a policy introduced by a Conservative government that mandated the teaching of LGBT+ Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in all English schools. Quite the U-turn from Thatcher’s late 80s anti-gay education stance. The Coalition and Conservative majority governments largely continued on a similar path to the previous new Labour governments.
Ruth Davidson became the first lesbian leader of the Scottish Conservatives in 2011; the Marriage (same-sex couples) Act was passed in 2013, the landmark anti-HIV drug PrEP was made available on the NHS for trials in 2015; reforms to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) were put out for consultation in 2018; LGBT+ RSE was made mandatory in English schools in 2019; in 2020 same-sex marriage was legalised in Northern Ireland; and PrEP became available to all men who have sex with men across NHS England.
The Armed Forces Bill, which will pardon LGBT+ soldiers and marines for historic sex offences, began its journey through parliament in early 2021 and the British government will host its first Global LGBT Conference in 2022. We now face the prospect of eliminating HIV transmission in the UK by 2030 due to policies implemented by Conservative governments.
Despite over a decade of improving the lives of LGBT+ Britons, the Conservatives anti-LGBT+ legacy remains unshakable, with LGBT+ Britons continuing to back Labour over the Conservatives in large numbers.
As nearly 1 in 5 people in the Gen-Z cohort identify as LGBT+, this is something which may come back to haunt the Conservatives. The lack of strategy to tackle the 210 per cent increase in transgender hate crimes and the failure to implement the recommendations of the 2018 GRA consultation – demedicalising the process of changing gender to self-identification – have not helped. There has been a lot of misinformation about what the reforms would have meant and, regrettably, the facts were not made more plainly to the British public.
Transgender women have had access to women’s only spaces since the Equality Act of 2010 and implementing self-identification would have meant the person changing gender would need a statutory declaration from a solicitor to legally change gender.
All the reforms would have done was make life easier for transgender Britons, not make the lives of British women harder. Some anti-self identification activists inaccurately made the GRA reforms sound like a gender pick and mix; that was never on the cards. While there may be problems to solve with the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sport, this is a separate issue from the GRA reforms.
Conservative Central Headquarter’s decision to host the LGB Alliance at the 2021 Conservative Party Conference was equally unhelpful, especially when an anti-trans activist heckled the LGBT+ Conservatives event where the keynote speaker was the wife of the Prime Minister, Carrie Johnson. Chair of LGBT+ Conservatives Elena Bunbury, Crispin Blunt MP, London Assembly member Emma Best and Stonewall’s Nancy Kelley also spoke at the high profile event; the Prime Minister and the national press were present and every time someone said the word “trans”, the activist shouted “shame”.
Such clumsiness and the adopting of policy positions in contradiction to the facts have given the Conservative Party’s opponents the fuel they need to continue to brand the Tories anti-LGBT+, as Labour’s Deputy Leader, Angela Rayner has done. However, the events of the last decade tell a different story. The truth is, no British political party has done more to enhance the lives of LGBT+ people or indeed harm the lives of LGBT+ people than the Conservative Party.
The Party should feel pride in how far they have come since 1988, but they must also take responsibility for where they stood in 1988. It may be “no big deal” for a prominent young Tory MP like Dehenna Davison to come out as bisexual in 2021, but not being straight still places many Britons at a disadvantage in life. This government has promised to level up; that must include LGBT+ Britons too.
While the Conservative Party may not be unfairly maligned for their historical record on LGBT+ rights, they are not fairly recognised for the improvements they have made for LGBT+ Britons since 2010 either. For that balance to shift in favour of recognition, what comes next matters, not what has come before.