To mark the passing of the first lesbian MP Maureen Colquhoun, here’s a 2017 piece about the women she paved the way for
BY CARRIE LYELL
When I was born in 1985, there was a female prime minister. Margaret Thatcher’s name was like a swear word in our house, and she’s hardly a feminist icon as far as I’m concerned, but the fact remains, I grew up in a world where that was at least a possibility; a woman could achieve the highest political office in the UK. But just 100 years ago, in 1917, women didn’t yet have the right to vote, and it would be another two years before a woman took her seat in the House of Commons.
Progress – both in terms of gender and sexual orientation – has been relatively swift. As I write, there are 191 female MPs in the UK parliament, and with 32 LGB MPs (there are currently no out transgender MPs) it’s been called the gayest parliament in the world. Lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs make up almost 5% of the Commons, representative of the percentage of the UK population estimated to be LGBT. 26% of the House of Lords are women. In Northern Ireland, 28% of the country’s assembly are women, while in Wales it’s a whopping 42%. And in my native Scotland, one third of MSPs are female. We have a female first minister, leading one of the few gender-balanced cabinets in the world, and the other three main party leaders (Kezia Dugdale, Ruth Davidson and Patrick Harvie) identify as LGB.
Today’s political landscape for women and LGB people is a far cry from the 1970s, when Maureen Colquhoun, Labour MP for Northampton North, was outed by Daily Mail gossip columnist Nigel Dempster. Colquhoun had left her husband, a Sunday Times journalist, for a woman, and Dempster somehow got ahold of a change-of-address card sent by Colquhoun and her partner Barbara Todd, which apparently featured a “sappho motif”. Colquhoun later faced deselection from her party for what was described as an “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights”. Dempster defended his actions, claiming: “All I was doing was bringing to a wider public what she herself had advertised.”
Labour’s Angela Eagle was the next MP to go public about her sexuality. She came out in September 1997, 20 years after Dempster’s outing of Colquhoun, but says it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Clearly, Colquhoun was still fresh in her mind. “She had been outed… in very nasty circumstances, to mass ridicule. It wasn’t exactly a great precedent. But I had decided to move in with my partner and I was ready to do it. It does free you up to be yourself. I think, in politics, you have to be yourself. It just makes you a better politician.”
Colquhoun’s experience had long been forgotten by the time Justine Greening, Education Secretary, came out on Twitter in 2016, generating 6,495 retweets – basically internet tumbleweed. In stark contrast to Colquhoun’s “mass ridicule”, the reaction to Greening’s low-key announcement was positive, but quiet. And Kezia Dugdale had a similar experience when she went public about her same-sex relationship for the first time in an interview with the Fabian Review in April 2016. The SNP, which boasts eight LGB MPs – including four women – has received little backlash for being the “gayest political party in the world”, despite counting notorious Section 28 backer Brian Souter among its supporters, and it seems Britain, in the words of journalist Andrew Reynolds, has reached a “post-homophobic state of grace”.
“The impression I gained from being on the doorsteps with LGBT candidates,” writes Reynolds in the New Statesman, “was that, if it mattered at all, the candidates’ sexual orientation was of little consequence to the average voter”. What a time to be alive.
Or is it? The numbers sure do paint a positive picture, and it’s great that we’ve moved beyond the witchhunty, pitchfork-style tabloid outings of the 70s, 80s and 90s. But the reality isn’t quite so rosy. Women MPs are subject to abhorrent sexism and misogyny online – check out Jess Phillips’ book Everywoman for a fascinating and horrific insight into the life of a female MP – and just last year, Eagle found herself on the receiving end of intimidation, homophobia and death threats from within her own party when she had the audacity to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. There was also a brick thrown through the window of her constituency office in Wallasey, Merseyside, which an internal Labour investigation concluded was connected.
Let’s not forget, either, that while there might be 32 LGB MPs in the House of Commons, only nine are women, and they are all white and cisgender. Only two women in the House of Lords are out – Baroness Barker and Baroness Hilton – and anecdotal evidence suggests there are still many MPs who are fearful of coming out lest they be tarred with the same brush as Colquhoun. And that’s worrying, because LGB MPs like Angela Eagle, Mhairi Black or Justine Greening are quiet revolutionaries who change society’s perception of sexual minorities simply by being.
“The very presence of LGB MPs can have profound effects on people far beyond parliament,” says transgender writer and activist Paris Lees. “I kind of hate to say this, but it’s really important to have validation by the state. It was a huge deal for me just to get a British passport that said I was female. And, also, finding out that [trans activist] Christine Burns had been honoured by the Queen. Where I came from, I just felt like I was a freak, something to be ashamed of, so to have people who are different actually respected in public life – to have them actually voted in – is really important.”
It’s anyone’s guess what parliament will look like in another 100 years, and unless there are significant advancements in medical science, I won’t be around to see it. But I’ll be crossing my fingers from beyond the grave that there will be a queer women of colour in the highest political office in the UK by then.
This article is taken from the May 2017 issue of DIVA magazine.
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