Jennie Kermode reflects on the election of the UK’s first openly gay candidate, a historical moment in LGBT history, and considers the extent of homophobia and transphobia in politics today. How far have we really come?
Who will be the UK’s first trans MP? Labour has most big names in the running, with student Lily Madigan, comedian Eddie Izzard and TV presenter Sophie Cook all clear about their ambitions, whilst civil liberties campaigner Zoe O’Connell and former Trans Media Watch officer Helen Belcher are prominent in the Liberal Democrats, and Aimee Challenor has wide support in the Green Party. It may not happen at the next election or even the one after that, but it’s only a matter of time. Trans candidates report that the voters they speak to are less and less interested in their gender and simply want to know what they have to offer as potential representatives. Things were not always like this.
Back in the late ‘eighties, I was an active member of the Labour Party in Sheffield. I progressed from taking minutes for my local ward to sitting on the Housing Committee and working with members of the city council on a number of policy development issues, including insuring that the World Student Games, held there in 1991, left a lasting legacy for ordinary people who wanted to engage with sport. It was a challenging time to be in politics, especially on the left. Thatcherism was at its height and morale was low. The party was keen to make the most of what young talent it could attract and I was continually being encouraged to take on more. People saw me as a potential future MP. But there was a problem.
I was leading a double life. It might sound scandalous, but back then it was commonplace. In one life I wore suits, went to meetings, met elected officials and dignitaries, had discussions about strategy. In another I wore leathers, went to clubs whose names many in the city couldn’t speak without scowling, met women, had intimate encounters in toilets and alleyways with the mutual assurance that they would never be spoken of again. It wasn’t that I was appalled by the notion of settling down with a nice girl, but that seemed like a hopeless fantasy, and it would have met with an equal amount of social disdain.
I knew it couldn’t go on. One life or the other had to go. And I knew that if I chose politics, if I sacrificed my sexuality, there would still, always, be the risk of one of those women reappearing, or of somebody noticing my eyes linger on the wrong person for a fraction too long. Back then, suspicion was all it took to ruin a career. If I could be blackmailed, there was no promise I could ever make that I could be sure to keep, no means by which I could guarantee being able to stand by my principles. If I were exposed, it would all be over, and the people who had nurtured my career would consider me a traitor. This wasn’t just about political opponents and Clause 28. There was plenty of homophobia in Labour, too.
So, I left. There were other reasons, but more than anything it was that lack of hope, that sense that meaningful, respectable politics had no place for creatures like me. And then came 1997, and I was lying on the floor of my flat in Glasgow (part of what had coincidentally been Scotland’s first ever gay club), drinking Guinness with my American girlfriend, watching Michael Portillo (whom everybody in the scene knew was gay, though he was still in the closet and supporting anti-gay policies) lose his seat to the openly gay Stephen Twigg. It was an amazing moment. Twigg was seven years my senior, but he’d stuck it out, found the nerve somehow where I had not, made it happen. Still, I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on his face.
There are now 48 openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs in the House of Commons. Here in Scotland our elected party leaders include a lesbian and a bisexual man. Homophobia has not gone away, but candidates’ sexuality simply isn’t a consideration for most voters. Nevertheless, there remains a lot more open transphobia, and the hateful articles published in the Times and the Daily Mail over the past six months have reminded many people of the mass media homophobia that surrounded Clause 28. They have included a number of attacks on Lily Madigan, and have whipped up a storm of social media hatred which she found difficult to bear. This kind of attack is designed to say what those ‘eighties articles said to me: politics is no place for a creature like you.
Since the late ‘nineties I’ve been living openly as a non-binary person (something that was largely unheard of back in my party-political days). I now chair Trans Media Watch and work every day to educate journalists and work towards eradicating this kind of hate. I believe it can be done. What is painful is seeing other people’s ambitions destroyed in the meantime, and it is painful not just because of what it does to them, but because of what it does to society. People are always complaining about politicians who are in it for themselves and lack any real interest in serving the electorate. Nobody would endure being attacked like this just for themselves. These are people who have real passion and, often, a lot of talent – and all that is wasted if they are driven out of politics simply because of who they are.
We are all poorer when LGBT people are unable to fulfil their potential and contribute to society. This is true in politics and it’s true in the workplace where, a recent Stonewall survey revealed, a shocking one in eight trans people has been physically attacked. It’s something that all of us need to step up and take responsibility for. There will be a trans MP, sooner or later, and we will live in a more inclusive society, but history doesn’t write itself. If we want to escape the weight of past prejudice, if we want to reach a better future, we have to work for it in the here and now.
This month, will you do your bit to make homophobia and transphobia history?
Jennie Kermode is Chair of Trans Media Watch and author of Transgender Employees in the Workplace.
Take a look at our collection of books on LGBT issues for LGBT History Month here.