This year marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of Section 28. The then Conservative government used a backdrop of homophobia in much of the press to stir up a spurious campaign against councils involved in promoting equality. It was a terrible time in which ministers and rightwing politicians deliberately attacked the gay community to stir up bigotry and hatred. Yet it also saw the coming-of-age for the modern equality movement, including the founding of Stonewall and (a bit later) OUTrage, and the building blocks that led to much of the progress on LGBT equality Labour delivered after 1997. Twenty-five years on, the latest frontier of equality – on equal marriage – has put LGBT rights back in the political crossfire.
Over on LabourUncut, Kevin Meagher makes the case that LGBT equality has ‘run its course’. This is the Macmillan defence: gays have never had it so good. True, much progress was made during the last Labour government, but Meagher could not be more wrong about the challenges that remain. Ed Miliband was absolutely right when he stated recently that Britain should be a beacon of hope on equality. We made huge progress over 13 years in government: creating an equal age of consent; ending the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces; increasing sentences for hate crimes; and outlawing discrimination in goods and services. None of these changes came about by accident. Tony Blair – perhaps one of the most religious prime ministers in recent history – made clear that equality was non-negotiable. In discussing marriage equality we forget how big a deal civil partnerships were in 2005, or the battle Barbara Roche had as the minister responsible for getting the measure through parliament.
We have moved on from the lurid tabloid headlines of Section 28 (but let’s not forget the Sun’s amazing headline in December 1987 ‘Screaming gays bring Commons to a halt’). However, there is more to be done. A Stonewall survey showed that two-thirds of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have been bullied at school. The tragic cases of young LGBT students driven to suicide by fear or persecution are a shocking reminder of the extreme consequences of doing nothing. There is a resurgent bigotry raising its ugly head against equality and threatening LGBT rights around the world, most notably in parts of Africa and Russia.
Equality may not be the top most issue on voters’ minds in such difficult economic times, but there is no future for a progressive party that turns a blind eye to its cause. In every generation, and every cause for equality, there has been a moment when someone has said: haven’t we done enough. Some of the language being deployed around marriage equality demonstrates that we have not.
Let’s be clear what we are talking about: equality before the eyes of the law, with an opt-in for faith groups that choose to recognise ceremonies. This is not about faith or religion but the civic space we create and whether it is right or wrong for the state to discriminate. The fact that the leaders of all mainstream parties have committed themselves to seeing this reform through demonstrates a major difference with the campaign on Section 28 (or other reforms that Labour pursued in government). And the comments today by the new dean of St Paul’s Cathedral underscore the diversity of opinions amongst religious and non-religious groups. Yet there is a vocal group on the Tory benches in parliament and in the country at large determined to derail any talk of further reform.
We should not deprive opponents of progress a voice in the debate. In the spirit of democracy, we should welcome the opportunity to express our case more effectively. Just as some choose to speak against such a move, it is legitimate for others to speak up for it. The progress we have made on equality over the last 15 years is sign of our achievements in making Britain a better place for all. It is also a sign of unfinished business.
Andrew Pakes is the Labour & Cooperative parliamentary spokesperson for Milton Keynes.
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