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Pioneer Woman: Maureen Colquhoun

Then Labour councillor, Maureen Colquhoun, 1970 | Alamy

9 min read

Britain’s first openly gay woman MP, Maureen Colquhoun, paved the way for future LGBT parliamentarians but it was a brutal experience. The House magazine takes a look at her life and legacy

I am upstairs in my youngest’s bedroom frantically trying to work Microsoft Classroom. This is not where I am supposed to be. I am supposed to be downstairs discussing Britain’s first openly gay woman MP, Maureen Colquhoun, with Angela Eagle. Instead I have left Eagle staring at the empty space where I was sitting.

Sheer embarrassment drives me back down the stairs. “I am so sorry about that,” I fluster. I needn’t worry: the trials of working motherhood become a recurring theme of our conversation.

Composing myself, I tell Eagle that, up until only a few days before, I had been labouring under the misapprehension that she was the first openly gay woman MP – only coming across Colquhoun’s remarkable story by accident.

I ask Eagle why Colquhoun isn’t more widely known. “I don’t know why she is forgotten. I am always very anxious to say that I wasn’t the first out-lesbian – though I was the first voluntary out-lesbian and also the first lesbian government minister. But no, it was clearly her and she paid the price for it,” Eagle says.

I wonder about the likelihood of me securing an interview with the now 92-year-old former politician. After all, LGBT History Month presents the ideal opportunity to tell her story, I say. “And hopefully give a her a little bit of a starring role,” Eagle says, “because she deserves it.”

By the time we end our Teams call, it is too late: news comes in that Maureen Colquhoun has died.

Outed by Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail in 1976, Colquhoun had left her husband of 25 years for the publisher of Sappho magazine, Babs Todd, the year before.

It was the start of a particularly brutal period for her: she was deselected by her local constituency party in Northampton North and variously charged with “blackening her reputation” as a working mother and pursuing an “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights”.

Despite being reinstated by the National Executive Committee – who ruled she had been unfairly dismissed for her sexual orientation – local party activists withdrew their support. When the next general election was called in 1979, she lost by an 8% swing to the Conservatives.

In her mid-teens at the time of these events, witnessing the opprobrium directed at Colquhoun had an impact on Angela Eagle. “Obviously it was the only example,” Eagle says.

After Eagle’s decision to voluntarily out herself in 1997, journalist Linda McDougall asked Colquhoun what her advice would have been to Eagle. “She said: ‘I would have told her not to do it.’ But it wouldn’t have made a difference [if she had],” Eagle says firmly. “I wouldn’t have changed what I did. Partially because I just felt it had to be done by then anyway and I was willing to risk my place in Parliament to do it. And I wanted to move in with my partner, Maria.”

When I later ask McDougall, wife of former Labour MP Austin Mitchell, about her recollection of Colquhoun’s story, she describes it as “my first experience of being shocked rigid by what happened in the House of Commons and not being able to open my mouth”.

Although she wasn’t a close personal friend of Colquhoun, she says she thought she was terrific, describing her as “vibrant, interesting, funny” – qualities, however, that translated in women at that time as outspoken and loudmouthed: “All the things that were said about all of us [women] whatever our sexuality.”

McDougall says Colquhoun was subject to gossip that she had abandoned her three children – “they’d say things like, ‘dreadful, ran away and left her children’. Poor woman … it seemed to me that the belief was she was the only lesbian that had ever lived, it was really appalling.”

I ask her if this treatment was just as bad from the Labour Party as the opposition, to which she returns an emphatic “yes – of course yes,” before reminding me: “Don’t forget we were talking about a time when there were very few women MPs.

“It must have been consoling that the constituency later apologised. Terrible way to have to live your life.” She pauses and adds, “I hope her children are really proud of her.”

Chris – now Lord – Smith was elected to Parliament at the 1983 general election. He secured his place in the LGBT history books when he became the first openly gay male British MP when he voluntarily came out in 1984.

When I ask him for his opinion as to why Colquhoun was so widely forgotten, Smith says he thinks it was “partly because it all happened in a very unfortunate and nasty kind of way”.

“She didn’t get the acknowledgement and tribute that she should have done for having the courage … to say, ‘yes I am [gay].’ For that she does deserve a lot of recognition.”

The belief was she was the only lesbian that had ever lived, it was really appalling

A 25-year-old Islington councillor at the time of Maureen’s outing, Smith confesses to having no recollection of her story during those events. But when he was elected to Parliament, he had begun to think about “the need for me to say something, at some point, about myself” and it was at this stage he became aware of what had happened to Maureen. “And it made me perhaps a little bit nervous of what I myself intended to do,” he says, “because I didn’t particularly want to have the same adverse experience that she’d had.”

Despite his apprehension, and his wafer-thin majority of 363 votes, Colquhoun’s experience also strengthened Smith’s resolve to control his own narrative: “What it showed me was, if you aren’t open about this sort of thing, there will be intrusive press attention, you will have journalists raking around, you will be subject to nasty pieces that appear. And that the way to stop that happening is to remove the story. To stand up and say it as it is, of your own volition. So it probably ultimately made me more determined that that was what I was going to do.”

Planned in advance, Eagle describes the reception to her coming out in an interview with Suzanne Moore (then at the Independent) as absolutely fine.

“Obviously I had warned my then boss at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who was John Prescott, and Tony [Blair] knew, and all of government knew that I was going to do it. I didn’t just spring it on everybody, I gave them warning – but they were all very supportive.”

The right moment presented itself to Chris Smith 13 years earlier, around a year after being elected, when he was attending a rally in Rugby protesting the city council’s decision to remove sexual orientation from the list of things they would not discriminate against in their employment policies.

In contrast to Eagle’s careful preparations, Smith’s decision to come out that day “was made very much on the spur of the moment” when he arrived at the rally. “Ten minutes later I was on my feet and I opened my speech by saying: ‘My name is Chris Smith and I am the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and I am gay.’ And I haven’t regretted that moment for a single instance since.”

While Eagle had informed Tony Blair of her plans in advance, Smith says he “hadn’t told Neil Kinnock [then leader of the Labour Party], I hadn’t told any of the shadow cabinet, I hadn’t even told any of my friends on the backbenches that I was going to do this”.

Kinnock, he says, was immensely supportive. “He sought me out and spoke to me in the Commons a few days afterwards, saying ‘well done, anything we can do to support you, please let us know’.

“And one of the wonderful things that happened, after I’d done it, was I got letters from people all around the country – this was long before the days of social media of course – saying ‘good on you, terrific, well done’. And there were quite a lot of other letters saying, ‘thank you, this has made it easier for me’. And that really made me think, ‘this has been worth doing’.”

It’s part of the same battle to try and get women’s requirements dealt with in any way at all

I ask Smith about McDougall’s recollection of the rumours about Colquhoun leaving her children at the time of her outing.

“I am sure it’s something that would have been almost inevitably more difficult for a woman to go through,” says Smith, “because there would have been, as well as homophobia, quite a bit of misogyny in the mix as well.”

Colquhoun was the first woman to ask the then-Speaker, George Thomas, to refer to her as ‘Ms’, with the Speaker apparently compromising by saying he would slur his words in order to reduce the “audible distinction” between the terms ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’. “She was a good feminist like that,” says Eagle. “Speaker Thomas wasn’t very well known for being radical.”

While it seems extraordinary now that being addressed as ‘Ms’ was controversial, “Everything was then,” says Eagle, as the 70s was a very turbulent time both socially and politically. “She was one of many fearless women around at the time who were pioneering and trying to do things – some of whom managed to stay on the parliamentary bucking bronco longer than she did. But she ought to be recognised for the pioneer that she was.”

Colquhoun campaigned for creche facilities and introduced the Balance of the Sexes Bill to ensure equal numbers of men and women on public bodies (something that still hasn’t been achieved, says Eagle).

There were a lot of what Eagle describes as “bolshy women” around at that time in the 70s – and as well as creche facilities, there was a battle to be able to breastfeed in Parliament. “It’s part of the same battle to try and get women’s needs and requirements dealt with in any way at all.

“I went to an Oxford college in 1980. It had only become co-ed the year before and we were fighting battles to get tampon machines. Women had to fight a lot harder just to get their basic bodily functions recognised as legitimate and provided for.”

As we end our Teams session, I start to say sorry for the unfortunate childcare interlude at the beginning. “No problem at all,” Eagle says, “But how can we talk about what we have just talked about – and you’re still apologising for having to do that? Don’t even think that way, please.”

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