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TRAILBLAZER: It is ordinary people who drive change – and there is more celebration of equality to come

Then culture secretary, Chris Smith, at the 51st Cannes Film Festival, France 1998 | Alamy

Lord Smith of Finsbury

Lord Smith of Finsbury

3 min read

It was 38 years ago when I stood on a stage in Rugby as a newly elected MP and began my speech by saying: 'My name’s Chris Smith. I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. And I’m gay.'

I was terrified. No-one had ever done this before, and I had no idea what would happen as a result. But I have to say, I haven’t regretted that decision for a single moment. At the time I was the only openly gay MP; it took nine years for me to be joined by others, and then the ones and twos became a flood, and now Britain proudly has the largest number of openly gay and lesbian MPs of any legislature in the world. (We still don’t have any trans MPs, but that will happen.)  

I knew that we were making progress when (having been happily re-elected with increasing majorities three times subsequently) I was appointed to the cabinet when Labour came into government in 1997, and I was (I think) the first openly gay cabinet minister anywhere in the world; and no-one noticed. The fact that this had become unremarkable was, in my view, something of a triumph. It meant that the fact that someone happened to be gay had no bearing whatsoever on how well they might be able to fulfil a ministerial role. And that is as it should be.

How sad, therefore, that there is no-one at all in the current cabinet who is openly gay or lesbian. The Prime Minister is missing out on a lot of talent as a result. The more a cabinet looks like the nation it governs, the more it contains the broadest spectrum of people from all backgrounds and of all shapes and sizes, the better it will govern. It is a lesson being learned – and embraced – in the boardrooms of companies up and down the country. It should be learned in Downing Street too.

How sad... that there is no-one at all in the current cabinet who is openly gay or lesbian

I do worry when a whole range of government ministers decide to launch a “war on woke,” as if by doing so they are somehow connecting with the ordinary people of Britain. They aren’t. The ordinary people of Britain have seen with their own eyes the huge contribution that people of all sexual orientations, all colours and creeds, all backgrounds, make to their families and communities. The fact that some people might just want to unearth the legacies of slavery, or put pronouns after their name on an email, or take the knee at the start of a football match, or celebrate LGBT+ History Month, is not a matter to be deprecated but to be respected. Ordinary people know that. It’s the government ministers who are swimming against the tide. 

One of the remarkable things that happened during the late 80s and early 90s, as I was flying a sometimes lonely flag for LGBT+ equality, was that gradually in families and neighbourhoods and workplaces all around Britain people decided, with huge courage, to stand up and say who they were and whom they wanted to love. And that changed the public mood. It wasn’t so much the film stars and tennis players and politicians coming out that did it. It was friends and neighbours and cousins and, yes, sons and daughters. So when in 1997 we finally set about a whole raft of legislative changes to establish equality – on the age of consent, in getting rid of the ghastly Section 28, in providing for equality in the provision of goods and services, in establishing civil partnerships – they were widely welcomed, even celebrated. There is still much to do, but that spirit of celebration will help us to do it.

Lord Smith of Finsbury is a Non-affiliated peer

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Read the most recent article written by Lord Smith of Finsbury - Tribute to Lord Haworth by Lord Smith