As a leading member of the Labour party, how have you contributed to furthering LGBT equality? What advancement in LGBT rights have you supported which you are most proud of and why?
When I came out as the first lesbian Minister in 1998, the tabloids treated it like a scandal but no- one else did. I was tremendously well supported by then PM Tony Blair and my boss at the Department of the Environment Transport & the Regions, John Prescott. My constituents in Wallasey were also fantastic. I’m pleased that Labour in government not only transformed the law on LGBT rights, but we changed society too so that LGBT people coming out today face a much more welcoming response.
I have been at the forefront fighting for equality, including LGBT rights, all my life. I’m proud of all that we did in government to make LGBT rights a reality, but particularly that we scrapped the pernicious Section 28 which did such damage to young LGBT people in our schools. We did all the heavy lifting at a time when it was not popular and the Party can be enormously proud of this historic achievement.
What do you think is the most pressing issue affecting the LGBT community and how would you want a future Labour Government to improve the situation?
Homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is still a huge problem for young LGBT people with more than half being bullied in school because of their sexuality. This is the baleful legacy of section 28 and can have a serious effect on children’s mental health which lasts long into adulthood. Schools, including faith schools, should make clear that bullying is wrong and all children should be made to feel safe and welcome at school. I won't rest until the rights Labour put on the statute book have become a reality for every LGBT person in our country.
Labour’s commitment to compulsory and inclusive sex and relationships education and to training all new teachers in how to combat this bullying would make an important difference in this area. As the Opposition we also need to put pressure on the government to act on this now – having equality ministers who actually backed equality would be a start!
The role of deputy leader is particularly important in the structures and organisation of the Party. What would you do to ensure there is better representation of LGBT people as elected representatives in national and local government, as well as in European Parliament and London Assembly elections?
When I came out in 1997 I didn’t expect that eighteen years later I would still be Labour’s only out lesbian MP. Parliament is more diverse now than ever before, but we still have a long way to go in fielding more LGBT candidates who are BAME, more women and more trans candidates. I have a strong track record as one of the first to call for all-women shortlists and as Deputy I would look at positive ways to increase the number of LGBT representatives.
Trans* and non-binary people can face specific barriers to being active inside the Labour Party and in holding elected office. How would you reach out to and engage with trans* members and the wider trans* community?
As Deputy I would make it a priority to meet with some of our excellent trans activists in the party – people like Emily Brothers who made history as our first openly trans candidate at the last election and who is now seeking selection as a London Assembly candidate. I think the positive response that she received within the party shows that trans candidates would be welcome, but I would want to talk to trans activists and ensure that their views on how to improve representation are put into practice.
How do you think the Labour Party can best organise in Northern Ireland to tackle the growing divide in equality for LGBT communities in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK?
We need to be much clearer in opposing the discrimination faced by LGBT people in Northern Ireland. Of course marriage is a devolved issue but that doesn’t stop us from calling out politicians in Northern Ireland when they deprive LGBT people of their rights and use inflammatory language to discuss these issues.
The recent marriage referendum in the Republic of Ireland shows that societies, including those with strong religious elements, are coming to accept equality as a basic right for all people. Ultimately if politicians in Northern Ireland don’t take a lead and listen to these calls then LGBT rights will be granted by the courts, as the right to adoption for same-sex couples recently was. It would be so much better if it could be done through the political process.
What action would you take to change the way the party is structured and organises in a manner which promotes equality? Do you agree there should be a reserved space for LGBT Labour and Disability Labour on the NEC?
I support groups like LGBT Labour having an enhanced role within the party but LGBT equality won’t be safeguarded by structural changes alone, however important these are to ensuring we make progress. Whoever wins the leadership and deputy leadership races needs to send a strong signal that equality runs in the DNA of our party; there is still a very long way to go to achieving full equality for women, LGBT people and other groups, and Labour must be at the forefront of that fight. We need to look at people’s first contact points with the party, be they trades unions, local CLPs or university groups, and ensure that they are welcoming to everyone.