Rising star pledges Tories to gay rights

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A meeting of gay Tories at the party’s conference in Blackpool this week discussed gay hate crime legislation, the battle against homophobia in schools, sport and internationally, and “fingering” Gordon Brown on his gay rights voting record.

More than fifty delegates and party activists attended the fringe event, organised by gay equality organisation Stonewall.

Shadow Justice Minister Nick Herbert, a rising Conservative star, addressed the meeting and defended the party over the fact that more than twice as many of its MPs voted against the Sexual Orientation Regulations as voted in favour of them.

Mr Herbert was promoted to Shadow Cabinet by David Cameron in July, just over two years after entering Parliament as the first out gay man elected as a Conservative MP.

He was grilled by panel chairman Andrew Pierce, deputy editor of The Telegraph, who also questioned the Tory attitude towards a proposed new homophobic hate crime law.

Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill, out gay parliamentary candidate Margot James and Jane Ellison, the Tory candidate in Battersea, completed the panel.

Mr Herbert started by saying he was proud of the stance his party took in relation to the Sexual Orientation Regulations passed earlier this year, which protect gay, lesbian and bisexual people from discrimination in goods and services.

Party leader David Cameron and 28 other modernisers did vote for the legislation, but over 80 voted against.

He referred to a recent article by Times columnist Matthew Parris, which argued that the struggle for gay rights is now won.

Mr Herbert countered that, “the political battle is not over.”

He cited homophobic bullying as an example, saying he was upset by Stonewall’s recent research, The School Report, which exposed the extent of the problem in Britain.

Mr Herbert used the hanging of two gay teenagers in Iran as evidence of how far there is to go for gay rights internationally.

He pointed out that David Cameron had mentioned his support for civil partnerships during his speech to party conference last year, to applause from activists, and that there were two gay people in the Shadow Cabinet and many more in winnable seats, such as Margot James.

Ms James, who is a vice chairman of the Conservative party, spoke of how moved she was to be selected to fight one of the most marginal seats in the country and said her party had genuinely changed under David Cameron.

She said they have, “stopped having to play catch up – we have evolved.”

She praised Mr Cameron for making references to civil partnerships in his speeches, despite possibly alienating “Daily Mail voters.”

Ms James, the party’s candidate in Stourbridge, also spoke warmly of the work done by Tory equalities spokeswoman Eleanor Laing.

Ms Ellison, the candidate in Battersea, another winnable seat, said Stonewall had been a “powerful force for good” in her party, and drew attention to the organisation’s work on bullying in schools and its new research into homophobia in football.

“I am going to finger Gordon Brown,” she said, to great hilarity. “His record!” she added quickly.

“His voting on gay rights is absolutely shoddy, it’s shoddy, a bit like everything else he was in the shed for in the last ten years when they voted on it.

“I think he needs watching because I think the progressive driver in the last ten years was certainly not Gordon Brown.”

Mr Summerskill praised Tory MPs who had helped get the Sexual Orientation Regulations through Parliament, then attacked gay hate messages in rap music.

He drew attention to the imminent anniversary of the murder of Jodi Dobrowski on Clapham Common.

“Jody was kicked to death in the middle of one of the most tolerant cities in one of the most tolerant countries in the world,” he said.

Panel chairman Andrew Pierce asked Mr Herbert to defend his assertion that the Tory party had changed, when so many of its MPs voted against the SORs.

“This is a conscience issue,” he said, pointing out that it was a free vote, allowing Tory MPs to disagree with Mr Cameron’s view.

“The centre of gravity is moving,” he added.

He said the controversy over forcing Roman Catholic adoption agencies to accept gay couples may have been a factor in the many Tory votes against the gay rights law.

As Shadow Justice Minister, Mr Herbert refused to be drawn on the proposed new incitement homophobic hate legislation.

“My personal instinct is to do everything that is needed to prevent hatred of homosexuals.

“As to how the proposed law is drafted or what its effect will be, that is something that I need to look at carefully and discuss with colleagues.”

He listed homophobia in schools, sport and internationally as his priorities.

At the meeting it was announced that a new gay Tory group, to succeed the now redundant Torche, is to be formed.