Asylum, equality and faith schools discussed at LGBT fringe meeting

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Several government ministers attended this year’s LGBT Labour fringe event last night at the party’s annual conference in Manchester, among them two members of the Cabinet.

Undeterred by a small band of fundamentalist Chrisian protesters outside the conference venue, more than 60 people attended the fringe meeting, which was organised by gay equality organisation Stonewall and LGBT Labour.

The gay Labour group’s co-chair Katie Hanson accused the Conservative party of “misusing and abusing our issue” and said the “culture of homophobia” in schools must be addressed.

She said that LGBT Labour’s efforts had ensured that human rights and homophobia abroad, health inequality and committments to tackle HIV and AIDS were now included in party policy documents.

Health minister Ben Bradshaw praised Stonewall’s work on the new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation and equal access to fertility services for gay men and lesbians, which forms part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill currently before Parliament.

He attacked the Conservative party leader David Cameron for “using the gay agenda to detoxify the Tory brand” and accused the Liberal Democrats of being “all over the place.”

Mr Bradshaw also lamented the present arguments in the Church of England over gay people, saying it was a “depressing situation.”

He made reference to the successful campaign to stop the deportation of a gay Iranian man, Medhi Kazemi, and said the UK government must internationalise the fight for gay rights.

Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, said that he was hopeful the remaining parliamentary stages of the Embryology Bill would be quick and accused members of the House of Lords who oppose gay rights of being “obsessed with what we do in bed.”

He looked forward to the Equality Bill, which will require public bodies to actively promote equality for gay people. It is expected to be introduced in the Queen’s Speech in December.

Mr Summerskill cited recent Stonewall research that found one in five gay, lesbian and bisexual people had been the victim of homophobic crime in the past three years and 70% of them did not report it, as evidence of a need to change the culture in public services.

He expressed “anxiety” that the proposed bill does not address concerns about the lack of representation of LGB people in public office and called on the government to consider the issue.

At present there are only two out gay men in the House of Lords and one out lesbian in the whole of Parliament.

The Leader of the Lords, Baroness Ashton, told the meeting that fairness is a core Labour value and she found it unfortunate that some peers and MPs do not feel able to come out.

She pointed out that the average age of peers is 68 and as only 29% of the Lords take the Labour whip, the government has had to build coalitions to get gay equality legislation through the House.

Baroness Ashton pledged to get the Equality Bill through the Lords and said a fourth term in office was needed as David Cameron’s party remains “strongly opposed” to gay rights.

Treasury minister Angela Eagle told the meeting that the Equality Bill will deliver “deeper rights” for gay men and lesbians and that while the basic structure of the lesiglation is in place, there is a lot of work to be done.

She said the bill would enforce the rights won under Labour and claimed that gay equality was one of two issues hijacked by the Tories, the other being the environment, in order to change the voters’ perceptions of them.

“They talk the language of equality, but we have a progressive majority in Parliament, without which we would not have made gains on the Embryology Bill.”

Ms Eagle said that the recent case of a registrar who won an employment tribunal over her right not to perform civil partnership ceremonies “does not seem to be equal access to me.”

She condemned a “cabal of bishops” who had managed to negotiate and exemption from employment regulations on sexual orientation.

Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman paid fulsome tribute to Stonewall, calling them a study in how to make progress and “the model of an organisation of influence.”

She also said the party had a series of “sleeper” ministers in various government departments, such as Vera Baird at Justice, looking out for gay rights.

Ms Harman paid tribute to former Labour MP Leo Abse, who died last month. His private member’s bill led to the decriminalisation of gay sex 41 years ago.

She said that residential care for elderly people was a good example of where the Equality Bill will have an impact, as public providers would be required to consider the needs of LGBT service users.

Ms Harman, who is Secretary of State for Equalities, said that faith schools and the issue of education authorities could be problematic with regard to the bill, but stressed that “cultural views” must not be allowed to cut across the “absolutes” of people’s rights.

She said that gay rights around the world is a priority for the government and recalled the incident at Pride London in July when gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell “did a demo on me.”

That confrontation led to a meeting between Mr Tatchell, Ms Harman and Home Office officials to discuss his concerns about the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers.

Ms Harman accused the Tories of “lurking around” gay groups and said Labour must work to “expose” them.

“They don’t all look like Ann Widdecombe, but their views are the same,” she said, and branded the Opposition “false friends of the gay community.”

There was discussion of the recent Fathers 4 Justice breakaway group, who protested at the constituency office of Health minister Dawn Primarolo with a banner criticising “lesbo dads,” a reference to the Embryology Bill.

Ms Eagle commented that Fathers 4 Justice always seem to target women ministers.

Gay and lesbian people were urged to become school governors as a way of fighting homophobic bullying and making sure the gay community is represented in society.

The meeting ended with a moving contribution from a 75-year-old conference delegate.

He told the fringe meeting about his childhood, in particular a memory of an 18-year-old pit lad from the coal mining village where he grew up who had committed suicide because he was gay and had no-one to turn to.

He said that while he himself is straight and “happily divorced,” he was so proud of what Labour had done for gay equality.

“Before I die I want to know there is no child today who will gas himself because he has no-one to talk to,” he said.

Stonewall will be co-hosting fringe meetings at the party conferences of all three major parties.