Interview: Labour MP Angela Eagle on gay rights, feminism and her makeover

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For years, Angela Eagle was the only out lesbian in parliament. The MP for Wallasey, she was a pensions minister during the Brown government and is now the only LGBT person in the shadow cabinet. caught up with her to ask about the future of LGBT equality, feminism and her makeover.

After accusing David Cameron of “patronising” her in the Commons by telling her to “calm down, dear”, Eagle is no fan of the prime minister’s sense of humour.

She isn’t impressed by his joke at the recent LGBT reception about gay actor Sir Ian McKellen being a “queen” and says: “Doesn’t he realise that if you refer to yourself as a queen and you’re gay, it’s totally different than if a heterosexual person calls you a queen?

“Everyone else has got to have a sense of humour about his rather odd jokes. I think it betrays a bit more than he might want to be known about his approach to these things.”

She says he did not apologise for the Michael Winner-inspired ‘calm down’ remark, which earned her support from female colleagues in Labour, but ridicule from others.

For years, she was the only out lesbian in parliament. Now, Conservative MP Margot James and MSP Ruth Davidson are also out.

On whether lesbians are represented well enough, Eagle says this is a problem for women in general.

“It’s about women’s visibility as well as lesbians’ visibility. In politics and as you get to the more powerful end of life, politics, corporate life, there are fewer and fewer women and I think that also translates into gay life as well.

“And so I’m not sure that it’s about lesbians or gay men, it’s actually about gender and the way women find it hard to be in positions of influence or power across the whole of our society.”

Fittingly, she backs her colleague Harriet Harman’s calls to ensure that a woman is always the leader or deputy leader of the Labour Party.

She bristles at the term “positive discrimination”, calling it “pejorative”.

Instead, she says: “I think the issue is about level playing fields and I think, in a lot of power structures, you get to the situation where there’s a un-level playing field and you’ve got to do something to put that right.

“It’s not always deliberate, I’m not saying it’s always men spending their time excluding women, but what happens is that structures tend to replicate themselves, [something that is] particularly true in the Houses of Parliament. And sometimes you have to disrupt that to create openings for equality and more equal access.”

Eagle’s twin Maria is also a Labour MP, formerly a minister, and the pair’s lives have followed remarkably similar paths.

Indeed, to some newspapers and commentators, the only discernible difference between the two is their sexuality.

But Eagle says that as a teenager, she focused on other aspects of her personality.

She says: “I’ve spent my whole life being interested in equality issues and it started off with women’s issues, before I really knew i was gay … Well I probably knew when I was a teenager but I didn’t do a lot about it. I think I wanted to spend time establishing other forms of my identity and being, you know, getting a proper education, sorting my views out on things, so I sort of let it lie a bit until I was a bit older.

“I mean, I think it’s fantastic that young teenagers now can be open about their sexual orientation but when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, it wasn’t exactly a very nice atmosphere, there was a lot of homophobia around.”

Does she ever suffer homophobia now? “Largely not.”

I ask what rights she feels LGBT people have yet to gain.

“Well, I think we should stop and celebrate all the progress that’s been made. I think there’s a huge list. I have a big list here i could read out to you but it would be tedious.

“The first thing to say is, this has happened because we did the heavy lifting when we came into government. We had to deal with ridicule, we had to use the parliament act in the equal age of consent, that’s years of putting Section 28 through Parliament, only to have it thrown out in the House of Lords. And the most appalling and atrocious debates, comparing gay sex to bestiality and a range of things like that. Unbelievable views.

“[Now,] there’s a few things to do about transphobia and there are a few things about employment rights and some of the issues around [religious] exceptions there that I’d like to see.

“So there are some things around that to do, but the biggest test now is actually to ensure that those equal rights hat are enshrined in law are actually made a reality. and that the difference to having a right to equality under the law and having it actually a reality for LGBT people up and down the country wherever they live.”

Eagle had a civil partnership with BT engineer Maria Exall in 2008. She is in favour of a discussion on marriage equality but says the only difference between marriage and civil partnership is the definition of consummation in the law.

I point out that a 2010 poll of our readers found that 98 per cent want the right to marry.

She says: “I don’t have a problem with that, but what I’m saying is, the issue of civil partnership is, it’s the same as marriage in legal terms. So, you know, a civil marriage and a civil partnership are effectively the same thing in law apart from the issue of consummation. If we want to take it further and have a debate about marriage, that’s fine too. I don’t have a problem with it.

“But I think we ought to recognise the huge strides that have been made by having civil partnerships in the first place. And the risks that we took to get it to the statute book and the happiness it’s been responsible for, the widespread understanding and empathy.”

Another topical issue for gay men right now is the ban on blood donation. A government advisory body is expected to report back soon with recommendations on whether the lifetime ban on blood donation for gay men should be lifted.

Eagle says: “A lot of this is about the scientific issues. My family … we have haemophiliacs in my family. I’ve lost members of my family to AIDS because of the infected blood donation issues which happened to haemophiliacs and we have to be absolutely certain that we follow what the scientists say.

“I think, safety first and after that let’s look what they say and take an approach. I don’t have a closed mind about it either way.”

On homophobic bullying, she blames the “fragmentation of administration in schools” and the “sidelining of local education authorities, the rise of free schools, means that we have to keep an eye on that”.

Religious exemptions are also a problem, she says.

“Originally, the amendments to the employment laws are meant to be very, very narrow indeed and mainly to involve doctrine and and priests or vicars – people who are employed directly by the churches . and I think that there are someone people who want to try to test that and expand it much further.”

When I ask her thoughts on the coalition’s record on LGBT rights to date, she starts to talk about Tory MP Chris Grayling’s remarks on gay couples being barred from B&Bs, made before the election.

Pushed to discuss more recent events, she says: “I don’t want to name names but I think we have to watch out government policies or approaches to things that will take those rights away

“While acknowledging the need for deficit reduction, we have to reduce the burden of those changes on people who are least able to cope with them. So there are a range of areas like that where I think we have to be quite careful.”

Eagle is optimistic about Labour’s chances of getting back to power: “I think we’ve got to recognise a bad election result. I think we’ve got to rebuild our party and listen to what people are telling us about where we went wrong. I think we need to talk about our values more, particularly the equality issues.”

She says she’s pleased with the party’s progress so far: “Well look, we’re ten per cent higher in the polls than we were at the election, which is a good thing. I think after you’ve come out of government, it’s always takes a little bit of time for people to listen to you again.”

She won’t give too much away about her own ambitions, saying she hasn’t got her career trajectory mapped out.

But when I ask if she has any aims for the leadership, she says: “I think it would be good for the next leader to be a woman. I don’t think Ed’s going anywhere fast and we all want him to go to Number 10.”

I have one more question to ask this ardent feminist: is it true, as reported by the Daily Mail recently, that she has had a makeover?

Smiling, she says: “I’ve bought some new clothes… I’m a big Mae West fan, by the way. Always have been, from a very young age, She used to say it’s better to be looked over than overlooked. And if you’re looked over, it’s better to be well-dressed.”