From gay rights opponent to ‘unsung hero’ of equal marriage: Theresa May’s surprising evolution on LGBT rights

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

As Theresa May prepares to take office as Prime Minister, we take a look at her record on LGBT rights.

The Home Secretary, who is expected to take office as Prime Minister on Wednesday, has a mixed historic record on LGBT rights, first entering politics as a firm opponent of equality in line with her party’s stance.

Under Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership, Mrs May obeyed the Tory whip to vote against many early reforms, including an equal age of consent and same-sex adoptions – even when others including George Osborne and Boris Johnson rebelled.

But within a few years, pro-LGBT voices had become more mainstream within the Conservative Party, and May’s stance was softening. In 2004, under leader Michael Howard, she was absent for votes on gender recognition but voted in favour of civil partnerships for same-sex couples – the first time she had openly backed an LGBT rights measure.

Both her stance and her party’s would continue to shift. Under David Cameron’s leadership, it was Mrs May who helped first ensure that proposals for same-sex marriage made it onto the Conservative agenda – promising a review in 2010.

Ahead of the 2010 election, Mrs May penned the Conservative Party’s ‘Contract for Equalities’, published alongside their manifesto, in which she made the seemingly-innocuous pledge: “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.”

The same year, the Home Secretary also took the chance to apologise for her former stance on gay adoption.

Speaking on Question Time, she conceded: “I have changed my view. If those votes were taken today, I would take a different vote.

“On gay adoption I have changed my mind… because I have been persuaded that when you are looking at the future for a child, I think it’s better for a child who is perhaps in an institutional environment, if they have an opportunity of being in a stable, family environment – be that a heterosexual couple or a gay couple.

“I think it’s more important that that child is in that stable and loving environment and I have genuinely changed my mind on that.”

Despite Lib Dem support for equal marriage and the Tory commitment to a review, the proposals did not make it into the initial Coalition agreement; and in government, it was Mrs May alongside Lib Dem Lynne Featherstone who worked to secure a later Coalition-wide agreement.

Baroness Featherstone – the architect of the equal marriage law – has since affirmed that May’s support was instrumental in convincing the Conservative leadership and the Cabinet to agree to move forward with the proposal, which resulted in the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act.

In her book ‘Equal Ever After’, Baroness Featherstone praised the Home Secretary as an “unsung hero” of the push for marriage. Mrs May was also key to ensuring that proposals allowed for religious same-sex weddings as well as civil weddings, as the legislation was drafted.

But despite her evolving stance, Mrs May has faced strong criticism on other LGBT issues.

A review of the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers was carried out by the Home Office in 2014, but the Home Secretary has since been criticised by asylum groups, who say that in some ways conditions have worsened under her tenure.

She also mooted plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights, which guaranteed some of the UK’s earliest LGBT rights protections. The Home Secretary ditched the “divisive” plan as she launched her leadership bid.
From gay rights opponent to ‘unsung hero’ of equal marriage: Theresa May’s surprising evolution on LGBT rights
In a statement last week, Mrs May said: “When I launched my campaign for the leadership I set out my belief in building a country that works for everyone. Central to that vision is a commitment to equality, and I will always stand up for the rights of LGBT people.

“I supported Civil Partnerships in 2004, and was proud to sponsor the legislation that introduced full marriage equality in 2013 because I believe marriage should be for everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation.

“I didn’t believe the State should perpetuate discrimination and prejudice against LGBT people. That’s why equal marriage was a hugely significant social reform. And it also made a powerful and important statement that as a country we value and respect everyone.

“For me, equality is about fairness. It is simply wrong for anyone to face discrimination or abuse because of who they are or who they love.

“A Conservative Government under my leadership would be unequivocally committed to supporting LGBT people, and continuing the vital task of tackling hate crime, homophobia and transphobia – both in the UK and around the world.

“I firmly believe in an open, inclusive, One Nation agenda of social reform which will change our country for the better. That is what I would offer as Prime Minister.”