Loved ones honour tireless defender of LGBT+ rights, Jonathan Cooper, after sudden and tragic death

Jonathan Cooper OBE

Hundreds of mourners including Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer attended a memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral for the LGBT+ rights campaigner and barrister Jonathan Cooper OBE.

I was privileged to be there myself yesterday, with my husband Anthony, to celebrate the life of someone who did more than many will ever realise to help change and improve the lives of LGBT+ people in the UK and around the world.

I wanted to share with the PinkNews audience some of the things that were said yesterday in what was an incredibly moving service and memorial reception.

Jonathan, known as Jonny to many, was an international human rights lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers and co-founder of the Human Dignity Trust. He passed away suddenly on 18 September while walking in Scotland with his husband and partner of thirty years, Kevin Childs, and friends.

Throughout his long and varied career, Cooper fought tirelessly to defend the global LGBT+ community against criminalisation and discrimination.

Cooper’s long-term colleague, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, led tributes at St Paul’s and spoke of his “passionate sense of injustice and his unquenchable belief that if we all came together we could create change”.

“Jonny’s kindness, his ridiculous generosity with both his time and his money, of which there was often far less than he realised. His passion for justice, his readiness to help with whatever endeavour you sought his input, his fertile and imaginative way of thinking afresh on law, his willingness to take on any case without ever discussing how it might be funded. ‘Pro-bono’ he would say, and I would suggest that perhaps he should write to Bono and see if he might pick up the bill.”

I experienced this tendency of Jonathan’s myself many years ago, when I shared details of a complex legal case overseas that struck at the heart of LGBT+ freedom. Within hours of sharing the details with Jonathan, breakfast was arranged and Jonathan assembled a crack team of some of Europe’s finest legal minds to give pro-bono advice.

Always being on-hand to offer advice and assistance for free was at a great personal cost to Jonathan and his husband, and Kennedy shared that this had left debts and urged mourners to support a fund to assist Kevin. You can donate here.

Jonathan’s friend, the philanthropist Lisbet Rausing, shared with the congregation details of Jonathan’s final moments while walking in Scotland. “There was not the slightest sign that Jonathan was ill or uncomfortable and I’m quite sure that he was happy, at peace and feeling well,” she explained.

“The last thing I remember him saying was a gently joking plea to his dog Molly that she might like to shake herself dry while not standing an inch or two away from him. Molly, like all of us, adored Jonathan and just snuggled closer. Then we headed into the green, mossy overgrown forest and five minutes later Jonathan died.”

The Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, Mark Oakley, who was self-isolating due to COVID, sent a speech to be read by reverend Robert Coupland in his place. Oakley shared details of their friendship forged following the foundation of the Human Dignity Trust and the battle for same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Oakley described how he and Jonathan would sit in “speechless incomprehension when I tried to explain, but never excuse, the thinking, or rather the lack of it, in some parts of the Church, both here and abroad on matters of justice for the LGBTQ people.

“Patient people rarely achieve change, Jonathan’s restlessness was for goodness, for what is fair, for what is right. It was a restlessness that was inspiring, exhausting and rooted in a moral clarity about how things matter and those things for him, were at the depth of being human; our worth, our dignity, our beauty, our flourishing, our relationships, our loving, and our being loved. He was one of life’s true ambassadors for the best in us and at a time when so much plays to the worst in us, this was a rare and precious gift and one, for me personally, I will always remember.”

Oakly added: “Jonathan, I hope God is holding you in his tight embrace, praising you for all you have achieved… but most of all showing you that you were right, for love always wins.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer QC, who was a colleague of Jonathan’s at Doughty Street Chambers described him as the “most passionate force of nature that many of us have ever known with a sense of justice and injustice that wasn’t confined to just the law“. Starmer spoke movingly about his long relationship and the time that his family spent on holiday with Jonathan and husband Kevin in North Devon just a few weeks before Cooper’s death in September.

Jonathan’s husband and partner of 30 years, Kevin Child read John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale at the memorial service and at the memorial reception spoke about their life together, reminding the mourners that when it came to fighting for equality that “no” or “can’t be done” were not in Jonathan’s vocabulary. He closed the memorial reception with a reading of a prophetic poem that he wrote more than a decade ago, where he contemplated losing Jonathan.

You can donate to the Jonny Cooper Appeal Fund here.