Long Reads

Angela Eagle: Don’t get complacent - the fight for LGBT+ rights is far from over

Stylist.co.uk is celebrating Pride 2018 with a series of open letters and essays from influential LGBT+ people. Here, Angela Eagle MP explains why we cannot rest on our laurels when it comes to protecting LGBT+ rights

I came out in 1997, the first openly lesbian government minister, and remained the only out lesbian in parliament for the next 10 years. In coming out, I received nothing but support from my immediate boss, John Prescott, and the-then Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Even more importantly, I received support from my local Party and the voters in Wallasey, who have returned me to Parliament at six general elections since then, and gave me my largest majority ever in 2017. 

I was the first lesbian MP to enter into a civil partnership having served on the Standing Committee which made the Bill law. It is a fantastic privilege to be a Member of Parliament and even more so to be a part of a reforming and progressive government which changes peoples’ lives for the better and makes our society a fairer and more equal one.

When I first entered Parliament in 1992, the UK was still in the grip of the appalling discrimination and prejudice against LGBT people generated by the notorious Section 28. This was put on the statute book by the same Tory government that had unexpectedly won a fourth term in office, and had no intention of softening its divisive and hardline anti-LGBT stance. Following the Labour landslide in 1997, the Government of which I was proud to be a member set about systematically dismantling the discriminatory laws that had made LGBT people second class citizens. We were more successful than even I had hoped as, one by one, those laws were wiped off the statute book. As someone who has campaigned for equality all my life, it was a great satisfaction to be able to be a part of making this history. 

By the time Labour left office and, after some prolonged confrontations with the then-unreformed House of Lords, much of the task had been accomplished and, with some exceptions, mainly around transgender rights, legislative equality had been achieved. The age of consent had been equalised, sexual offence legislation no longer discriminated uniquely against gay sex, LGBT+ people could serve openly in the forces, discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of sexual orientation had been outlawed, and there was protection in employment law which made it unlawful to discriminate against LGBT+ people at work. Same sex adoptions were allowed and recognised in law, and civil partnerships gave legal recognition for same sex relationships for the first time in our history. The UK proudly led the world in legislating for equality for LGBT+ people and we are still a shining example of what can be achieved if a progressive Government is determined to legislate for liberty and equality. 

“Rights in law have to be made a reality for every LGBT person in our country, or they just exist in theory and not in reality”

But now is not the time to rest on our laurels. As the Pride Matters survey demonstrates, LGBT+ rights are fragile and precarious, even here in the UK. Equal rights on our statute book don’t stop someone being bullied at school or ridiculed at work for who they are, unless the legal protections we won are enforced. Rights in law have to be made a reality for every LGBT person in our country, or they just exist in theory and not in reality. And it is this intensely practical task which we must now concern ourselves with. 

Also, we must never take progress for granted, or assume that things cannot go backwards. We are now in the middle of a worrying backlash against LGBT+ people which was especially evident after the Brexit vote, and it is reflected in the worrying findings of the Pride Matters survey. As the rise of right wing populism has continued and the space for democratic debate is poisoned by social media, we have to be eternally vigilant if we wish to protect the gains we have made. The politics of hate and division, of blame and resentment are on the rise again and the LGBT+ community knows that, where there is bigoty and intolerance, it will be directed at us. So we must once more remember to fight for our rights and make certain that we are successful. That is why Pride Matters.

Images: Rex, Unsplash, Joshua Stitt