“You start with fear and hatred and discrimination. You then move to tolerance. You then move to acceptance. And finally you end in celebration. We’re not there yet, in the UK. I would say we are somewhere around the “acceptance” part of the spectrum. At some time, let’s hope, we may be able to find true celebration of difference. That’s the goal.”
To mark LGBT+ History Month, we are delighted to be able to publish a guest post from Lord Chris Smith, the Chair of the IP Regulation Board (IPReg). Lord Smith reflects on the changes he has witnessed during his political career, which have led, at times slowly but with increasing pace in recent years, towards equality for LGBT+ people. Those who attended the IP Out reception on 5 November 2018, to hear Lord Chris speak in person, will know how passionately he advocates for this cause, and we are privileged to count him among our IP Inclusive supporters.
Lord Smith writes:
LGBT+ History Month is a thought-provoking reminder of how much progress we have made towards equality in the last few decades, but also of how much there still is to do. It’s now thirty-five years since I stood up at a rally in the town of Rugby and began my speech by saying “My name’s Chris Smith. I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and I’m gay.” It was the first time any British MP had openly come out – and for the next nine years I was the only one!
And since then, I’m absolutely convinced that the progress we have made in LGBT+ equality has largely happened because people everywhere – in neighbourhoods, workplaces, families, amongst friends – began to realise that they were there alongside LGBT+ people, and that they were lovely, decent, friendly, funny, brilliant, normal people. How infinitely valuable that realisation is.
I remember one very telling moment in the House of Commons, shortly afterwards. A Tory MP of rather extreme views, Nicholas Winterton, was making a speech in support of Section 28 – the notorious clause added to a local government Bill that was going through the House at the time – and I got up to make a point of intervention. As I sat down, he said “The House has learned to listen to the Honourable Gentleman” (pointing at me) “with respect when he talks about these matters”. He then went on to disagree with me, but the fact that he felt he had to say this – that here, sitting in front of him, was one of those very people he was talking so dismissively about – showed me that we had indeed made some progress.
Those were still dark times for equality. There was an unequal age of consent. Section 28 was put onto the statute book. People were discriminated against everywhere. You could get sacked from the armed services or from the diplomatic service. The AIDS crisis was growing. The offices of Capital Gay newspaper in London were fire-bombed. Customs & Excise raided Gay’s the Word bookshop. The tabloid press frothed over everything from books to Council grants. It would be a decade and a half, still, before we began to make real progress.
But when progress came, it happened very quickly. Tony Blair as Prime Minister was really nervous at first, and had to be forced by the European Court to take the first steps, but once the tide got going, and proved to be rather popular around the country, it came in a rush. Equalisation of the age of consent, abolition of Section 28, new rules for government officials of all kinds, equal access to goods and services, and then civil partnerships. Some years later the even better step of equal marriage was taken, this time by a Tory-led government – erasing many of the stains of the past in the process.
And something else we’ve seen, too: in companies and firms and workplaces around Britain, senior managers and Boards have been waking up to the importance of diversity and inclusion within their workforce. Making sure that people who happen to be LGBT+ can feel totally confident, at ease, welcomed, and safe in their working environment makes them better employees, improves the success of the organisation or company, and enables them to draw on the widest possible range of talent. The work of IP Inclusive in the IP sector has been outstanding in this respect.
I’m proud to have played a small part in ensuring that all the progress we’ve seen has happened. There were many brave campaigners and legislators involved. And of course there’s still progress to be made. There’s too much homophobic bullying in schools. There’s still prejudice and hatred and sometime violence. There’s not been enough done for trans rights yet. Northern Ireland still doesn’t have equality. Some of the Churches are still permitted to discriminate. And around the globe there is profound inequality in many places, much of it a relic of old colonial laws which we, Britain, imposed. We have to support and sustain brave campaigning voices within those countries, battling for the sort of rights we now take for granted here.
I’ve often observed that these things progress in stages. You start with fear and hatred and discrimination. You then move to tolerance. You then move to acceptance. And finally you end in celebration. We’re not there yet, in the UK. I would say we are somewhere around the “acceptance” part of the spectrum. At some time, let’s hope, we may be able to find true celebration of difference. That’s the goal.
19 February 2019