To mark the end of LGBT History Month, Andre Johnson reflects on what steps the Labour Party must take to advance LGBTQIA+ representation.
59 of the 650 Members of the House of Commons are from within LGBTQIA+ communities. Labour has historically been the party of Queer liberation, with the Gay Labour Caucus established in 1975. However, with fewer absolute numbers of Queer MPs than the Conservative party (22 to the Tory’s 25) and less proportional representation than the SNP (20%) one can’t help but ask, has Labour lost sight of its Queer members?
When we look at the breadth of our Queer MPs, besides Nadia Whittome, almost all 58 other Queer MPs are white, Russell Group educated, able-bodied, neurotypical, gay, cis men. Even though the UK has more Queer policymakers than any other country, for many, the copy+paste of our Queer leadership sends a clear and resounding message: that only one type of Queerness is tolerated.
I’m proud to live in a country where my legitimacy is affirmed and protected. The UK has been a world leader in Queer liberation for decades. However, I feel we must not let complacency get the best of us. It is now time to continue paving the way and re-evaluate who has a seat at the table. By challenging our thinking and support structures of more diverse Queer candidates (at all levels of politics and government, not just the entry-level) we could create opportunities for other people to come forward and represent their communities.
As a Queer person identifying with various communities (while also acknowledging my own cis, fair-skinned, able-bodied educated privilege) what stands out the most to me about leaders like Whittome, is not their Queerness, but all the other nuances of their identity. As someone of multiple heritages, I identify with Whittome. As a young person, I identify with her breaking barriers of ageism. As a neurodiverse person, I identify with her openness around her neurodivergence. And for so many other communities, Whittome represents their unique challenges, barriers, and cultures; allowing a single candidate to bridge the gaps between different communities, not just in lip service, but in lived understanding.
Intersectionality has always been central to the Queer liberation movement with some of our most prominent figures, being Black and Latinx Transwomen like Marsha P. Johnson and the countless unnamed folx who fought for our liberties (to read more about the diversity of Queer British history read my other article). So, it would make sense that our approach towards policy creation, and candidate selection would also be intersectional. Labour’s current focus on “family values” puts carers, youth centres, support for aging, and employment at the front and centre of our campaigning. However, as Liam Barrett points out with far-right extremist co-option of similar language; this type of rhetoric can be alienating to Queer communities. Particularly those who may not ever be able to fit into the traditional nuclear structure of two cis, married parents, and 2.4 children.
Progressive politics isn’t about checking a tick-box exercise. It is about pushing our notions of good further for the betterment of all members of society; not just the most populous member communities. As we approach a new election cycle, having nuanced representation within Labour spaces will continue to be a challenge as we look at who already has a seat at the table and the ways that this influences policy making.
So how do we address this gap? Well, we could start with going back to Keir Starmer’s speech on family values: we as a party should “embody the values [he] hold’s dear: decency, fairness, compassion, security, and opportunity”.
Decency & Fairness
Lily Madigan’s article Transmisogyny and Labour highlights the history of ongoing challenges within Labour in combatting transphobic barriers to participation and engagement within the party’s systems. Madigan highlights a lack of common decency and fairness in the way that trans members are treated in Labour Women’s Network and anti-trans policies that impact her and others’ experiences within the safety of our party. If Labour is to afford all of its queer communities decency and fairness, Madigan’s proclamation must be upheld:
“It is imperative the Labour leadership speaks up against transphobic rhetoric; that we as a party amplify the voices of our trans sisters [brothers and siblings]; that we root out transphobia and transmisogyny from the movement. We are the party of equality and it’s essential we remain so.”
Compassion & Security
In Si Jones’ article “LGBTQ+ Rights Under Threat”, Jones highlights the ongoing challenges of Queer erasure over the pandemic. Jones feels the consultation of the Gender Recognition Act and the recycling of corporate and public organisations’ Pride advertising to support the NHS undermines progress made over the past decade. If Labour is to afford all of Britain’s Queer communities’ compassion and security we must heed Jones’ words and:
“Ensure that we challenge the government on policy in the Commons and become the party of equality once again, so we can enact real change once in power. We cannot be divided on the rights of people, we must be the ones to strive for it. Just as we enacted equality laws last time we were in power, we too will once again. But we must do it together.”
Lastly, I come bearing a request for our party: Create more opportunities for intersectional LGBTQIA+ leaders to bear the mantle of leadership within Labour.
There are hundreds of smart, passionate, gifted Queer leaders in the UK. But, are we approached and provided the opportunity as amply as our white, wealthy, cis, male counterparts? Many would argue no. Should someone have to start Labour involvement during GCSEs or A-Levels and study PPE at Oxford to take a representative role in our communities? Of course not. But for many Labour leaders who don’t fit the mould, their opportunities will be limited to think tanks, and councillor positions of “inner London neighbourhoods”.
As we approach our next general election cycle bridging gaps between our current member base and Disabled, Neurodiverse, Under-educated, Migrant, Ethnic Minority, Religious Minority, and other communities will be essential for Labour overtaking Conservative leadership in the polls.
Andre Johnsen is the Head of Social Innovation Programmes at Year Here, Labour Member of Tower Hamlets and a board advisor to Queer Leadership charity WeCreateSpace. He tweets at @andre_johnsen.