Sunday, 5 February 2017

Vote! Vote! Vote!

At the start of this year’s 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act which partly decriminalised homosexual activity in the UK there were 34 openly MPs in the UK’s House of Commons. This is the largest group of elected representatives sitting concurrently in any national parliament. This record was discussed in my previous article which followed the 2015 General Election when 32 lgbt MPs were elected.

The best resource available online which records and chronicles the current state of lgbt parliamentarians around the world is the LGBT Representation and Rights Researches Initiative at the University of North Carolina. If you’re interested in the subject you can look at their Facebook page which gives a continual update on world elections in which lgbt candidates are standing.

The Research Initiative begins its statistics with the 1970s. The first listed out MP, Coos Huisjan, was openly gay when he was elected to the Dutch parliament in 1976. It is certain that there were some lgbt people already elected to parliament who were not publicly open about their sexuality before this date.

During the period between the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee in 1955 and the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 there were several gay members of the UK parliament whose sexuality have since become known to us. Three of these had particularly colourful personalities and were semi-open about their sexuality in as much as it was an open secret in parliament and the press but not widely known by the public.

Robert Boothby (1900-1986) was a Conservative MP between 1923 and 1958. He was one of the first to call for the reform of homosexuality laws. He was also an advocate of the UK joining what is now called the European Union, ironic now that the Conservative Party are leading our departure.

Boothby was also a broadcaster on radio and television and appeared regularly in the society columns. It was his connection to influential media moguls that helped to keep his bisexuality out of the press, though his involvement with the notorious Kray Twins, Britain’s biggest crime gang leaders (one of whom was gay), caused a stir when revealed in the 1960s. At the same time the most sordid details of the parties they held were deemed too sensational for publication.

By the 1960s Boothby had left the House of Commons after being created a peer in 1958. In the House of Lords he continued to advocate for the change in homosexuality laws, and he voted in favour of the Sexual Offences Act at both readings in the Lords.

A close friend of Boothby’s, although on the opposite political side of the House of Commons, was Labour MP Tom Driberg (1905-1976). He, too, voted in favour of the Sexual Offences Act and was openly gay within the corridors of parliament but more discreet in public. Like Boothby, Driberg was an associate of the Kray Twins and had enough influential friends in the press, just like Boothby, to keep it out of the public eye.

Driberg’s public reputation lies in his left-wing politics and as a well-known newspaper columnist. Ill health led to his departure from the Commons but he was soon elevated to the House of Lords as Baron Bradwell.

From these two examples of pre-1967 lgbt MPs it might appear that it was common for such MPs to be associated with criminals and use their position in parliament to avoid prosecution. Being gay wasn’t illegal, gay sexual activity was, and it was only proof of sexual contact that was the whole point behind the pre-1967 laws.

We should not forget also that as well as the House of Commons there is “the other place”, as it is referred to by MPs, the House of Lords. There were a few lgbt peers who were as much responsible for the success of the Sexual Offences Act.

Perhaps the most colourful of those Lords was Gavin Henderson, 2nd Baron Faringdon (1902-1977). He inherited his title from his grandfather in 1934. He was a pacifist and conscientious objector and worked at various times with the London Fire Brigade and in a field hospital during the Spanish Civil War. Although not elected to parliament Faringdon was elected to the then London County Council (as a member of the Labour Party, mainly to shock his family rather than out of political belief).

Lord Faringdon was noted for his effeminate personality, once described as a “roaring pansy”. He is reported to have begun a speech in the House of Lords with the words “My dears” rather than the customary “My lords”. He, like his friends Boothby and Driberg, was open about his sexuality among family and parliament. His family forced him into marrying, though he spent his actual wedding night with a sailor. Not surprisingly, the marriage only lasted four weeks!

When the Sexual Offences Act was going through the House of Lords Faringdon, like Boothby, voted in its favour.

With the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act this year we can celebrate the fact that the often forgotten semi-openly gay MPs and lords mentioned today, and others who weren’t, helped to start the road to acceptance and equality under the law.

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