Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats (CSLD) held a questions and answers event on Thursday to discuss the future of LGBT+ rights in politics. On the panel was Lynne Featherstone MP, the former Equalities minister who was instrumental in guiding same-sex marriage through Parliament; Julian Huppert, Member of Parliament for Cambridge since 2010; Sarah Brown, trans rights activist and former city councillor; and Edward Cearns, a Cambridgeshire county councillor. Chairing was Nomi Farhi, press and publicity officer for CSLD.
The event was held in the Knox Shaw room in Sidney Sussex college, attracting a healthy and engaged turnout.
Featherstone said she was “pleased to be in Cambridge, land of Julian Huppert,” and opened with comments on the passing of the 2013 Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. With civil partnerships having been “a good step but an incomplete step,” she said one of the main difficulties she encountered was to formulate a framework for marriage reform which would be accepted by the Conservative Home Secretary, Theresa May.
However, “when you look on Theresa May, remember a bit of kindness for her,” she said, as May, escaping from her homophobic past, was a vital supporter. The legislation, however, “wouldn’t have happened if not for the Lib Dems.” On the future equalisation of rights, Featherstone predicted that “as sure as night follows day, we will get straight civil partnerships.”
The panellists were first asked about their worst experiences of homophobia and transphobia. On institutional homophobia, Brown concurred that civil partnerships “felt like we were being treated as second class citizens.” She also recalled how the anonymous hate-mail she received in her re-election campaign made her realise that “maybe there is further to go than I thought there was.”
Featherstone expressed her astonishment at how an Evangelical Christian representative once told her that homosexuals “will be sorry they started this,” and that “we will see them back in the trenches.” Their dramatized, apocalyptic prophecies did little to strengthen their position. “The arguments were so poor on the side of the antis that they made themselves ridiculous . . . I felt hugely sorry for people of faith who saw their religions behaving like this in the media.”
On the UK’s international role in the fight against LGBT+ discrimination, Huppert said the country “should be stronger in the Commonwealth,” and must take a “leadership role.” Brown added that Britain has a “responsibility to acknowledge our role in this,” because of the “homophobia that we imported with the British empire.”
But beyond the usual list of homophobic countries, Brown expressed her wish that Britain would be firmer with another “rogue state” – the USA, where bigoted campaigners see transgender people as a “soft target” and are trying to “systematically erase transgender people from the public sphere.”
Also discussed was the recent controversy over the ‘no-platforming’ campaign and Germaine Greer’s event at the Cambridge Union, prompting Featherstone to lament that Greer is “such a grumpy woman.” Brown insisted that nobody “has the right to demand that people waste their time and expend emotional energy on a person who denies their right to exist.”
The final question put by the chair was simple – does it get better? “Yes it does,” said Cearns, determinedly, “but it’s painful. You have to be willing to put yourself out there.”
Whilst all panellists agreed that there remains much to be done, especially on the delineation of gender expectations, the general mood was resoundingly positive. Anti-LGBT campaigners “are losing the argument”, Brown reassured the audience.
Huppert remarked how the scale and pace of progress made since the initial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967 makes that decade feel “like a long time ago . . . we have moved an incredibly long way.”
At the end of the hour-and-a-half event, the panellists and attendees stood for a photo opportunity behind a rainbow flag, before converging on The Maypole pub to conclude a generally high-spirited evening.
Mariah Hickman (GR. News Reporter)