I got involved in politics at an embarrassingly young age. My left-leaning parents had to deal with a rather unusual form of teenage rebellion when I proudly announced to them, aged 14, that I was joining the Conservative Party. I believed in personal responsibility, freedom and enterprise and fully supported the party’s principled opposition to Tony Blair’s recklessly headlong rush to join the Euro. These beliefs, along with a general unease with the hubris of New Labour, left me feeling that the Conservative Party was my natural home.
I feel the same way today. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, I was welcomed by very friendly, almost exclusively retired, local activists in Dorset, delighted to have that rare species, a “young Conservative” in their midst. They were decent, principled and kind people – especially one who became my political mentor and who encouraged me to get involved in the Party – but at the time I never felt wholly “one of them” because of the continued “outsider” anxiety that nagged away at me.
It wasn’t that I was 50 or so years their junior that played on my mind – I had always got on well with older people. It was because I believed, at the time, that I was hiding a rather unpleasant secret from them, which, if discovered, would curtail my involvement with them and the Party rather quickly.
None of them knew it, but I was gay.
The words “gay” and “Conservative” only tended to be associated in a negative context. The then Labour Government was breaking new ground with LGBT people, going on to introduce civil partnerships, whereas the Tories found ourselves (sadly, not for the first time) being the flag-bearer of the many socially conservative attitudes that were still prevalent across the country at the time.
My instinctive fear about “coming out” to fellow activists received further justification during the 2001 Conservative leadership election. The treatment of Michael Portillo (who had spoken about gay experiences in his past and of the importance of reaching out to the LGBT community in order to improve the Conservatives’ electoral appeal) by much of our Party was telling. Lord Tebbit blasted his bid as “The Pink Pound Portillo” campaign. My local activists, without being so overtly brash, were all relaxed about admitting that Portillo’s sexuality was a “problem” for them. To my shame, motivated by the white-hot terror of being found out, I sympathetically nodded and said I understood.
It seems hard, nearly 20 years later, to recognise that world. It would have been equally hard, then, to have imagined that a Conservative prime minister would lead the country in championing and delivering equal marriage, and in so doing, would help reshape social attitudes irrevocably.
From a political point of view, the Conservative Party has transformed itself from what some would say was a refuge of bigots, to one of the strongest champions of LGBT+ rights in the western world. We have more LGBT MPs than all other parties combined in the House of Commons, and a record number of LGBT government and cabinet ministers. We have invested GBP 2 million to tackle homophobic bullying in schools and committed to legislate to erase historic convictions for homosexual activity prior to its legalisation in the 1960s.
In so doing, we have earned the trust and support of many LGBT voters across the country, which has been crucial in realising our recent electoral successes across the UK.
My own personal experience of the Party in recent years has told me that LGBT people often form the backbone of the voluntary party – sometimes straight activists are in the minority at meetings and events!
LGBT+ Conservatives (formerly LGBTory) is an excellent advocacy and campaigning group within the party, providing a Conservative voice within the wider LGBT community and an LGBT voice within the Conservative Party. As an out gay candidate in the 2015 General Election, they provided me with fantastic support for my campaign – not just with generous donations, but also by flooding the streets of Holborn with Conservative LGBT activists on one spring day during the campaign. I will always be grateful for the group’s support, and it made me realise just how far we have come as a party.
Importantly, we have reclaimed our status as a party for all Britain and all Britons – no matter who you are, or where you’re from. We forced Labour to abandon their absurd claim that they were the only pro-LGBT party in UK politics. There is undoubtedly more progress that needs to be made on LGBT issues, not just in the UK but especially on the world stage, including in Commonwealth nations. But I’m proud of the leadership role that the Conservative Party has played in bringing about progress to this stage.
And I encourage you, whether LGBT or not, to play your part in effecting the next chapter of social progress in our country, to achieve a more equal, tolerant, and fairer society for all. It’s not just the right and moral thing to do, but it usually helps win elections too.
Will Blair was the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Holborn & St Pancras (in which UCL is located) in the 2015 General Election, and is a good friend of the UCLU Conservative Society.
For further information about LGBT+ Conservatives, please visit their website at www.lgbtconservatives.org.uk