Britain, Parliament and the Conservative party have all moved on significantly in their attitudes towards homosexuality since I first became an MP almost twenty five years ago, and our society is a much better place for it.
When I became the first Conservative MP to come out as gay back in 2002, the response I received from the public and the Conservative party membership was overwhelmingly positive – I still have the stack of letters and e-mails from the hundreds of people who got in touch. The same was true when I became the first Conservative MP to enter into a civil partnership in 2008.
The change in the Conservative party’s attitudes is genuine and reflects a belief that we have to not just understand, but actually like and reflect the country we seek to govern. It is a world away from how things were when I first took my seat as an MP in 1992, when no Conservative MP had voluntarily come out as gay and rumours about colleagues were always whispered along with snide euphemisms like ‘dapper’ or ‘the press have got something on him’. Local Party selection boards would routinely ask prospective candidates if there was anything in their past that could ‘embarrass the party’, an underhand way of flushing out sexuality.
The contrast twenty five years later is stark. Westminster now has the highest number of gay MPs of any Parliament, with 32 gay, lesbian and bisexual MPs currently serving. Labour and the Conservatives have almost exactly the same number of gay representatives in Parliament, and 155 of the candidates who stood in last May’s General Election identified as such. The Scottish Conservatives are led by a lesbian, Ruth Davidson, and just after the New Year the Secretary of State for Scotland David Mundell came out, making him the first gay Conservative Cabinet Minister.
In the almost fifteen years since I came out, the Conservatives first helped pass Tony Blair’s historic Civil Partnership Act 2014, which I was proud to help steer through from our side of the House, and of course the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 under David Cameron. Legal protections that would have been unthinkable for gay couples a generation ago are now a cornerstone of a cross-party commitment to equality.
Just as significant as the legal benefits that have been enshrined is the general attitude towards homosexuality. It is no longer seen as a defining characteristic for a politician, but just one matter-of-fact part of who they are. We are approaching the point in politics where it simply doesn’t matter whether you are gay or straight – what matters is what you have to say and who you are, not what you are.