Matthew Green is Deputy Chairman of LGBTory.
David Cameron’s final Downing Street reception for the LGBT community in in May this year saw only a handful of Cabinet Ministers in attendance. One of the few there to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia was the then Home Secretary.
Theresa May, who served as Minister for Women and Equalities from 2010 to 2012, was welcomed by the LGBT community to the reception as the architect of equal marriage. She has even been acknowledged by her former Liberal Democrat deputy Lynn Featherstone (who likes to take a great deal of the credit herself) as the person who “made it happen”.
As early as the consultation period for equal marriage in 2012, May was a strong proponent of what was to become the Same Sex Marriage Act. She said: “I believe that if two people, care for each other if they love each other, if they want to commit to each other and spend the rest of their lives together then they should be able to get married and marriage should be for everyone.”
Controversial at the time, equal marriage is now an undisputed fact of life with many MPs having changed their views since the Same Sex Marriage Bill was making its way through the House of Commons. However, the issue raised its head in the short-lived leadership contest, when May was facing off against Andrea Leadsom who had pointedly abstained on the Bill.
Leadsom’s position appeared to be have become more entrenched during the leadership battle, with her telling ITV news earlier this month that “my own view actually, is that marriage in the biblical sense is very clearly from the many Christians who wrote to me can only be between a man and a woman.” This put her in stark contrast to May’s steadfast support for equal marriage.
In spite of this support for equal marriage, some in the LGBT community have questioned May’s commitment to LGBT rights given her early voting record. May was one of the 111 MPs who voted against lowering the age of consent just over a year after joining the Commons in 1998. Only 18 Conservatives defied the whip and even gay MPs such as Crispin Blunt, Nigel Evans and Nick Gibb voted against the reduction to 16. May also voted against the repeal of Section 28 when it was first debated in 2000.
The 2000 vote was a three-line whip for the Conservatives and not a single Conservative MP rebelled (even Ken Clarke voted to keep the clause) but when the repeal of Section 28 returned to the Commons in 2003 with a free vote for Tory MPs, May no longer opposed the repeal (Cameron voted to keep Section 28 in the same vote).
She has also been criticised for voting against gay adoption in 2002. Again there had been a three-line whip on the Adoption Bill (one of the factors which led to the downfall of Iain Duncan Smith as leader) and only eight Conservatives voted in favour of the Bill.
In her failed bid to become leader of the Labour Party, Angela Eagle repeatedly defended her votes in favour of the Iraq war and the introduction of tuition fees by saying that she was just being a loyal Labour MP. May’s voting record in her early years in Parliament should be judged in the same light. She also clearly disavowed her votes in an appearance on Question Time in 2010. She said: “If those votes were today, yes, I have changed my view and I think I would take a different vote.”
While the LGBT community may not be able to completely forgive May’s voting record before 2004 (the year in which she voted in favour of Civil Partnerships) they should at least be able to recognise that the Party has changed considerably from the time before Cameron became leader. Cameron, after all, apologised for his own vote to preserve Section 28, describing the clause as “offensive to gay people”.
And the LGBT community forgave Cameron. At the 2015 election, for the first time, LGBT voters had shifted their traditional allegiances to Labour and the Liberal Democrats and began to vote Conservative in large numbers. Equal marriage had a large role to play in this shift and Cameron is right to single it out as one of his most significant achievements. May has always been a champion of equal marriage and, like the Conservative Party, she has changed from the time when she and the party voted against measures to support LGBT rights.
The Conservatives now have 16 out lesbian, bisexual and gay MPs, more than any other party. The vast majority of these MPs backed May’s leadership campaign, knowing that she was the right person to continue Cameron’s legacy of supporting LGBT rights and improving the party’s appeal to LGBT voters.
She continues to build her own reputation on LGBT rights. As Home Secretary she ordered a review into the way asylum claims based on sexuality were processed, after criticism that claimants were not being treated with respect and dignity. On launching her leadership campaign she committed not to pursue withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, an issue important to many LGBT people as Article 14 of the Convention has been used to argue for the protection of LGBT rights, and was instrumental both in securing an equal age of consent and the Gender Recognition Act.
Early in her leadership campaign May made a statement to LGBTory, the Conservative Party’s officially affiliated LGBT group, in which she said, “When I launched my campaign for the leadership I set out my belief in building a country that works for everyone. Central to that vision is a commitment to equality, and I will always stand up for the rights of LGBT people.”
She is not only the best person to lead our party and our country, but – based on both this commitment and her track record – the best person to build a better Britain for LGBT people.