Leighton Rowlands is a Welsh Conservative councillor and Mayor of the Vale of Glamorgan.
Every June, people up and down the UK and across the Western world will take to the streets to start a summer of parades to celebrate gay pride. These mark the month of the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan, a catalyst in the gay rights movement.
I write this as an openly gay Welsh Conservative Mayor who has attended pride in Cardiff for several years now, and am looking forward to attending again this August.
As the Mayor of the Vale of Glamorgan, I was thrilled to see our council jump 122 places in the latest Stonewall Workplace Index while I was my predecessor’s deputy last year. This only goes to demonstrate one way how Conservatives can advance LGBT representation.
Our party has come a long way in the last half century despite a confused past when it came to gay rights: there were few Conservatives who voted in favour of decriminalising homosexuality in 1967, and, of course, it was a Conservative government that introduced Section 28.
Yet, the Conservative Party is a different entity a generation on, having led the Government which passed the Equal Marriage Act. Again, this comes with the caveat that many Tories voted against it. Thankfully, many have now said they were wrong and would vote differently today.
I am heartened to know that our Welsh Assembly Members – which, unfortunately, do not include any LGBT members amongst them – have made efforts to represent our community through asking questions in the Assembly and attending events such as the Pink News reception earlier this month. Indeed Carolyn Webster, a Welsh Conservative Councillor, centred her conference speech on the importance of diversifying the party.
Hopefully, it won’t take long for Welsh Conservatives to follow the example of the UK parliamentary party. Following last year’s general election, 19 LGBT Conservative MPs were elected – the same number as Labour. This means the House of Commons has the highest level of LGBT representation ever in Britain, and, thus, the world. This is something we can be tremendously proud of and demonstrates one of the Conservative Party’s best attributes – as times change, so do we.
However, this can sometimes give the false impression that there is nothing left to achieve in the fight for equal rights for LGBT people.
With the political mainstream and the law both firmly on the side of equality, and with several ‘out’ high-profile names across sport, culture, and politics, many have described the pride events held across the West as rather self-indulgent. But this is precisely the reason why gay pride must continue to take place. We remain a minority, a group of people who have had to fight for their rights, and the fight continues to this day.
Only last year, a study found attacks on the LGBT committee increased by nearly 80 per cent in four years, and those aged 18-24 were the least likely to report a hate crime. Only this month, Stonewall Cymru found over a third of LGBT workers hid their sexuality in the workplace for fear of discrimination. Even as I write this, you would struggle to name any out players at the World Cup, one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Football is one of the final frontiers for gay people to feel comfortable in. It probably doesn’t help that this year’s tournament is in Russia… and the next one Qatar.
This shows that despite the great advancements made, we still have not made the world safe enough for young people to feel free to be who they are without serious repercussions. It’s a sad state of affairs.
After stringent changes in the political and legal spheres in the UK, the last vestiges of homophobia that still need rooting out are in our communities. One aspect of this is the casual use of the word ‘gay’ as a slur. I don’t mind it when people attack me with that word – it’s a fact and I wear it as a badge of honour. But it is hardly going to make it easier for others who are yet to come out if they see those around them using an important part of their identity as an insult. This usually happens at school, but people continue using it in later life if not challenged. Pride events hopefully counteract both the use and effect of that practice as we aim to change attitudes.
For years now, the Conservative Party’s LGBTory wing have been marching at pride events across the country. Labour activists are always there too in their ‘Never kissed a Tory’ t-shirts. At last year’s London Pride, a video of Theresa May praising the progress of the LGBT movement was booed by many present. And I don’t expect to avoid a few barbs while manning the Conservative stand at this year’s Pride Cymru.
Yet, I am glad of it.
Sure, it is rather childish to seek political differences at an event which is about uniting people who have found a of common cause. But if we can live in a country where the political mainstream can be derided while they congratulate those at a gay pride event by those present, then we as a country can certainly say we have come far: we can ridicule the governing classes of this country without fear of repercussions for us as a group.
I can certainly take pride in that.