13 years ago, I was part of the team at Stonewall that helped achieve workplace equality, same-sex marriage and the Equality Act, protecting lesbian, gay and bi people in terms of goods and services. Today, the Democratic Unionist Party, now in coalition with the Conservative Party, opposes many of these hard-won rights.
They previously supported a campaign called “Save Ulster from Sodomy”. The party vehemently opposes same sex marriage. It is largely and solely responsible for the fact that Northern Ireland is the only remaining part of the UK where gay people do not have the same marriage rights as everyone else.
Arlene Foster, DUP Leader, is against what she views as “redefining marriage” and only supports “traditional” marriage. Ian Paisley Jr. is on record for his views that he finds gays and lesbians “repulsive”, arguing that homosexuality is, “immoral, offensive and obnoxious”. Former DUP Health Minister Jim Wells believed that children raised in a gay relationship were more likely to be abused or neglected, when the evidence clearly does not support this.
In the UK, most people assumed progress was assured. That gaining civil rights was a one-way street. This assumption is in danger of becoming complacent when the government now contains people who do not agree with these new norms and basic civil rights that are the foundation of a modern diverse society. The danger is real. Progress is not a given and can go backwards. Civil rights are in fact a two-way street.
Whilst regression is unlikely given the attention and scrutiny they are now receiving, it is precisely this attention, scrutiny and conscious inclusive leadership that will keep us good. It also helps when people from within the ‘in group’ (current coalition) speak out. Ruth Davidson, openly gay leader of the Scottish Conservatives, has said she has received personal assurances from Theresa May that LGBT rights are non-negotiable with the DUP. Several other Conservatives have also spoken out.
Furthermore, some DUP MPs have since expressed regret and a change of heart. This may be because through airing their views, through realising there are alternative arguments that have widespread support, science and fact behind them, they are modernising their position. For example Ian Paisley Jr has since apologised for his comments about gay child rearing and Trevor Clarke, another DUP MP, now better understands the stigma attached to labelling AIDS or HIV as a purely gay disease.
However given Theresa May might not be PM for much longer, and given a highly fluid situation, nothing should be assumed.
Reassuringly, there is now broad bi-partisan, cross-party political consensus on the value of diversity to the country. That true representation strengthens democracy at a time our country is being challenged more than ever before.
This is the most diverse parliament ever – 207 women, 51 Black and Minority Ethnic MPs (10 new this election), 45 openly gay – and this representation is a cornerstone of our democracy. It’s the first time Britain has ever had more than 200 women in parliament, now constituting 32% of all MPs. Things are moving towards parity and democratic representation.
Marsha de Cordova MP is visually impaired and Jared O’Mara has cerebral palsy hemiparesis. Tanmanjeet Singh Desi is the first MP to wear a turban, Layla Moran is the first female MP of Palestinian descent, Preet Gill is the first female Sikh MP, and, perhaps poignantly right now, Afzal Khan is Manchester’s first Muslim MP. In 2015, 43% of MPs came from a comprehensive school background. It’s now 51%, more than half for the first time ever.
Whilst we may celebrate this diversity, and increasingly view it as normal, it’s worth reflecting on how recent it has been achieved. For example, the number of LGBT MPs increased from 32 in 2015 to 45 in 2017 – an astonishing 40% increase in just two years. This reflects a backlog of previously untapped talent. And many of those people have only come out recently, such as Education Secretary Justine Greening.
It’s also worth reflecting that whilst over 20% of the country identifies as disabled in some manner, there are only 4 disabled MPs, less than 1% of all MPs. And whilst only 7% of the country attends a private school, the proportion of MPs privately educated still stands at 29%.
When Donald Trump was elected, when the UK voted to leave the European Union, it was in many ways a rejection of diversity. The above situation is cause for hope but also cause for caution. We know that inclusion happens most authentically when people get to know others who are different from them. Rather than diversity being a nebulous concept to people in the boardroom or the polling booth, when they can see, touch, hear, and interact with people who are different from them it becomes real. By becoming personal.
The real hope now, therefore, is that the above diversity rubs off on the DUP, and others, and that broad bi-partisan consensus is built upon, rather than destroyed.
Stephen Frost is the founder of Frost Included, a consultancy dedicated to helping people understand diversity and inclusion. His latest book, Inclusive Talent Management – How business can thrive in an age of diversity, is out now, published by Kogan Page. For more information go to www.frostincluded.com