The last fortnight has been the most emotionally draining period in my fifteen years as an MP. First came the horrific stories from Orlando, where 49 people were slaughtered in a gay night club. The following Monday we held a vigil outside Parliament with the Speaker, the Lord Speaker and at least eighty MPs and peers. Later that evening many of us made our way up to Soho and joined the heaving scrum of accountants, baristas, drag artists, grannies, lawyers, police officers and LGBT supporters in Old Compton Street to remember those who had died in the US, and laid flowers by the cherry trees in the churchyard of St Anne’s to remember the three people who were killed in a nail bomb attack on the Admiral Duncan.
As if that was not enough, later that week my colleague Jo Cox MP was murdered in a hateful attack. Two Mondays in a row Parliament gathered in the shadow of death, steeling ourselves to fight hatred with love.
So this weekend’s Pride in London festival, in which thousands marched and demonstrate and shout and cheer, had a real pungency to it. We know that for all the advances we have made over the years – same-sex marriage, an equal age of consent, gay adoption, anti-discrimination laws – the truth is that hatred, homophobia and transphobia still fester both here and around the world.
It is a frightening fact that 90 per cent of the people in the Commonwealth live in countries where homosexuality is illegal. In Turkey this week the police have cracked down on LGBT demonstrations and in Russia it is still impossible to hold a Pride march at all.
That is why I am so proud that for the first time in history Parliament proudly flew the rainbow flag during Pride weekend as a symbolic statement of just how far we have come and how much further we still have to go. Parliament has played a vital role in developing the freedoms we now almost take for granted in the recent past. After all, it is less than 50 years ago that the Sexual Offences Act 1967 partially decriminalised homosexuality, it was only in 2001 that we achieved an equal age of consent and not even three years have passed since same-sex marriage was legalised in England and Wales.
It feels strange that less than 15 years ago it was still illegal for a man to meet a stranger in a bar and take him home and that people were still prosecuted for it when other charges wouldn't stick.
Perhaps the clearest sign that things have changed here in the UK is the number of LGBT+ MPs and peers who are out and proud – many now say that this is the gayest (and the proudest) parliament in the world – so it is only right that many MPs was marching on Saturday. But it is just as important that many members of staff who work for parliament itself were marching alongside a red double decker bus adorned with a banner saying “Get on board! #DoDemocracy”.
In remembrance of the Orlando shooting victims, the bus was a No. 49, the words “Remembering Orlando” was where the stop names usually appear and “Love Wins” replaced the destination sign. The fact that the rainbow flag was also be flying high over the building where they work is a symbol of Parliament’s clear commitment to be a supportive equal opportunities employer, encouraging groups like ParliOUT.
Just as importantly, the flag shows our shared sense of defiance; a shift in attitude towards promoting equality and respect not just within Parliament itself but in our society as a whole
The Grand neo-Gothic Victorian Houses of Parliament are a universally recognised symbol of the United Kingdom and a visual beacon for freedom, democracy and the rule of law, so it is important that we were flying the flag with pride. But it’s just as important to recall that rights that have been won can all too easily be lost again unless we truly value them.
1920s Berlin was a liberal haven for lesbians and gay men, but by the end of the 1930s our forebears were being rounded up, deported, imprisoned and killed for their sexuality. We should fly the flag over Parliament – and in our hearts as well.
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