Malawi – the right response

Upon the news that a gay couple in Malawi, Mr Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Mr Steven Monjeza, were to be jailed for 14 years for unnatural acts, myself as Minister for Equality, foreign minister Henry Bellingham and international development minister Stephen O’Brien issued a joint statement.

The statement said: “We are deeply dismayed by the conviction for buggery and indecent practices of Mr Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Mr Steven Monjeza.

“We are also very concerned by the allegations of their mistreatment in police custody.

“Malawi has made significant progress on human rights in recent years.

“The government has signed up to international human rights treaties and Malawi’s constitution protects the rights of all its citizens.

“Infringement of these rights is intolerable. The conviction and sentencing to the maximum 14 years’ imprisonment of Mr Chimbalanga and Mr Monjeza runs counter to a positive trend.

“Britain has a close and strong partnership with Malawi and it is in this spirit that we raise our concerns. The UK believes that human rights apply to everyone regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The UK urges the government of Malawi to review its laws to ensure the defence of human rights for all, without discrimination on any grounds. The UK, along with our international partners, will continue to press the government of Malawi on this issue.”

International partners from around the world did indeed also make representations. And the response was that Malawian President Bingu Wa Mutharika pardoned the couple at the weekend and was rightly praised by US President Barack Obama and by British and Malawian gay rights groups.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was visiting Malawi at the time of the pardon and called Sunday’s release of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga from prison a ‘courageous decision’.

President Bingu Wa Mutharika made clear that the pardon was granted on strictly ‘humanitarian grounds’. Homosexuality remains against the law in Malawi.

Malawi is not alone, sadly, in respect of its views and laws on homosexuality. The Stonewall Report ‘No Going Back’ (published last week) makes it terrifyingly clear how urgent and important this agenda is: Consensual acts between same-sex adults are criminalised in 80 member states of the United Nations and homosexuality results in the death penalty in six of these countries. In many countries lesbian, gay and bisexual people face execution, torture, rape and murder from people in their own community or from their government.

How do you begin a long journey? With a single step – followed by a lot more steps – as quickly as possible!

Village Drinks – Stonewall Hustings

Ben Somerskill and Stonewall sponsored by Village Drinks (network for Lesbian and Gay professionals) put on a hustings last night in the West End.

They do things really well. Well thought out. Well arranged. Well chaired. I think all the candidates did well and set out their stall – and the debate was interesting and the questions wide-ranging.

Chris Bryant represented Labour, Nick Herbert represented the Tories, Chris Smith the Greens – and obviously I was there for the LibDems.

The basic LibDem stall is that the clue is in our name – Liberal – through and through – and not just for elections. I started the campaign for the ban on gay men giving blood donations to be lifted. At first both Terence Higgins Trust and Stonewall declined to join me. However, Stonewall changed their position and have been campaigning too for this. The safety of the blood supply is paramount – but whether or not donations are given should be based on the risk from an individual’s behaviour – not a blanket ban. Neither the Tories nor Labour supported my amendment.

Then, I raised the issue of the Government’s intransigence during the Equality Bill and their refusal to change the protected characteristic of ‘gender reassignment’ to ‘gender identity’.  Trans issues are very different to gay issues in substance – but the discrimination and harassment they suffer is of the order of the early days of gay liberation. Sometimes the gay community can be a bit cross and feel that trans get lumped in with gay issues – but the suffering and quest for equality and freedom from discrimination and harassment is the same.

Anyway – in the Bill, the Government displayed complete ignorance of transgender issues. They showed relentless and ill-informed determination to keep it as ‘gender reassignment. They seemingly did not understand or even wish to understand the complexities of the range of the spectrum of gender identity. They had no awareness that many, many trans people never change sex nor even ultimately pass for the other gender nor even go on that journey nor that some people are just intersex in some form and that those who have gender identity issues will experience discrimination and need protection because they don’t fit gender stereotypes at all.

Over the years of campaigning for LGBT equality, Liberal Democrats have always led the field. We were first to civil partnerships, first to fight for gays in the armed forces, now gay marriage and the introduction and duty for schools, all schools, to talk about sexual orientation openly and as just part of life.

And what a furore it caused when Nick Clegg said that there should be a duty to talk about homosexuality openly at school. But of course it should – as just another normal way of being. It is absolutely crucial.

Homophobic bullying is rife as am sure you know with 6 out 10 children homophobically bullied. Burgeoning sexuality can be pretty confusing at the best of times, but to suffer any bullying let alone homophobic bullying is cruel beyond belief. This is one of the areas where this Labour government has really failed the LGBT community. In the equality Bill homophobic bullying has a different level of protection to any of the other strands. There is a lower bar of harassment for example – for race, gender and religion. Only sexual orientation is left to the more difficult protection of simple direct discrimination. Homophobic bullying should have exactly the same protection as all other protected characteristics. End of.

I could go on – but suffice to say was a very good event and a very important agenda and a very enjoyable evening.

Stonewall awards, Gok Wan and me……..

gok smallWell – as predicted – I failed to win Politician of the Year at the Stonewall Awards last night. Ben Bradshaw (Labour Minister) won the accolade as the first openly gay Minister. I think, judging from the blurb in the program – that I was nominated because of my work both on the Equality Bill and my campaign to end the blanket ban on gay men giving blood donations. (It should be about behaviour – not discriminating against one group. A monogomous gay man is a lot safer than a rampant heterosexual).

Anyway – I don’t do many of these glittery evenings – but I have to say Stonewall threw a good party (sponsored by Barclays). You would not have known that there was a recession outside of the V & A. In the most beautiful of surroundings the champagne flowed, the stars were out in force and the canapes and the bowl food was of the highest order.

The awards themselves were hosted by Gok Wan, fashion guru, who I adore actually. And they were the point of the evening and both nominees and winners are people who have genuinely moved the agenda forward, been brave, stood up and contributed to the improvement in all walks of life for the gay community.

And – of course – for those who don’t know – I have been on ‘How to Look Good Naked’ a couple of times – thankfully (for all watching) with my clothes on – as I am joint campaigning with them to give girls ‘body confidence’ a fight back against the pressure of stick thin images and the loss of self confidence and self hate that is a consequence.

Lynne Featherstone celebrates with Gok at Stonewall Awards

Local MP Lynne Featherstone was last night celebrating with Gok Wan at the Stonewall Awards despite missing out on the top spot for their prestigious Politician of the Year award at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Hornsey and Wood Green MP earlier in the autumn appeared on Gok’s How to Look Good Naked, in support of his Body Confidence campaign.

Lynne Featherstone MP comments:

“It’s great to get my work for gay and lesbian rights noticed with such a prestigious nomination – shame to lose out on the top prize, but I’ve had a great time here tonight.

“And I was thrilled to get the chance to catch up with Gok after my stint on How to Look Good Naked. They really are doing admirable work, campaigning to help young people feel confident about themselves.”

'Politician of the Year' nomination for MP Lynne Featherstone

Local MP Lynne Featherstone has been nominated for the award of ‘Politician of the Year’ by Stonewall, the national lesbian and gay rights lobby group.

Lynne has been a champion of gay rights in Parliament and outspoken critic of the Government’s Equality Bill, which fails to explicitly outlaw harassment of young people in schools because of their sexuality – gay bullying. She has also fought for greater protection against discrimination for transgendered people in the new law.

The awards ceremony with take place on Thursday, 5th November at the V&A and celebrate “the range of positive contributions being made by the individuals and organisation to the lives of lesbian and gay people in Britain today”.  The judges are Sue Perkins and Evan Davis.

Lynne Featherstone is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Youth & Equalities.

Commenting, Lynne says:

“I feel greatly honoured to be nominated for an award by such a prestigious and respected organisation.

“Whilst great steps have been made in gay rights; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people still face discrimination in their everyday lives. Whether I win or not I will continue fighting for a fairer society.”

Getting ready to be the bridesmaid again…

News reaches me that I have been nominated for one of the Stonewall Annual Awards – obviously the political one. Nominated politicians include new Speaker John Bercow, secretary of state for culture, media and sport Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP Chris Bryant and me!

Since becoming an MP. I have been nominated and shortlisted for quite a lot of public awards: blogging, female politician of the year, New Statesman website of the year etc etc. So far – always the bridesmaid. I suspect, somehow, my unbroken record will continue.

Equality in a cold climate

Here’s my speech to the Stonewall/DELGA fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth:

When we talk about gay rights in a cold climate – a chill wind is blowing. And I suspect that the temperature is in danger of dropping sharply –in terms of what will happen to the funding both in terms of outreach, support and gay health

LGBT organisations rely on three main sources of income:

– government grants
– private donations
– corporate sponsorship

I don’t have to tell people in the room who are involving in local Government about the bleak funding future ahead of us. As basic services get squeezed the axe will most certainly turn to external funding where cuts will not be so immediately felt.

If you stop collecting rubbish people notice pretty quickly, but this is not the case when it comes LGBT support groups.

Private individuals have inevitably become less generous as household finances become shakier. Even the pink purse isn’t recession proof.

And as companies’ profit margins have evaporated, so does their benevolence.

So what can we do about it?

It is a point I make time and time again – you must spend to save.

A difficult argument when the economy is in dire straits, but now more than ever should this case be made.

Where any of us have a seat at a table where financial decisions are made we must make the case for continued funding. We must make the case for well-targeted projects that support the gay community.

Providing condoms and lube in every gay pub, club and sauna makes HIV/AIDS less likely to be spread.

Spending money to promote clear public sexual health messages saves money on treatment.

Creating safe places for confused teenagers to come to terms with his or her sexuality makes for productive and well-adjusted adults.

I salute the work Stonewall has done in making sexuality an issue of good business. Going out there and making the business case for companies to take the issues of gay people seriously and also dealing with business perceptions.

But further afield one real protection against any roll back to gay rights is by enshrining them in law.

As the Equality Bill currently wends it’s way through Parliament, as Liberal Democrats I sometime feel we have been a bit of a lone voice in arguing for what I believe is full LGBT equality.

I won’t bore you with commentary on the whole 205 clauses, but there have been two main bones of contention, transgender issues and second class treatment of gay discrimination rights.

The transgender community continues to be ostracised. Even some parts of the gay community can be a bit snooty about transgender issues.

Maybe this is partly this is because some gay people see their issues been unfairly lumped into one basket, but sometimes I wonder if there is simply lack of empathy.

The Government, however, displayed complete ignorance of transgender issues. They showed relentless and ill-informed determination to keep as one of the protected strands ‘gender reassignment.

They seemingly did not understand or even wish to understand the complexities of the range of the spectrum of gender identity.

They had no awareness that many, many trans people never change sex nor even ultimately pass for the other gender nor even go on that journey nor that some people are just intersex in some form and that those who have gender identity issues will experience discrimination and need protection because they don’t fit gender stereotypes at all.

The current case of 800 metres world champion, Caster Semanya of South Africa highlights just one of the complexities. But the Government completely refused to change the title of that protected characteristic to ‘gender identity’ thereby leaving swathes of people unprotected by the soon to be new laws.

The second point, one that I know I don’t share with Stonewall – and I know this because I questioned Ben when he gave Evidence to the bill committee and he told me so! – is to do with what I call the second class treatment of gay protection.

I think lots of gay people would be surprised to learn that harassing a pupil because of their sexuality is not explicitly outlawed in schools. And just so we understand – harassment in this context means intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive behaviour.

It is rightly explicitly illegal to harass a pupil because of their race, their gender or if they have a disability, but it is not explicitly illegal to harass a pupil because of his or her sexuality.

Direct discrimination is banned and it is thought this will give sufficient protection, but for me a question mark remains as why you wouldn’t put something as important as this in big letters on the face of the Bill – young gay people should not bullied in school. End of!

There should not be a hierarchy between different types of discrimination and we shouldn’t want to slip gay rights in the Bill through the backdoor, no pun intended.

I’ve lost a few skirmishes on these issues in Parliament, but the battle is not over until the fat lady sings, more correctly until Her Majesty gives royal assent.

Then we come to blood.

If any of you were here last year you may remember that I raised the issue of the blanket ban on gay men giving blood and that this as an issue that we needed to campaign on. I am delighted to say that Stonewall changed its position to support our view which is that individuals should be banned according to their actual behaviour, not according to crude categories.

Currently there would be a lifetime ban on a gay man who had had protected sex once. There is no equivalent on a straight man – who may have had more partners. So to me the argument is clear – judgements should be based on people’s actual behaviour and the risks that arise from that. Stonewall agree with me and recently the Anthony Nolan bone marrow transplant trust removed their ban on gay donors. Other countries have a risk-based approach.

Sadly – the government disagrees. Perhaps Stonewall can use their influence behind the front lines on this one.

I hope that give you all a brief assessment what I think the key issues are, I look forward to hearing from the rest of the panel and answering your questions.