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Lesbian Visibility Week

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the importance of Lesbian Visibility Week; and believes LGBTQIA women and non-binary people should be recognised for the work they do and the joy they bring.

Lesbian Visibility Week was founded in 2019 by the publisher of DIVA Magazine, my good friend Linda Riley—and I am delighted to welcome Linda to the House today. For the past five years we have set aside this week in April to celebrate and uplift lesbians everywhere, from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and we are a community that grows stronger each and every year for it.

Forty years ago this year, I took my mum to see the “Rocky Horror Show”, and at dinner I told her that I was a lesbian. I distinctly remember her response: “Yeah—and?” Of course she already knew; as a colleague pointed out yesterday, if I was ever in the closet, the closet must have been made of glass. I was incredibly lucky to have friends and family to lean on when I faced and overcame the many barriers that most lesbians have to deal with because, sadly, it is still the case that for so many such support is just not there. However, that does not mean that my journey and dealing with coming out was easy. There was stigma, and there were people our community was losing and not talking about. The feeling of loneliness and isolation led me to move to Newcastle in 1989, and until I was elected to represent my wonderful Jarrow constituency in 2019, I barely came back to London.

Seeing so many people celebrating and recognising Lesbian Visibility Week gives me hope that this and future generations of lesbians will be accepted—and that is thanks to those who came before us, paving the way. When I hosted a reception in Parliament on Monday night in partnership with DIVA magazine and the LGBT Foundation, there was an incredible turnout from activists, campaigning organisations, and Members of both Houses. I am so grateful for the fact that so many friends and colleagues joined us at our first ever parliamentary reception: I think that was the largest number of lesbians that we have ever had in Parliament at any one time. At the event we heard about the media narrative that lesbians are disappearing, but we are not. We are in our ascendancy: there are more lesbians than ever. The number of women who identify as lesbian has increased by 64% since 2014. Instead of being erased, we are multiplying.

As many Members will know, I have dedicated most of my political career to campaigning for LGBTQIA+ equality. My first political activism was campaigning against section 28, and highlighting the damage that it did and continues to do to our community. To go from campaigning against section 28, to stop LGBTQIA+ people being forced to hide, to holding a debate on lesbian visibility in the gayest Parliament in the world is some feat, and something that an 18-year-old me could never have imagined. However, I also could not have imagined that 40 years later I would still be challenging the same homophobic language, including comments about LGBTQIA+ people being a danger to children. It has to be said that the slurs currently being thrown at the trans community, and at me for being supportive of that community, are a carbon copy of the hate we faced in the 1980s.

My hon. Friend is making an incredible speech. Does she agree that hate is hate? Some of the hate we hear reminds me of the hate that my parents heard when they were being subjected to vile racist abuse.

Yes, hate is hate, and it is unacceptable in any form. We defeated it then, in the ’80s, and we will defeat this hate and discrimination now.

Let me return to my coming out. Although I had a supportive family, when I came out “lesbian” was still a dirty word, a word thrown at me at school in a derogatory way. If you were a lesbian you were seen as unnatural. You were chased out of girls’ bathrooms—that has, in fact, happened to me in recent years—and you were sexualised by men far older than you, which is something that lesbians still face today.

It was 10 years after I came out that I bought my first copy of a magazine called DIVA. There was nothing else like it at the time; there was nothing else for my generation that helped lesbians to feel included, and that magazine helped me to feel less alone. That was 30 years ago—so happy birthday, DIVA, and thank you.

In the last 30 years DIVA has been a lifeline for many women, and it was DIVA and Linda Riley who launched Lesbian Visibility Week. DIVA is much more than a magazine: as it tells us, it is a movement. It has an annual Power List, and for the first time, in 2024, I have made it. To travel from being that young, lonely lesbian 30 years ago buying my first copy to being included in this list has made me feel honoured and deeply grateful. It is a privilege to be named alongside colleagues and other brilliant activists, including the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black). Today, I feel proud to see so many LGBTQIA+ women basking in the freedom to explore their sexuality in ways that many women could not, only a few years ago.

The hon. Lady has reminded me of a thought that I once had: something that I felt very strongly when the Bill that became the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed. I had a young daughter, and I felt that if I had two daughters and one was straight and the other was a lesbian, I would want them to have the same quality of life, the same protection under the law, and the same right to love whoever they wanted to love. Does the hon. Lady feel that we have made progress towards a situation in which that will be the case?

Unfortunately, I have to say that we have gone backwards in recent times. I thought we would be further forward than we are, but when I look back to some years ago, I see that that is not the case.

Weeks like this really matter. They show solidarity, and they enable us to support each other and help us to celebrate our differences, embracing the whole LGBTQIA+ community. Too often people seek to divide us, but as the theme of this Lesbian Visibility Week shows, we are unified, not uniform. We are here to be fabulous in our differences and to be seen, to let others know that they can be their true selves. We have to use our own experiences to help people, and to use our platforms to give LGBTQIA+ people spaces. That is what Lesbian Visibility Week is about. That is why I am holding this debate.

An often-used expression is that we stand on the shoulders of giants, which we do, and I want to honour just a few of the wonderful women who have given so much to our community and been inspirational to me and to so many others. In the 1970s, Maureen Colquhoun made history by becoming the first openly out lesbian in Parliament. Her courageous act in the face of media hostility has meant that so many of us can stand in this Chamber today and follow in her footsteps.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) is an iconic lesbian in Parliament. The first to come out in office, and now a dame, she is a role model to many, breaking down barriers as the first lesbian Minister and always fighting for equality by using her platform to stand up for our community.

Of course, there are brilliant women who are the driving force behind so many political and campaigning movements. Lisa Power was one of the founding members of Stonewall in 1989. Like me, she was a volunteer at the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. Lisa has led a decade-long fight on behalf of people living with HIV.

There are women such as the brilliant Sue Sanders, the founder of LGBT+ History Month, and Baroness Barker, who led the first ever debate in the other place on lesbian, bisexual and transgender women’s health. There are historic queer trailblazers such as Anne Lister, who was fabulously represented by Suranne Jones in “Gentleman Jack”. I was distraught when I found out that “Gentleman Jack” would not be returning for a third season. For the first time, I saw someone on TV who represented me, so much so that I was even told that we look alike, to which I responded, “I wish!”—but I do love wearing a waistcoat.

The wonderful Sophie Ward is a trailblazer for LGBTQIA+ rights. As an actress and model, she was one of the first high-profile women to come out as a lesbian in 1997. The brilliant Phyll Opoku-Gyimah is a wonderful campaigner and the founder of UK Black Pride. Dame Kelly Holmes is a sports hero to us all. She is an icon who was instrumental in the fight to address the vile mistreatment of LGBTQIA+ veterans and those who are still in the Army, and she is now empowering women through her Athena Effect events.

Of course, there is also Linda Riley, one of my best friends, who is the founder of Lesbian Visibility Week and publisher of DIVA magazine. She is a titan who has done so much for lesbians, and who I know will do so much more in her lifetime.

Let us not forget another good friend of mine, Nancy Kelley, who is in the Gallery today. Nancy has recently been appointed as the director of Lesbian Visibility Week. She has already been a trailblazer as chief executive of Stonewall and an award-winning human rights and social justice campaigner. She is a champion of LGBTQIA+ rights who always stands up for our community, so I am excited to see what bigger and brighter things are next for Lesbian Visibility Week in the years to come.

Although there is a lot to celebrate, it is important that we do not forget the challenges that lesbians still face. In fact, in celebrating Lesbian Visibility Week, I have faced some awful homophobic remarks on social media, simply for being open about my sexuality. I have been called a “nonce” and had threats on Twitter— or X. I receive a constant barrage of homophobic abuse, but such abuse will not stop me standing here or speaking up on behalf of my community. The toxic culture on social media, and the toxic narrative from the Government, at times, in pushing their war on woke makes LGBTQIA+ people less safe. We have seen a rise in hate crime, and we must make active efforts to support our non-binary and trans community, who still face unique day-to-day challenges simply for being themselves and loving who they love.

Last October I led a debate calling on the Government to remove the additional financial burdens for same-sex couples who need to access in vitro fertilisation. The Minister committed then to a timetable to remove the barriers and bring forward a statutory instrument to end the postcode lottery for same-sex couples seeking IVF, so where is it? The legislation has still not materialised. Before qualifying for IVF on the NHS, same-sex female couples must fund six cycles of artificial insemination, so it comes as no surprise that too often people are being priced out of starting a family. My constituents Holly and Leanne have had to choose between buying a house or having a baby—a decision that couples should never be forced to make. They have been unable to afford IVF and are now, like so many, looking at alternative routes. We need to see action, because many cannot wait any longer.

Today we are told that young people are too woke and that it is fine for young LGBTQIA+ people when they come out, yet the reality is often very different. LGBTQIA+ children are twice as likely as others to be bullied. Some young LGBTQIA+ people are still kicked out and made homeless when they come out, and many do not feel safe where they live. The Albert Kennedy Trust reported that 77% of young LGBTQ+ people gave family rejection, abuse or being asked to leave home as a cause for their homelessness.

A DIVA survey in 2024 showed that less than a third of LBQ+ women and trans people in the UK feel safe where they live. To have this continue today is dystopian. Just yesterday, I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about IVF provision and pointed out that the LGBTQIA+ community are being let down. His response was that the Government have been “excellent”, but I can tell the House that none of the lesbians I have spoken to this week thinks the Government are excellent at anything.

We must use our platforms and our ability to speak up, to highlight our diversity and to look at the impact of intersectionality. We must consider how the world is for lesbians of colour and lesbians with disabilities, and how the gender health gap and gender pay gap negatively impact on us all but in different ways.

I am privileged to be able to stand up in Parliament and say all this, because in a third of countries across the world, including 64 UN member states, it is illegal to be LGBTQIA+. Until we have won equality for all people globally, the fight goes on. I wish everyone a happy and safe Lesbian Visibility Week.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this debate and on her excellent speech. At first I thought, “What am I going to say in this debate?”, because I am not a lesbian, but I have stood in this Chamber and spoken on many issues. The thing is, you do not have to be a lesbian to speak in this debate; what you have to be is a good person. You have to be a person who believes in equality and fairness—that is what is important.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow said, Lesbian Visibility Week was created by a bestie of ours, Linda Riley, who is in the Gallery today. She has fought all her life to be heard and to be her authentic self, and what she wants more than anything is for everybody else to have that same privilege. Yesterday we watched a documentary, “The Life of Riley”. As an activist and a butch lesbian, Linda has supported everybody in the LBGTQI+ community. She can do that and support trans people because the two things are not mutually exclusive. I believe it is more important to know what is in people’s hearts than what is in their pants, and that we should spend more time talking about what is in people’s hearts. Nobody wants to erase lesbians—honestly, I would feel sorry for anyone who tried—and this debate highlights that.

I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith)—I am sorry if I mispronounced her constituency—talking about her experience when she was a teacher. Her girlfriend was sick, and my hon. Friend was unable to talk about it in her workplace because she was not out. We should all think very carefully about that in relation to allowing people to be their authentic self. Another lesbian, Sally, came out at work during Lesbian Visibility Week. It stopped a lot of men coming on to her, which she was grateful for, but some other men thought, “Oh, I’ll give it a try.” Get over it. Some women are lesbians—get over it.

Linda welcomes lesbians and makes them feel safe in her environment. I have watched how she looks after the people my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow mentioned—people like Kelly Holmes, who kept her sexuality secret because of her time in the Army, but who is now an activist and advocate, and engaged to a wonderful, beautiful woman called Louise. That is the power of allowing people to be their authentic self and just allowing them to live, giving them space to grow and be happy.

I do not care who people love. As long as it is legal, love who you like. The world would be a better place if there was more love. There is too much hate right now, and I think we need more love in the world. As my hon. Friend said, in some countries, two consenting same- sex people are not allowed to love each other. That is wrong.

Linda talks about LGB with the T. The trans debate has been extremely toxic. The debate in this House last week made trans kids and trans adults feel like they do not exist, like we want to erase them. This is the mother of all Parliaments; we should not have debates in this place that make people feel that they do not exist or that we want them to be erased.

I spent a lot of time over the weekend speaking to Dr Cass, and I am grateful to her for her time. She was advised not to travel on public transport because of her report—before it was even published. Some people, including some MPs, implied that I had contributed to that, but Dr Cass said I could quote her saying that that is “absolutely ridiculous”. I felt really hurt and offended because they encouraged a pile-on on me over the weekend. I say to those who think they can silence me and stop me sticking up for marginalised or minoritised groups, think again. That is literally what I have been elected to do in this place—to speak up for people who may not be able to speak up for themselves—and I am not going to stop.

People are making things up about me. They should read my book, which I am happy to plug. “A Purposeful Life”—out in all good bookshops now—is clear about why I am an activist and why I campaign the way I do. As I discuss in my book, the Equality Act 2010 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 have no bearing on each other. Therefore, you can be a feminist and stick up for the rights of women, and also be a trans ally. That, I think, shows the very best of humanity, and we all need a little bit more of that.

It is a real privilege to speak in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing it and on her excellent opening speech. I also thank our fantastic ally, our hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for all that she does—for the pertinent points she makes about supporting the whole LGBT community and for all the work she has done in standing up for trans people. I must not forget our hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), an outstanding champion who, long before many of us were in Parliament, was flying the flag in what was a very lonely place at the time.

It was also a real privilege to attend the event on Monday that my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow organised and to meet Linda Riley, the publisher of Diva, and Professor Sue Sanders, the co-founder of LGBT History Month. Just to be among such people is such an honour for someone like me. Thinking back to 30 years ago, Diva was quite a lifeline for people as isolated as we were in south-west Wales, perhaps not knowing anyone quite like us and certainly not wanting to be open about ourselves because we were worried about society’s reaction.

At the time of section 28, I was in a relationship with another woman, both of us were teachers and this was very inhibiting. As I have previously said in this Chamber and in Westminster Hall, it was a very difficult time—a time when it was not easy to challenge the homophobic bullying that was going on then and which still goes on now. I thank all those who were braver than I was and came out sooner than I did.

I apologise to the House for intervening, but I have to go with my wife to celebrate her 17 years as chancellor of the University of Hull.

The hon. Lady is rightly talking about the bullying and the fear she experienced. There has been some of that more recently. I started to become conscious of some of the issues when Kathleen Stock was being bullied mercilessly in Sussex. We ought to be careful. If I were to make a speech in this debate, I would say that two of the greatest events I have been to were the LGB Alliance conference meetings, which were picketed by people who seemed to hate the people inside. They would not come inside to listen; they were shouting outside. That kind of attitude has echoes of what speakers today have talked about.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central has said, there is real need to approach these things in a calm and appropriate way, and to respect everybody’s different ways of manifesting their humanity.

What for me is very telling is the fact that I came out when my relationship broke up. It is almost impossible to hide grief. It is ironic that, having spent a considerable period not being open and trying not to make it obvious that we were in a relationship, it was when we did not “need” that hidden approach any more that I came out. It is incredibly difficult to explain to people why you are in such a state of grief if you do not explain the relationship. What was interesting about that was not only the reaction of very supportive friends, which was great, but finding that some people had never guessed; I was quite shocked and surprised by that. It was strange to realise that we were more hidden than we understood, because people did not see lesbians. That shows the importance of Lesbian Visibility Week.

Perhaps because society is so male-dominated and women are marginalised in many respects, or perhaps because women are more likely to be seen doing things together, holding hands or going on holiday with other women, we were not even noticed. One of the important aspects of raising lesbian visibility is enabling people to be their natural selves and enabling other people to recognise that. Of course that has meant over the years that women were perhaps not the subject of homophobic legislation. In many ways, it reflected the role of women as society was then and that women were very marginalised and not seen. That is perhaps part of the wider picture of where women were.

There have been workplace stereotypes: women have to dress in a certain way and behave in a certain way towards heterosexual men, or they are expected to do so. When they do not, be that as lesbians or as heterosexual women, it can be interpreted negatively, which has often held lesbian women back over the years. It is a form of discrimination and stereotyping that has had pernicious results.

It is not enough for us to hope that attitudes can change. Hope is not enough. We all have a responsibility to challenge, and to use our legislative powers to strengthen our challenging through legislation. We were proud, as a Labour Government from 1997 to 2010, to do a number of important things that helped LGBT rights, including ending the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces, ending discrimination against lesbian and gay partners for immigration purposes, and giving LGBT individuals and couples the right to adopt children. Of course, we scrapped section 28, which was very important for people like me, but we also banned discrimination in the workplace and in vocational training with the introduction of the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003.

We also included homophobia in the definition of hate crimes. Sadly, we have seen a rise in hate crimes in recent years, to which I draw the Government’s attention. In particular, I ask that more should be done to tackle homophobic, including transphobic, hate crime.

Of course, we created civil partnerships and awarded statutory rights to fertility treatment for lesbians on the NHS but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow said, there is a long way to go on equal and fair access. I hope the Minister has listened to what she said today, and to what she said to the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, and I hope progress can be made on this sooner rather than later.

Although we have made progress, we know that, in many respects, there is a lot to do to stop attitudes regressing in this country but also internationally. Women are hardly noticed or recognised in many countries and, if they are, they are certainly not allowed to be in same- sex relationships.

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. With others in this House, I hope I can play my part in securing greater lesbian visibility.

Lesbian Visibility Week should be about lesbians, but the website put up this week says it is about

“celebrating the power of sisterhood by uplifting incredible LGBTQIA women and non-binary people”.

I think it is a real shame that, in the week about our visibility, the lesbian identity is being subsumed into a number of other identities that have nothing to do with being a same-sex-attracted woman.

Many lesbians fundamentally disagree with this, and I want to speak up for them today. They need someone to speak up for them. It is a mark of how marginalised lesbians have become in our society that so few hon. Members have turned up today. It is the reason I am speaking from the SNP Front Bench, despite having been removed from it several years ago, partly for being the wrong sort of lesbian and one who does not believe that the rights of men who say they are women should trump those of lesbians.

Before I go any further, I declare an interest as a supporter of LGB Alliance and a member of the advisory boards of both the Lesbian Project and Sex Matters. But my main interest in this issue is that I am a lesbian. I came out in the 1980s, when homophobia and lesbophobia were still rife across the UK, and my first activism was against clause 28. In those times, like many other lesbians, I was physically assaulted in the street and mocked for being a lesbian. Lesbians of my generation also faced losing our jobs and our children.

For a long time, we thought that lesbophobia had gone, but lesbophobia is back, and it has been created by those who think that the rights of lesbians are conditional on them accepting gender identity ideology. They are not. Lesbians are same-sex-attracted women, and we are protected on that basis from discrimination, bullying and harassment under the Equality Act, under which our protected characteristic is sexual orientation. Our protection is on the basis of our sex, not our gender. And as J. K. Rowling has said, without sex there can be no same-sex attraction. That is why lesbians like me fight the replacement of the biological reality of sex with the nebulous concept of gender.

I said a moment ago that the rights of lesbians are “not conditional” on accepting gender identity theory. That is a direct quote from my friend Allison Bailey. As some Members will know, Allison Bailey is a black lesbian barrister who nearly lost her job for standing up for the rights of lesbians. Other lesbians have faced similar persecution.

My friends Kate Harris, Bev Jackson and Eileen Gallagher had to fight a lengthy court battle to protect their charity, LGB Alliance, from being removed from the charity register as a result of malicious legal action. Justice prevailed and they won the case but, shamefully, those who sought to destroy a charity run by lesbians for lesbians included Members of this House, and it was not the first time that Members of this House have displayed hostility towards lesbians.

As the Father of the House said a moment ago, when I was invited to speak on a cross-party panel at the first LGB Alliance conference back in October 2021, I faced the challenge of crossing a picket line that included a heterosexual female MP who, together with self-styled trans rights activists, was protesting against the rights of lesbians to organise a conference to talk about lesbian and gay rights. Just let that sink in. That is where we have got to—heterosexuals telling lesbians that we cannot hold a conference.

Many lesbians have been persecuted for refusing to bend their knee to gender identity ideology. Some have faced losing their job and their livelihood, and some have also faced violence or the threat of violence. I will name a few of them this afternoon. All are or have become my friends as a result of our struggle: Lucy Masoud, Professor Kathleen Stock, Julie Bindel, Professor Jo Phoenix and my dear friend Dr Shereen Benjamin, a Labour activist who has been treated appallingly by the University of Edinburgh.

There are many other lesbians whose lives have been severely restricted by gender identity zealots. We are not allowed to have lesbian-only social events. The only venues left for lesbians say that they are inclusive, which means that men are included. Women’s sports are also now inclusive, which means that they include men while excluding lesbians who want to play on women-only teams.

Recently, a lesbian coming to view democracy in action at the Scottish Parliament was told by security that she could not enter the building wearing a small pin badge reading “Scottish Lesbians.” I am wearing that same badge today in solidarity with Scottish Lesbians, which is an excellent grassroots lesbian collective.

Across the United Kingdom, lesbians have been intimidated at Pride marches, spat on and assaulted for simply asserting their right to say that lesbians are same-sex attracted. At a recent event for women in Edinburgh, men counter-protesters held up vile, abusive lesbophobic signs. The police did nothing because, for all the furore in Scotland about hate crime, it seems that hate directed at lesbians does not count.

I do not believe that the interests of lesbians are being properly represented by organisations such as Stonewall and the organisers of Lesbian Visibility Week because, in their determination to promote gender identity ideology and to keep themselves in a job by doing so, not only do they fail to represent lesbians but they actually promote lesbian invisibility and lesbian erasure.

Most people think it is absurd to say that a man can be a lesbian, or to say that lesbians can have penises, and they are right. It is absurd. I am proud to be able to stand up in Lesbian Visibility Week in the House of Commons and say so. I am proud that I can stand up to speak for the lesbians who reject the forced teaming of lesbians with other groups that have completely different issues from us. I say: stop lumping us together with those other groups, as it has the effect that our interests are obscured or overlooked altogether, and it renders us invisible.

Interestingly, back in 2021 the “Inclusive Britain” report found that aggregate terms such as BAME were “no longer helpful”, took no account of the differing needs and outcomes of those included under that umbrella, and should be dropped. The report’s findings were adopted and the acronym BAME is no longer used in government. I, like many other lesbians, think that the same principles should be applied to acronyms such as LGBTQIA+, so that lesbians are not force-teamed with other identities.

I am reflecting on the speech we heard from the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), and what we could all benefit from in this debate is a bit more love and compassion. Anybody who is setting out to do anything other than demonstrate love to people who do or think differently perhaps needs to think again.

Yes, but there also has to be room for difference and for someone such as me to speak up on behalf of some lesbians who feel the way that I do—we are quite large in number. I do not pretend to speak for all lesbians, but none of the other lesbians in this House speak for all lesbians either. I am putting forward what I consider to be a valid viewpoint. Most importantly, it is one backed by the law of this land.

I am constrained by not having as much time as I would have liked. I would have liked to have talked about the Cass report and how it has identified that a large percentage of girls presenting with gender dysphoria are same-sex attracted young women. I would like to have had time to talk about how important it is that we do not shut down holistic talking therapy for such young women. However, I am going to bring my comments to a close by saying this: in my belief, in the view of many lesbians and in the eyes of the law, a lesbian is a woman whose sexual orientation is towards other women. Those who think lesbians include men are deluded. You cannot be a responsible lawmaker if you believe that any man can be a woman just by saying so. That is an old joke worthy of the worst nights in student union bars back in my youth, with drunk testosterone-fuelled men telling me and other lesbians that all we needed was the right man. In future, let us try to retain our grasp on what a lesbian is. Many lesbians are sick of being bossed about by all those who promote their cult beliefs that gender trumps sex—it does not; it never has and it never will.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) on securing this debate, the first on Lesbian Visibility Week in parliamentary time. I congratulate her on her inclusion in the DIVA 2024 power list. Her sharing of her coming out story today was generous and powerful. She also reminded us of all the trailblazers and giants upon whose shoulders we stand. She also talked about the homophobic abuse she faces on a daily basis, and I applaud her for her courage and insistence that she will not be silenced.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) talked about the importance of everyone being able to be their authentic selves. I was also struck by what my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) said about how, as lesbians, we have often been more hidden than she thought, because for so long lesbians were not noticed, not considered and marginalised; we were not seen even when we were not hiding.

As has been said, Lesbian Visibility Week was founded in 2020 by Linda Riley, the publisher of DIVA magazine. It is a global event that aims to celebrate LGBT+ women and non-binary people everywhere, and to increase lesbian visibility. Today is an opportunity for us to reflect upon the history of lesbian Members of this place, to celebrate the progress that has been made to make Britain a better place in which to live as a lesbian, and to recognise the issues that our community still faces and the progress that is still to be made.

When I was young, lesbian role models were few and far between; being openly gay was just not something that was present in the public psyche, and I could not then imagine a lesbian being able to exist, never mind be happy. Lesbian Visibility Week is an opportunity for us to celebrate not only that we exist, but that we are a diverse community. We do not all look like each other, behave like each other and agree with each other, but more often than not we can be united, although we are not uniform; fundamentally, you cannot tell by looking.

Today’s debate is a chance to usualise us, and to show that lesbians are everywhere and not in niche, discrete communities. We are in workplaces, communities, schools, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and families, and, yes, we are in Parliament too. How many times are lesbians expected to ‘”blend in”, keep our heads down and not make a point of our sexuality and whom we love? Without being visible, our identity is hidden, and when we are so hidden, it confirms assumptions that we are somehow shameful. That is why Lesbian Visibility Week is so important. We must be included for who we are, not for fitting in. Once no one looks twice at two women holding hands in public, once no one raises an eyebrow when your wife picks you up from work, when a child’s teachers are not surprised when two mothers arrive for parents’ evening and when people are not looking at the clothes we wear or the length of our hair to decide whether or not we are lesbians, that is when lesbians are becoming equitable. It is not so much about being accepted as being expected. I want my being a lesbian to be un-noteworthy, not because no one has noticed, but because it is usual.

Since today’s debate is the first in this place to celebrate Lesbian Visibility Week, it seems only right to recognise the first out lesbian Member of this place; Maureen Colquhoun, who died in 2021, was one of merely 23 women elected in the February 1974 election. Not only was she the first woman to come out as a lesbian while an MP, but she was the first MP to come out at all. I never met Maureen, but she was a trailblazer and she never hid who she was, even in the face of some of the worst discrimination, including from within my party. A feminist and a fierce campaigner for women’s rights, Maureen openly stated that her sexuality ruined her political career. Deselected by her local Labour Party in Northampton North, Maureen was reinstated by the national executive of the Labour party just before the 1979 election, but ultimately she lost her seat as the country went to the polls. Maureen rightly takes her place in Labour party history and parliamentary history, and I am proud that we are able to celebrate her as part of this debate today.

However, after Maureen’s election in 1974, Parliament would have to wait a staggering 23 years until my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), whom I am delighted to see has just entered the Chamber, became the second out lesbian on the green Benches, coming out in 1997. Thanks to those women trailblazers and those who have come since, it has been possible for me to believe I could be here too.

Living as a lesbian in 2024 is vastly different from living as a lesbian in 1974, and I am pleased to say that since then my party and this place have made significant progress on lesbian and LGBT+ rights. I am glad that progress has been made in recent years. I welcome the Government’s expansion of the scope of the Turing law to include lesbians who were wrongly convicted of homosexuality while serving in the military. As a Christian, I am delighted that same-sex couples are finally able to receive blessings from the Church of England.

Looking around the world, we see progress in other countries too. 2024 is the year that Greece, Estonia and Latvia are legalising same-sex marriage, and in Dominica homosexual activity has been decriminalised and the age of consent equalised. But there are challenges too. In Russia, displaying the Pride flag has become a criminal offence, and in Uganda, simply identifying as LGBT+ is illegal, showing just how far there is still to go for LGBT+ people, including lesbians, to feel safe to be who they are.

There are still many disparities and discriminations here at home. The Government cannot seem to decide whether or not to bring forward a Bill to ban conversion therapy. Two weeks ago, it was reported that the Prime Minister was killing it off, but a week later it was said that the Minister for Women and Equalities was still working on it. The position changes depending on whoever was last asked. The fact remains that the Government are still kicking a Bill on conversion therapy into the long grass, with no expectation that it will make it on to the statute book during this Parliament, despite its being promised six years and four Tory Prime Ministers ago.

Inequality has soared under the Conservatives. Fourteen years of low growth and their reckless gamble, which cost households thousands, has affected everyone, but women, including lesbians, have been brutally exposed to the cost of living crisis, thanks to a complete failure to close the gender pay gap and a failure to create a working environment that works for women with caring responsibilities. Lesbians and GBT+ people have been let down by a Conservative Government that killed off their own LGBT action plan, disbanded their LGBT advisory panel, cancelled their international LGBT conference and have still not honoured their promise to ban the insidious practice of conversion therapy. Instead of standing up for LGBT+ rights and bringing people together, the Conservatives have stoked a culture war and pitted different groups against each other.

When Labour left office in 2010, life in Britain for LGBT+ people, including lesbians, had been completely transformed. The last Labour Government repealed the appalling section 28, introduced civil partnerships, paving the way for equal marriage, and ended the ban on LGBT+ people serving in our armed forces. Labour equalised the age of consent, gave LGBT+ couples the right to adopt, introduced the Equality Act 2010 and made homophobia a hate crime. I am proud to take my place here today as a Labour Member and a lesbian, with the record of the last Labour Government behind me and standing on the shoulders of the brave women and men who made this country a safer and more hospitable place for lesbians and all LGBT+ people to grow up, work, love and thrive in. The next Labour Government will continue to build on that work.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) pointed out that she is not a lesbian; obviously, I am not either. I feel somewhat outnumbered but I am proud to respond to this important debate. I extend my thanks to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) for securing such an important debate, for highlighting the importance of Lesbian Visibility Week and for paying tribute to Linda Riley, who instigated it in the first place. I too pay tribute to Linda Riley for her work, over many years. Inspirational people like her have made my life, as a gay man, a lot easier, and I pay tribute to them for standing up at times when it was really not easy.

I am extremely proud to be one of over 60 openly LGBT members of Parliament, and I am grateful to serve alongside such a diverse range of colleagues across the House. Although I am obviously not a lesbian, the journey of LGBT rights is mirrored in my lifetime. As I have got older, our rights have improved significantly. Walking that journey means a great deal to me personally. I want that journey to continue for future generations. It is important that we have this debate on Lesbian Visibility Week so that the next generation can see that if they are a lesbian, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that and they should enjoy their life happily and freely.

Lesbian Visibility Week has been widely celebrated since its inception and has provided an essential platform to address both the achievements and issues faced by lesbians. Dedicated colleagues have fought for gender and racial equality within the Houses of Parliament themselves, from Maureen Colquhoun in the 1970s, who was the first lesbian MP and who other hon. Members have mentioned, to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), who has been a steadfast campaigner in this place for LGBT rights for many years—I do not want to sound rude.

There are also inspirational figures outside Parliament, such as Dame Kelly Holmes, mentioned by the hon. Members for Jarrow and for Brent Central, who is raising the profile of those who find their true selves later in life. I was particularly touched by the contribution made by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith). I know that at times it can be incredibly emotional for her to tell her story, but I am honoured every time I am in the room to hear someone being so open about their experiences. It is inspirational. The UK is undeniably richer for the contributions of these women, and more LGBT role models continue to appear every day. As others have righted raised, lesbians have contributed importantly to the way of life in this country: in our armed forces, serving to keep our country safe; in medicine, helping us to make medical advances; in education; and in all walks of life. Their contributions have been extraordinary.

Many Members will have heard me say on numerous occasions that I am committed to improving the outcomes for lesbians, and all LGBT people. We especially recognise that lesbians often face specific challenges. The hon. Member for Jarrow talked about how she often felt lonely. As Minister for loneliness, I was really keen that we had a specific campaign and focus this year on loneliness experienced by members of the LGBT community, as they often find that journey incredibly challenging, particularly if they are in rural areas.

Other challenges may include difficulty in access to IVF, mental health challenges, domestic abuse or hate crime. I was distressed to hear the experiences of hon. Members who have faced hate crime. Having been queer- bashed myself, I know how terrifying it is and the lasting effect such an incident has, not just when it happens but years later, with flashbacks. I reassure all Members of the House that I and the other equality hub Ministers regularly engage with our counterparts across Government, as well as relevant civil society groups, on a range of matters that relate to this important area of work.

The equality hub is working with a range of businesses and professional membership bodies to identify how employers can best support women’s reproductive health in the workplace, for example, as part of the delivery of the workplace elements in the women’s health strategy. We are holding roundtables and working with employers from a range of sectors to develop case studies and tips on good practice, to improve the support available for women’s reproductive health. This will help inform the development of resources to promote and support employer good practice, highlighting those organisations that are leading the way on these issues.

A number of important points were made about IVF. There were a number of changes and future ambitions within the women’s health strategy for England to improve the variation in access to NHS-funded fertility services.

Colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care have begun work to improve information provision on fertility and fertility treatments, including on the NHS website, and have launched a tool that provides greater transparency on local provision of IVF. Our initial priority is to remove the requirement for female same-sex couples to self-fund six rounds of artificial insemination before being able to access NHS-funded treatments. My colleagues in DHSC are working with NHS England to take that forward, along with other commitments that are deliverable through the integrated care boards.

I accept that this work is taking longer than expected, which I realise is disappointing to those affected, but please be assured that it remains a priority for delivery. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is currently reviewing its fertility guidelines and will consider whether the current recommendations for access to NHS-funded treatments are still appropriate, and we expect that review to be published next year.

With regard to the statutory instrument, I am assured that colleagues in the DHSC are working on it, so that it can be presented to the House, but I will update the hon. Member for Jarrow when I have had further discussions with DHSC Ministers.

Let me come on to some of the other points that were raised by Members today. Mention was made of the equal marriage debates that we had in this Chamber. Ahead of that debate, I remember Members receiving emails and letters from people almost suggesting that if we extended marriage to lesbian and gay couples, the sky would fall in the next day. Well, we did it, and the sky is still up there. What I noticed though was that, very quickly, everybody was waiting for their invitation to an equal marriage reception.

Turning now to the issue of hate crime, we need to ensure that we all call hate crime out, and I am glad that hon. Members have done so. I am in regular discussions with my colleagues in the Home Office and will continue to raise the points that hon. Members have mentioned today.

The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) talked about the voices of lesbians being silenced. I simply cannot understand why anybody would want to do that. Lesbians have as much right as anyone to stand up for recognition and for their rights. It is important that we all enter this challenging debate in a calm and measured way. A toxic debate serves no one. We can have a grown-up debate in which we disagree and agree, but we should do so with dignity and with respect. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) said, this should all be about the people whom we love, so let love be at the centre of that debate.

I was glad that colleagues raised international issues. Unacceptable things are happening around the world—in places such as Uganda and Ghana. I pay tribute to the work that the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights is doing to focus attention on this area. It is right that we join our LGBT alliance friends around the world to encourage progress in this area so that people do not have to live in fear.

I will address the issue of conversion practices that the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Ashley Dalton) mentioned. No one in this country should be harmed or harassed for who they are, and attempts at so-called conversion practices are abhorrent. We are clear on our stance that they are harmful and that they simply do not work. That is why we are committed to publishing the draft Bill. I know that it has taken time, but it has been a very challenging issue to get right. I am committed to our doing it.

I gently say that I was slightly disappointed by the shadow Minister’s conclusions to her speech, trying to make out that this Government have not worked hard on LGBT issues. I am proud to serve in a Government who introduced equal marriage, proud to serve in a Government who have brought about an HIV action plan to eradicate new infections by 2030, proud to serve in a Government who allow gay men to donate blood, and proud to serve in a Government who instigated the LGBT veterans independent review, so that there can be more support for those who were treated so disgracefully.

Today, though, I will end on a positive note by again thanking the hon. Member for Jarrow for securing this debate today and bringing awareness to the extremely important topic of our lesbian citizens during this important Lesbian Visibility Week. As outlined, the Government are committed to making sure that the UK is a safe place where lesbians are given the opportunities to thrive and live a safe and happy life.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate today. I thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), who is no longer in her place, for all that she did to ensure that same-sex marriage was achieved. My huge thanks go to my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) for her continuous support and allyship, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith)— I hope that I have pronounced her constituency correctly—for her activism and her very moving contribution today.

It was disappointing to hear the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), using problematic language such as “deluded” and “forced teaming” in a debate designed to celebrate all lesbians. To bring so much hate and toxicity as the formal Front-Bench speaker is upsetting and this Parliament deserves better.

Order. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) must really not use such language. I think she should withdraw that comment.

Okay, I withdraw it. But it is astonishing to claim that Lesbian Visibility Week is marginalising lesbians. It is because of Lesbian Visibility Week that we are here in this Chamber, bringing to Parliament the issues that lesbians face. The reality is that trans-inclusive lesbians like me are very much in the majority of cis lesbians, so I take offence at any insinuation that I am marginalising or misrepresenting lesbians. As a cis lesbian, I will not shy away from my trans-inclusive lesbianism and feminism. This year’s theme is “unified, not uniform”. To embrace that, we should all be celebrating the wonderful diversity among the spectrum of LGBTQIA+ women.

I thank the Minister for his constructive contribution and his support for the LGBTQIA community and I look forward to receiving his response regarding IVF. I also thank Labour’s Front-Bench spokesperson for setting out that Labour will treat all LGBTQIA+ people fairly and with dignity and respect.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the importance of Lesbian Visibility Week; and believes LGBTQIA women and non-binary people should be recognised for the work they do and the joy they bring.