The recently-appointed minister for equality and two leading gay Labour politicians faced questions from their own party activists at a conference fringe event last night.
The panel discussion, entitled Equality for the next decade, was organised by the LGBT Labour group and gay equality organisation Stonewall.
Chaired by out gay MEP Michael Cashman, equality minister Barbara Follett, Labour LGBT co-chair Alon Or-bach and Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill were joined by Angela Eagle.
Ms Eagle is the only openly lesbian MP and was appointed as a junior Treasury minister by Gordon Brown in June.
More than fifty trade union and Labour party members and other delegates to the conference took part in the event in Bournemouth.
Audience members raised the issue of homophobia in Jamaica, the pressing need to improve protections for trans people, religious belief and the government’s new bullying guidance and the ban on civil partnerships in church.
A new fund to help LGBT fight for political office called Dorothy’s List was unveiled.
Ms Eagle listed the achievements of the government in the last decade with regards to LGBT rights, but urged gay activists not to rest on their laurels.
“With the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights, we have got to move towards a Single Equality Act that will simplify and harmonise a lot of the rights that have been put into place that ban discrimination on all sorts of groups in the last 30 years.
“Then we have got to get down to the serious business of enforcing them.
“I read about the Suffragettes and their struggle for the right to vote. They were fantastic, brave women without whom we could not even be in politics as women.
“But they naively thought that if women got the vote then change in all the other things that were wrong would come about.
“We must not fall into the same trap: we have got the rights in law, we now have to make them real and effective.
“We have to make these rights are a reality for all LGBT people and ensure we can support them when they need it.”
Mrs Follett began her remarks by revealing the exact moment she was offered the job of equality minister by the Prime Minister.
“When Gordon phoned me in early July, I was surprised. I had a tangerine in my mouth as i had not expected the call, and I spat it out really quickly and said ‘yes, yes I would be honoured.’”
Mrs Follett said she was looking forward to piloting the new Single Equality Bill through Parliament.
She also criticised the behaviour of some Tory MPs in committee earlier this year when considering the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
“That was the worst standing committee of my life. People behaved as if they were in a zoo.
“I was ashamed that other members of the human race were behaving in that fashion, and worst of all they are elected members of parliament … the Tory party should disown them.
“In fact the Tory frontbench was doing everything it possibly could do disown them.
“There is that attitude in our society. There is a lot to do in the area of homophobic bullying in schools, and the kind of homophobic hate that we are getting sometimes out on the streets.
“We have got work to do on the legislative side, and we have work to do on the cultural shift.”
L to R: Barbara Follett, Michael Cashman, Angela Eagle and Alan Or-bach.
LGBT Labour’s co-chair Alon Or-bach laid out three key issues for the organisation in the next decade: goods and services protection for trans people; homophobia in schools and new legislation creating a new offence of transphobic and homophobic hate crime.
He urged that the legal definition of trans go beyond just those who intend to undergo gender reassignment treatment to include those who identify as a different gender.
Mr Or-bach also called on the government to make the promotion of equality for LGBT people a public duty for government bodies.
He called for the compulsory teaching of sex education in schools and for those lessons to include gender identity and sexual orientation.
Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill welcomed the government’s new guidance for schools about homophobic bullying, and drew attention to the scale of the problem in schools.
He also backed calls for new incitement laws.
“We are so clearly of the view that you can no longer persist as some people have that there is a separation between the sort of lyrics that young people are hearing on DVDs and records and the sort of suggestions made by parties like the BNP that all gay people are paedophiles,” he said.
“We are determined that you can no longer disconnect those incitements to hatred to the escalation, the epidemic, of hate crime against lesbian, gay and bisexual people in this country.
“That is why we are so determined in the next year to ensure that the new Criminal Justice Bill includes protections against incitement to hatred.”
Mr Summerskill also said that Stonewall was committed to improvement to the legislative protections for trans people in goods and services and for LGBT people in the public duty.
“Countries that do not respect all of their citizens end up respecting none of them at all,” he said.
“If wanted any reminder of that at the moment, we just have to look at Zimbabwe.”
Mr Cashman drew attention to the work the EU parliament does globally, including in Zimbabwe.
Audience members expressed concern about a “hierarchy of discrimination,” the way in which faith schools can still teach that homosexuality is a sin and the complex nature of the homophobic bullying guidance.
Mrs Follett said that the government was looking at all the concerns raised, including trans issues.
Mr Cashman summed up the mood with his closing remarks:
“I do not want tolerance, I want absolute equality and I want respect and that way I will respect views that are different and opposed to mine.
“We will achieve equality, we will achieve it because time is on our side and it is decent.”