Steve Gilbert has a rotten cold and no fewer than 15 speaking engagements at next week’s Liberal Democrat conference. Fortunately for PinkNews.co.uk, he’s got just enough of his voice left to speak to us about being a new MP, marriage equality and why Westminster needs to take a lead on gay rights.
Now aged 33, he began his political career as a local councillor in 1998. He worked in the City for a fund management firm for five years before being elected as the Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay in May.
He describes entering parliament as “falling through a looking glass”.
“It’s a very special place, it’s got its own history, customs,” he said. “I often think of it as something like a combination between a library and a museum, much more than a modern, law-making assembly.
“But I’m beginning to understand what I don’t know, and understand some of the processes and procedures. But I’m quite sure if you talk to members who’ve been here 20 years, they’d still talk about finding new ways of procedures and promoting arguments and getting their views heard.
“There’s quite a collegiate atmosphere amongst MPs in general but of course everyone in the party who’s been here for a while supports us new boys and girls.”
Mr Gilbert will introduce a motion calling for the party to support marriage equality at next week’s Liberal Democrat conference, assuming he doesn’t lose his voice completely.
He says it’s a “black and white issue” and argues that social and cultural acceptance of gay people cannot fully happen until there is complete equality in the eyes of the law.
“Equality is actually a black and white issue. There isn’t any room for an area of ambiguity or greyness. We wouldn’t accept this debate as being a debate if it was about ethnic minorities or religious minorities not being able to have full equal protection in law.
“But I don’t think we should be accepting it as a debate because it’s about gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The reality is. . . the gay community hasn’t arrived at a point of full legal equality yet and we need to complete that journey.”
He’s “fairly confident” the motion will pass.
“It will hopefully be a very lively and informative debate,” he said. “Needless to say I think it might be one of the highlights as I’ll be speaking in it, if my voice holds out! Obviously a joke.”
Mr Gilbert is one of two MPs (the other is Green MP Caroline Lucas) to sign an open letter calling on gay rights charity Stonewall speak up for marriage equality.The charity has said in the past that while it does not oppose a change in the law, it has other priorities.
Mr Gilbert said: “Stonewall have done a huge amount of great work and continue to do great work, certainly in the last parliament. In the last government, they worked very closely and constructively to bring forward the proposals we saw and are still campaigning on these issues.
“I think it’s slightly curious that so far on this issue they choose to remain silent. I’m speaking with them regularly and I’ll be speaking at their fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference as well.
“If they do have any refinements or concerns that they haven’t felt able to share yet about the proposal, I hope they bring them forward so we can work together and address them.”
On the irony of an MP advising Stonewall, he added: “I think parliament has changed hugely. It’s not as representative as it should be but it’s getting there.
“In the new intake, across all the parties, there’s a significant increase in the number of gay MPs and I think that’s a great opportunity for Stonewall to engage with government and try and form a process that can finally bring legal equality before we can go on to tackle some of the cultural issues that still face the gay community.”
Mr Gilbert says he has been out since entering politics at the age of 21 and has not any encountered any problems with homophobia, even during his five years in the City.
He said: “It’s never been an issue for me to be who I am. The concern that I have is the thousands of people across the country who don’t feel able to be open and honest about their sexuality.
“And by the law not recognising those people as having equal rights, we almost give a wink and a nod that there is something different, something not entirely right, that there is something you should be concerned about. And that’s why for me, equality is the first step towards tackling some of the other social problems and cultural problems facing the gay community. Homophobic bullying in schools, discrimination in the workplace.
“We won’t be able to get onto some of those issues until we send out a very strong message from Westminster that everybody should be enjoying the same legal rights. That’s how it should be.”
He added: “I worked in the city for the world’s largest fund management firm, a company called Fidelity International. I certainly wasn’t the only gay man working there. And actually, I think some of the major corporate entities in the city have taken on this agenda with a great deal of enthusiasm. Because they’re conscious that a diverse workforce brings alternate points of view, brings new ideas, brings extra creativity into organisations and it’s ultimately for the benefit of the organisation.”
The last six months have seen Liberal Democrat MP David Laws announce he is gay, surprising even his friends and family. A Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, announced he was leaving his wife after 20 years last month. And this month, foreign secretary William Hague was forced to release an extraordinary statement denying he was gay after weeks of gossip about him sharing a hotel room with a 25-year-old aide.
Mr Gilbert said: “I think it was really unfortunate for the foreign secretary to have to put out such a personal statement. He’s made his position and that of his wife so clear over many years.
“That snide speculation, which is based on rumour and tittle-tattle as far as I can see, shouldn’t really be on the front pages of national newspapers at a time when government is settling down to tackle the biggest deficit in G20, when we’ve got the war in Afghanistan.”
But he added: “I think quite rightly the media in Britain think that if you seem you have something to hide, they will quite rightly pursue you for it. I just think sometimes they have to be a little bit better at separating the smoke from the fire.”
To MPs still in the closet, he says: “We should all respect each other’s privacy but at the same time, it’s not as bad outside as they might think it is. Sometimes the fear of coming out can be much worse than the reality.”
He’s unremittingly positive about the coalition, although he admits: “Not in my wildest dreams or fiercest nightmares did I expect to wake up in government and in coalition with the Conservatives.”
He’s enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by it, citing Liberal Democrat policies on fairer taxes and the housing crisis as areas where the party can see real legislative change.
On the programme of cuts, he says: “I think we’ve got to get real. At the moment, for every £4 we spend, £1 is borrowed. Every week, we’re adding £3 billion to the national debt and that deficit stands at between £2 trillion and £5 trillion, depending on what you count. Compromise is going to be the watchword for the next few years.
“What is an unexpected result has I think become an opportunity for us all to get stuck into the business of government and make a difference. That’s certainly why I came into politics.”