Interview: From gay rights warrior to establishment figure
Angela Mason leaves her job as head of the government’s Women Equality Unit today after four years in the role.
The unit has been instrumental in pushing forward gay rights legislation such as civil partnerships and protection from discrimination for gay, bisexual and lesbian people when accessing goods and services.
A government job was not what Angela had envisaged when she became a founder member of gay equality organisation Stonewall in 1989.
As its director, from 1992 to 2002, she was at the centre of campaigns to equalise the age of consent, to lift the ban on lesbians and gays in the armed forces and to introduce new rights in the workplace.
She was awarded an OBE in 1999 for her work and earlier this month received an honorary degree from the University of London.
Lord Chris Smith, Cabinet minister and the first MP to come out, said of her: “Throughout a large number of years at Stonewall she had a succession of real successes, taking forward the cause of lesbian and gay equality. She helped to keep the issues on the map and she deserves much credit.”
Angela Eagle, the only openly lesbian Member of Parliament, told PinkNews.co.uk:
“I think she has made an enormous contribution to the progress we have seen in the last years for equal rights for LGBT people.”
Ben Summerskill, her successor at Stonewall, told PinkNews.co.uk that the honorary degree from Royal Holloway, University of London was a fitting tribute:
“We are absolutely delighted – it is a really nice event to mark Angela’s retirement.
“Angela was involved in the critical first steps in making Stonewall the organisation it is today and there are staff who served beneath her who will never forget the excitement of those times.”
But Angela Mason’s struggle for equality began long before Stonewall, as I discovered when we met last week.
Tony: How do you feel about leaving?
Angela: I’m sad in a way but I’m quite looking forward to being a bit freer!
Tony: And of course you’re not going to be completely leaving the field of equality.
Angela: No, I’m going to a local government think-tank, so I will be working as local and regional government on equality and diversity issues.
I used to work in local government so it will be quite nice to go back.
Tony: I was going to say, Camden council wasn’t it?
Angela: I worked in Camden and the Isle of Dogs. I was the neighbourhood solicitor for the Isle of Dogs.
Tony: A lot of people know about your professional work, the work you’ve done with Stonewall and subsequently with the Women Equality Unit, but I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your own journey, your personal journey?
Angela: Well it seems a long time ago since I started, but I was really deeply involved in the Women’s Liberation movement…
Tony: So what year are we talking there?
Angela: It was probably about 1969. I was in the Women’s Liberation movement, as we used to call it, not the feminist movement.
And that was enormously exciting for me, and then following on from that quite quickly was the Gay Liberation Front, as we used to call it.
I was reflecting at my leaving do, I would have been absolutely amazed in those days if anyone would have said I would end up doing a stint as a civil servant, working for the government.
So I was involved quite deeply in both those movements. Then eventually I did train as a solicitor.
I did a lot of work around women’s rights and worked at Camden Law Centre, which was interesting and fun.
Tony: One of the things we often find with our younger readers and with my younger friends is that they live in this environment and they don’t understand what it was like in the 60s or 70s.
You talked about the Women’s Liberation movement, what lead you to that? Liberation really is the word isn’t it?
Angela: I think liberation is an important word, I hope we start using it again and other important words, like solidarity.
Tony: For you personally I meant, it was this liberation…
Angela: It was, absolutely, it was a personal liberation, I mean, all sorts of absolutely silly things … that you had to get a man to guarantee you if you wanted to get higher purchase, so my partner and I had to ask a man if we wanted to buy a double bed.
We had to, rather ironically, ask a man to sign the higher purchase forms.
So those things were extremely irritating. I mean, discrimination in the workplace was absolute, against women, never mind gay people.
I mean nobody dared to be out … but discrimination was absolutely rife against women.
But I think, beyond that somehow women, and absolutely lesbians and gays, were second class citizens, you know, we really didn’t ‘deserve’ the respect that white, heterosexual men did.
Even when I came to Stonewall, the Law Society was amending their professional practice rules to deal with discrimination, and they wouldn’t include sexual orientation.
Tony: How many years ago was that?
Angela: 1992. And so we had lots of big meetings with solicitors, lesbian and gay solicitors, and this of course was the first time people had come together in a sort of professional capacity.
People had been organising and campaigning against things like Section 28, but people had never really organised anything in their own workplaces.
And it was absolutely amazing, I remember once asking how many people were out, and these were young men and women, and hardly any were out in the workplace.
Obviously that has changed quite a lot, when we first started doing work about discrimination in the workplace we would find a lot of people had two phone lines, so there would be a special phone line so that if anybody rang up from work their partner wouldn’t answer it, so that work and private life was kept completely separate.
People were terrified about being outed in the workplace. They were outed for all sorts of horrible reasons.
Somebody would find a copy of Gay News in somebody’s briefcase, or there would be some chance encounter, or somebody would confide in a close colleague and somehow it would all leak out.
And people lost their jobs or didn’t get a promotion, never mind all the harassment and bullying that used to go on in the workplace.
My sense is that now that doesn’t happen, or it certainly shouldn’t happen because we’ve passed laws to prevent it.
That doesn’t happen quite so much but we still have obviously a very big problem, I think, in schools.
Tony: I was going to ask you about that a bit later. The thing people always say about Stonewall is that it was founded by Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman, and of course they were the most prominent people, but the genesis of the organisation comes from thousands of people I imagine.
Was it a heartening thing for you when you joined that people, even though they were afraid to come out, still wanted to support you?
Angela: Well, we didn’t have very much support, I think when I joined annual turnover was something like £50,000, which we considered quite a lot of money in those days of course.
It was an absolutely tiny organisation, and having people like Ian and Michael and other big names supporting it was important.
But there wasn’t any sort of mass basis of support when I joined, and what changed that really was the first campaign for an equal age of consent.
We realised, partly just to raise money to do it, we would have to increase the number of our supporters.
So it had a dual purpose, a political purpose and a financial purpose.
We set about really trying to do that and actually built up support very, very quickly because I think for quite a long time people hadn’t been asked to be involved in politics in that sort of way, and it was quite clear it was a realistic opportunity, that we actually had a chance of getting an equal age of consent.
This was all in the days before a lot of IT development, so I remember when the campaign was building up and we had to get everyone to telephone their MPs and we didn’t have anybody’s telephone numbers, so I got armies of volunteers to go round London looking up telephone numbers, so we could contact our supporters.
It’s all much more sophisticated these days.
But we did have an absolutely enormous response, big mass demonstrations outside the House of Commons.
Tony: Famously the gays got rather upset …
Angela: Yes when we lost the first vote, but before that there had been really big lobbies, I mean hundreds and hundreds of people.
I remember taking Edwina Currie down this long, long line of lobbyists and introducing her to Jimmy Somerville.
Tony: The thing I find when I look back at all the things that have changed for us is that, and this is what I often say to people, is that straight people give us our rights, in the sense that it’s not just about us, it’s about our society, it’s about the supporters, people like Edwina Currie who on the face of it, it should make no difference to.
I suppose that society and that societal support was even greater under the Blair government.
Angela: Well I think what happened is that we should have made progress earlier but because there was such a long period of Conservative government which was quite hostile, well very hostile actually, to gay rights and had even passed things like Section 28.
The reform just had been blocked and hadn’t happened so by the time the Labour government got in in 1997 you did have a whole community that was out and willing to fight and really cared about it.
I think the success of Stonewall and indeed other organisations was to tap into that and translate that into a politically effective lobby.
Tony: So it’s all related to how you build in your community, the community therefore comes out with a strong voice and the government responds.
Angela: And also politicians actually do like to do good things, sometimes. I mean there’s not much scope in politics often, to take the moral high-ground or really feel you’re making a difference. And lots of people did feel that and were very, very committed.
Tony: How did you feel about becoming a poacher turned gamekeeper?
Angela: Well, when I was still at Stonewall we had done the first civil partnership private members bill and we had got it to the stage where the government said they were going to review it.
This job came along and I realised that this job would involve taking up that issue, and I thought well, it’s only the government actually, we’ve lobbied outside and so on but now there has to be that change in government, and it was quite a difficult bill because it covered so many different areas, so many government departments, and it’s always difficult to do that in government.
So I thought that was perhaps the place to be. And the other thing I was also very interested in was the new Commission on Equality and Human Rights.
I though if I can try to have a go at trying to put that in place, that would be great.
Tony: There’s a lot of concern and a lot of criticism of the new CEHR from many quarters, especially from people who want to retain the Equal Opportunities Commission, people who feel that there should be one voice for women, a lot of people who feel that we are basically sort of taking all of this and just shoving it in.
What’s your response to the concern that you can’t protect everybody within one organisation?
Angela: I think you can, and I think you get real added value from working together, if you do it right.
I mean it’s not an easy thing to do and the new commissioners and new staff have got a hugely challenging role, but I think the notion of equality for all is absolutely fundamental.
I didn’t fight for gay rights or women’s rights just because I thought women and gays are more important than anybody else, I fought for it because I believe in the right of all people, all human beings.
That is the big message.
Tony: Are you an asimmilationist – is that the sort of world you want to see in 100 years?
Angela: I never quite understand that because by intervening and making changes, you change the ground rules of how society works.
Gay rights doesn’t mean that you enter the same place as when I was growing up as a young girl, as a very not out lesbian. I think the stuff I have done, others have done, has changed the way it all works.
I think it undoubtedly must be true, and I hope you will agree, that for young people today growing up lesbian or gay, it’s not as bad as it was.
Tony: No, I agree.
Angela: And that people have opportunities and a sense of respect that I don’t think we ever did.
Tony: That’s exactly the word, it’s a sense of respect, and of course one of the biggest problems we face now is that the first place that they encounter prejudice is at school.
Angela: That really needs to be dealt with, I mean obviously the government is planning to produce new guidelines on gay bullying, very welcome, there have been bits of efforts.
We did quite a lot at Stonewall, we did some major surveys into young people’s experience of school.
It’s difficult, in a way it’s more difficult changing attitudes than it is to pass laws, although that is quite difficult as well.
So I think Stonewall are doing great in pushing out into areas of civil society like schools and trying to change the whole discourse.
Tony: What else is next for the ‘movement’ as it were? We talked about schools, but what are the other areas we really need to keep our focus on?
Angela: I’m quite interested in the international scene actually. I was just looking at your pages before you arrived and the stuff you’re reporting about hangings in Iran.
It’s clear that the rights we won here are absolutely not universal. So I think, that’s a big cause, a big campaign, the government has begun to think of a new strategy, a new international strategy in relation to gay and lesbian rights.
Although you might say how does that affect me here, I think the more you work in solidarity with others that gives you something in your own society as well.
There is debate still about hate crime and we’ve just had that Clapham Junction drama.
Tony: One of things I think that organisations like Stonewall and others may want to get into is media monitoring and the stuff that GLAAD does in America. I think it is very good work.
Angela: People have been saying that for 15 years and we never quite cracked it.
Tony: The thing is we are now facing a situation where we have the national broadcaster who we pay for refusing to taking homophobia seriously.
Chris Moyles tells millions of children that its OK to call people gay, to call ring tones gay. Patrick Kielty is using the word ‘gayer’ as a term of abuse, as is Jeremy Clarkson with ‘queer,’ and apparently that’s all just a bit of banter, I think that’s wrong.
Angela: You should talk to Ian McKellen about that, he’s one of the people who has always said that. In my time at Stonewall I don’t think we quite managed it, I mean goodness knows we had quite a lot to do. But Stonewall now, the media awards are sort of directed at that.
That’s something everybody can be involved in actually, so that’s another attraction of doing that sort of work, because you require eyes and ears everywhere to monitor.
Tony: And of course the internet helps as well, to communicate with everyone.
Angela: The internet helps as well.
Tony: What’s happening with the Women and Equality unit, where is it going?
Angela: We’re going to the Department of Work and Pension.
Tony: It’s the second move in I think three years?
Angela: Probably about two years.
Tony: So lets say the second move in two years, this is very expensive, all this moving, isn’t it?
Angela: We’re going to be part of the new Office of Equality Issues.
Tony: The new name. I love the civil service.
Angela: It will have the responsibilities for equalities generally, and sexual orientation and gender policy.
I mean maybe one of the things it will do is think in a more considered way than has perhaps been able to happen, you know, how this should really be dealt with by the government.
I think everybody acknowledges that it’s not absolutely right at the moment, and it needs quite a calm, considered approach to it, obviously taking into account the views of what government call stakeholders.
Tony: Lovely word, always makes me think of vampires.
Angela: Actually at my farewell do said our stakeholders shouldn’t be called stakeholders, they should be called friends of liberty and justice.
Tony: Absolutely. So I’m sure there are some aspects of the civil service that you’re not going to miss. Would you care to share any of those with us?
Angela: I think the worst thing about the civil service in a way is departmentalism. And if you’re doing equalities work, whether it’s women or sexual orientation or wider equalities work, you have to work with all parts of government.
It has been fantastic the way we worked with other parts of government on the civil partnership bill, I think that was because every lesbian and gay man in government made sure they were in the right place at the right time.
It’s not a government’s agenda often, it’s a department’s agenda, and if you change departments there are different conditions of service, different pay, whole new different culture.
Tony: That’s your issue, departmentalism is the thing you hit on.
This new Office of Equalities. Some would argue that that marks a downgrading of gay rights, saying we don’t need to give this a special focus, we don’t need to give women and sexual orientation a special focus.
But I guess it links to what you were saying about the new commission and the same sort of spirit.
Angela: Well I think we are moving towards that, I mean the problem is when you move towards a more general equality rights perspective and way of working, you nevertheless have to retain the distinctiveness of work for specific areas, and that’s why I think there will need to be more discussion about how those specific areas are recognised and dealt with.
Tony: Even within the Commission, for example?
Angela: Well I think that’s going to be an issue for the Commission, they know it, so they will have a generic way of organising but within that there will be specific projects dealing with all the different issues that the groups actually face.
You need both and it’s a harder thing to do. If you just have everybody just organising their own corner that creates all sorts of problems as well.
Tony: That’s something I’m sure you’ve seen in the civil service.
Tony: I’ve got one last question for you. Are lesbians still second-class citizens in the gay world?
Angela: I think they are a bit actually. I just feel that there are still so few lesbians who are out in public life, in the arts.
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We’re just not out there. I’m always sort of surprised when people come out in a sense because you think everybody’s out.
But a colleague came out to me just the other day, and said how difficult she still found it, so I thought gosh, you know, that’s really awful. I think we are.
I think lesbians are because women are still. There’s no rocket science about it, but I hope things are getting better.
Tony: I’m sure they are.
Angela Mason, actress Prunella Scales and academic Terence Cave receive their honourary degrees from Royal Holloway, University of London.