Dawn Butler on her Labour deputy leader bid, that ‘gay giraffe’ scandal and her fearless commitment to trans rights
Dawn Butler, the shadow secretary of state for women and equalities for the opposition Labour Party, was exhausted. She was ready to pop open a bottle of rosé and call it a night.
No wonder she was tired, though, considering Dawn Butler launched her bid to become the Labour Party’s deputy leader last week in a contest that’s proving to be one of its most diverse and refreshing races ever.
In an interview with PinkNews, we sat down with the Brent South lawmaker who gave her commitment to being “the best ally” she can be as well as her “fear” that prime minister Boris Johnson’s history of homophobic, racist and sexist comments has “opened a toxic box” as hate crimes rise in Britain.
Her scathing critique of the government’s handling of the Gender Recognition Act – which could deliver vital reforms for trans folk if it were not repeatedly delayed – was plunged into controversy last year.
Not for her indelible support of trans folk, nor her take-down on Conservative equalities minsters delaying the GRA, but her comments on gay giraffes.
It turned her speech into a slot on Animal Planet, a scandal she now sees as “bloody hilarious” but indicative of how anti-trans campaigners “try to drag people along a very negative path”.
Dawn Butler urged Labour lawmakers to put her name on the ballot today for deputy, and in a move that could easily sway votes, she delivered her official stance on what Madonna song she belts out at karaoke.
PinkNews: You’re arguably one of parliament’s most fearless allies when it comes to the queer community, so when did LGBT+ rights become such an integral part of your political agenda?
Dawn Butler: I suppose the first time would have when I witnessed somebody being discriminated against because of who they are and who they love.
And, to me, it’s a no brainer. I don’t actually believe in categorising people’s rights, like, I think if I’m going to fight for equality, then I fight for equality for everyone.
Sometimes, I actually find it easier to fight for somebody else’s rights than fight for my own.
Why would you say that?
I’m energised fighting for others, it energises me. I think it probably exhausts me when I’m fighting for my own rights, because every day is a struggle.
Every day there is a justification or an excuse for racism. I think maybe I find it easier to fight for others.
You mentioned that this was ignited by the first time you saw someone discriminated against for being who they are. Is that something you can elaborate on?
I can remember the first friend I had who came out as gay [to me], and he was really nervous.
He was one of my best friends and he was, strangely, the only guy my mum allowed in my bedroom but she didn’t know he was gay!
What happened was that he said I wasn’t the first person he came out to. He had told some people he was gay and they didn’t want to be friends with him anymore.
He was scared that, if he told me, that he might lose me as a friend, which is really weird. And so, when he told me, I was like, “Cool, great,” you know?
It was really sad because that they even had to second-think, you know, telling me that he was gay because it really wasn’t going to interfere with our friendship at all. But he was so scarred by telling a couple of people that he decided he was going to keep it a secret.
And, and I think knowing that he suffered that sort of pain and hurt me.
Are you still friends with him today?
Our birthdays are two days apart; his birthday’s on November 1 and mine is on November 3.
We still have our little dance routine.
What is the dance routine?
We have a kid-and-play dance routine that we do, it’s just mad fun. He’s probably got some pictures because we used to do events together.
So, we used to organise charity events together. When we were younger, we would raise money for various charities.
We put on fashion shows and music shows and we were 17, 18, 19, we would just be doing all these things just to to help people, that’s just we who we were, who we are.
Basically, you’ve been setting the standard from a young age.
[Laughs] I’ve never thought of myself as unique until you start telling people your story and they don’t believe you.
In terms of other early memories, what’s the first memory you have of a Pride parade you attended?
Probably when I was a [General, Municipal, Boilermakers Trade Union] official, I can’t remember what year it was.
What was it like seeing a Pride for the first time?
I really like to be happy. And I like to be around happy people.
And so, and I like to party. Anyone will tell you that Dawn Butler will make a party wherever she is.
Being at Pride, it’s just nice to be at one big party where everyone’s just happy and comfortable in who they are and being their authentic selves, just having a good time.
And for me, that’s what society needs.
If we just concentrate and focus on being happy and happy for other people, the world will be a better place.
Points were made. Who would you say is your personal gay icon?
I suppose beside my mates, and it’s really funny, since my friend who didn’t come out to me first came out to me, there’s been other people who have come out to me first and i felt really chuffed for myself!
Besides my mates, [DIVA magazine owner and publisher] Linda Riley is an icon.
Why is she an icon to you?
I like the way that she’s quite humble.
When people say, you know, please always say, “Well, this is this is Linda Riley, you know, DIVA magazine,” people are like, “Oh my gosh, I read the magazine!”
I can see her face light up, and yeah, I quite like that.
I think she’s kind of an icon because of what she does really, and just having a platform and visibility and just doing it unapologetic I think it’s great.
And who would you say is your trans icon?
I think there’s people in the party, like Heather Peto because she struggled a lot within the party and has stayed strong and resolute and made sure the Labour Party is on point and considerate and she is really fighting the fight.
It’s so exciting!
Yes! And I like that there’s a platform for trans people to tell their stories and I love that soaps have now got trans actors there just telling their stories saying that: “We are people, we are people.”
The more we integrate the story of everybody’s lived experiences into everyday life it becomes less different, less traumatic for people to come out and say who they are.
I think that in 10 years’ time the narrative around sexuality and gender identity will be really different because you’ve got non-binary people who, it takes time to understand where that’s all about, but when you think: “Well, it’s cool!”
Young people get it, they don’t want to be labelled, they just want to be who they are, they just want to love who they want to love.
And I just think, again, it goes back to being happy. If you’re not hurting anyone and being happy, what’s there actual problem?
I’d rather people love each-other than hate each-other.
Flash question – don’t think about it – Madonna or Cher?
Cher! Because… I can’t explain it.
Madonna’s been good at transforming herself, and I’m not sure why she did Eurovision last year, it just didn’t make sense and it was really bad.
Cher is just one of those… you can’t believe it on so many different levels.
But, on saying that, karaoke tunes are normally Madonna songs.
‘Like A Virgin’, I usually belt out a really good ‘Like A Virgin’!
What is your vision for the Labour Party with Dawn Butler as deputy leader?
My vision for the Labour Party is that we build a strong foundation for campaigning and organising. That we recruit and educate people, that we value people.
We value their voices, that we unite people.
Because at the moment, we have leaders all around the world that are sewing divisions of various types of stages. And we mustn’t fall into the trap of criticising another, you know, an other person because they’re not who you are.
Because what happens is that just sews division. And so, my hope for the Labour Party is that we can appreciate each-other’s differences and work together.
It’s not about ignoring people’s differences or their intersectionalities. It’s fine to understand that somebody might be different from you, they might be different sexuality or might be different colour, that’s fine, too.
log on join in ??
— (((Dawn Butler))) (@DawnButlerBrent) January 7, 2020
It’s fine to understand that is also good to appreciate that, not tolerate, I don’t like “tolerance”. I don’t want anyone to be “tolerated”.
I want people to be appreciated.
Appreciate that, and let’s work together. And that’s what I want the Labour Party to embody.
That’s what I want to do as a deputy leader, I want to make sure that we’re moving this whole this whole debate forward.
And I think being a visible minority it will help to do that.
So, what would you do as deputy leader to help move that vision forward?
Well, as we go around, and hopefully I make the ballot I still have around eight or so MPs who need to nominate me, I will talk about it as we go around the country.
I will live it as well, so it’s not just words. My action will prove that.
When people ask, “Why do you care so much?” I say: “Why care so little?”
That’s the reality of it, to be honest.
Yet again, points were made. People are still exploring where their support lies, but what do you make of the current leadership race?
I will work with whoever the membership selects and chooses I will work with them.
I have a track record of working with leaders and Labour prime ministers and the only one who’s worked under two Labour prime ministers, and served in the Shadow Cabinet.
I have a proud record of doing that. So I’m happy to work with any leader.
Delighted that same-sex marriage has become legal in Northern Ireland! I've long called for marriage equality as I believe people in NI should have the same rights as the rest of the UK. Congratulations to everyone who has campaigned on this. Today is a great day for equality?☺
— (((Dawn Butler))) (@DawnButlerBrent) January 13, 2020
People forget! You think: “Excuse me! I was the first elected black female minister in this country.”
I have made history. It’s frustrating that we’re not in Government, because, God, the stuff I could put through, it would just be phenomenal.
But it means that we have to take the learnings from this loss and make sure we win next time.
If you were in government right now – wave of a magic wand – what would be the first thing you do?
I would well set up a new department for women and equalities, because that would be the very first thing, because there isn’t one.
I would amend the Gender Recognition Act and get that out of the way. Yeah, really quickly.
I would also throw a big party at Number 10. Actually, yeah, that would be the first thing I do.
Karaoke machine! Yes, that would be amazing.
So, looking to the past, what do you think is the Labour Party’s proudest moment? On the issue of LGBT+ equality and rights
Repealing Section 28.
Looking to the future, what are the biggest challenges facing the community?
It really saddens me to say this, but the growth of hate crime.
There is this report the [United Nations] did about the rise in hate crimes of certain communities, and I fear that having the prime minister we have that he’ll encourage it.
Although, [yesterday] it was interesting, there was an article where it says that the prime minister is going to be a little bit less like a comedian and he’s going to be a bit more serious and he appealed to the far right to win.
Now he’s going to get more serious.
But the thing is that once you’ve opened a toxic box, it’s really difficult to put the lid back on that again. I’m hoping that we will be able to do that.
But I think the biggest challenge is to fight the rise of hate crime, because the rise of the far right has with it, as part of it, the rise of specific hate crime and that’s the LGBT+ community, that’s race, that’s women, all of that goes hand in hand with that.
During the PinkNews Awards last year, you delivered a scathing speech about how frustrated you are over the Government’s handling of the GRA – which was notably absent from the Conservative Part’s manifesto – and linking back to the rise of anti-trans hate time, how are you feeling about the future of trans rights in the hands of the Tory govenrment?
It’s funny, because after I did that speech, they tried try to attack me. The media did try to attack me on my comments on giraffes which was bloody hilarious.
All on the news, ticker notes at the bottom, people phoning me. And I was, like: “Are you guys serious?”
Somebody actually said that I was booed and I was, like: “Excuse me? My speech was great! What are you talking about?”
You know they really tried! They got scientists involved, it was discussed on the Victoria Derbyshire show, it was all mad.
But the interesting thing was all these all these people with sort of long titles, started talking about the animal kingdom and how sexuality exists in the animal kingdom and started talking about all these animals.
I thought it was interesting because it changed the debate and got people thinking.
I worry about the “trans debate” because I got people saying I don’t “care about women’s rights and women’s issues”. Considering that I am a woman, I find that quite offensive.
I do worry that these people try to change the narrative, try to drag people long this very negative path, but what we have to do is just stay strong.
At the end of the day, trust the experts. I’m not an expert, but trust them.
When people talk about refugees – but the managers of refugees have been dealing with this since the day they opened – trust them that they can deal with it. That’s what I say.
Trust the experts. We don’t need to sew any divisions in society at all. There’s enough division sewn elsewhere.
Just focus on being positive, it will change the outlook.
To any trans people reading this, what would you say to them?
Diversity is our strength.
More from PinkNews
You should be comfortable with who you are, you should be respected for who you are, and you should be your true authentic self without fear.
I would like to thank the LGBT+ community.
2019 was one hell of a ride for a variety of reasons.
But some of my best memories from 2019 have been spent with my LGBT+ friends and so, I want to thank them and to have them know that I will always continue to be the best ally I can be.