A history of LibDem campaigning on LGBT+ equality: “Always been there for you… and we always will”

I was lucky enough to be able to speak at the opening of Liberal Democrats conference last weekend, the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the party. The topic I spoke on was the history of LGBT+ equality campaigning in the party – something that actually predates the 1988 merger by some time, as the old Liberal Party was progressive and including even in the 1970s. Here’s the speech I gave.

For those who want to know more, there’s further information on the LGBT+ Liberal Democrats web site.


Good Evening! For those who don’t know me, I’m Zoe O’Connell – amongst other things, I’m a councillor on Cambridge city council.

But the reason I’m up here today is because I am also on the executive of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats.

And, as you’ve already heard, this year is a special anniversary.

An anniversary of something really, really… bad.

I can see a few staff members near the front looking worried now. Don’t worry, I’m not talking about the formation of the Liberal Democrats!

No, I’m talking about the 24th of May, 1988. The Conservatives implementing section 28, banning any mention of homosexuality in schools. Leaving a generation of frightened LGBT kids with nowhere to turn.

Liberals back then were determined folk – just as many of us are now – and were not going to waste any time. After all, the old Liberal Party had already included full equality in their 1979 general election manifesto so many in the newly formed Liberal Democrats were already well on board.

And they didn’t let being busy with the formation of a new party slow down their campaigning.

Just nine days after the party was formed, Simon Hughes MP – was amongst those standing up in the Commons, speaking out against section 28.

Thirty years on. What’s changed?

In terms of a liberal commitment to LGBT rights, not much.

Our party had started as it meant to carry on – there’s a reason the motto of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats is “Always Been There For You… and Always Will”.

There have been many campaigns along the way. Equalising the age of consent. Opposing the ban on men who have sex with men – and their partners – giving blood. Civil Partnerships. The first Gender Recognition Bill in 1996.

But the highlight of 2013 for many was a bill championed from within the Home Office by Lynne Featherstone.

Same Sex Marriage.

There were highs and lows along the way. Watching their Lordships debate what constituted consummation of a gay marriage was… enlightening.

And for the lows there was the predictable roll call of usual suspects spouting homophobic…

…well, it’s the rally, I’m not allowed to swear! Unfortunately, there are some ways in which other parties have not changed in the last 30 years, either.

But liberals won.

Liberal Democrats, in government, doing what Liberal Democrats do best.

Delivering on equality.

From the exhilaration that followed same-sex marriage, you might think the fight is over.

Sadly not. The need for liberals in parliament is as strong now as it was back in 1988.

LGBT asylum seekers still face intrusive and wholly inappropriate questioning, and end up being sent back to countries where they face persecution, imprisonment… even death.

And we are now seeing battle over equality for trans people hit the headlines.

That’s ahead of a consultation on trans equality later this year, and eventually a debate in parliament.

I already know which side Liberal Democrats will be on.

The right side.

We were ahead of history.

We are ahead of history.

I hope you’ll help us stay ahead of history.

Thanks for being here, and I hope you have a great conference.

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