The Conservative party held a “gay summit” in a Westminster committee room on 29 March. The conference – Supporting Young Lesbians, Gay Men and Bisexuals – the Way Ahead – was the party’s first tentative step towards building relations with LGBT people who have felt alienated by the Conservative leadership. The meeting was chaired by Charles Hendry, a Tory MP, and among the speakers was Steve Norris, Tory candidate for Mayor of London. Those present learnt from front- line activists about how to tackle bullying, suicide, and how to help youngsters who have been victimised because of their sexuality. The Tories now plan to rethink their policy of designating a teacher in every school to tackle bullying of gays and lesbians, after fears that would pigeonhole people.
The party leader, Michael Howard, was not present. The last Conservative government introduced Section 28 – a piece of legislation, only recently repealed, that outlawed the promotion of a homosexual lifestyle by local authorities – and provoked a huge backlash. It was Mr Howard who, as a minister, saw through Section 28, who signalled a dramatic change of policy this year. Tory MPs and peers have in the past happily marched into the lobbies to vote against lowering the age of consent, gay adoption and allowing openly gay people to serve in the armed forces.
Relations have been so strained that yesterday Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall, the gay equality group, welcomed the summit but called it a “ceasefire”. “We celebrate the cessation of hostilities in any conflict,” he said. “Jaw jaw is better than war war.” Brian Paddick, the openly gay assistant deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan police, informed the party how to make streets and schools safe from “homophobic abuse”.
But there were grumblings that the event was no more than a public relations exercise. Peter Tatchell, the outspoken gay rights activist, was not invited. Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory minister, condemned the event as “complete nonsense”.
Mr Hendry declared the summit “extremely constructive and productive”. But there were uncomfortable messages for the Tories, including allegations that their supporters in the press were responsible for perpetuating homophobia. Delegates spoke out against “Daily Mail hate campaigns” and “the Murdoch machine.”