Last Sunday, Boris Johnson announced the appointment of Lord Nick Herbert to take the new role as the UK’s Special Envoy on LGBT Rights - he has been given the job to champion LGBT equality both home and abroad and will chair the recently announced ‘Safe to be Me: A Global Equality Conference’ that is to be hosted here in the UK in June 2022. To many in the LGBT community, the thought of the UK hosting such a conference is a brazen move for a Tory Government given its recent failure in delivering LGBT Rights in its own backyard, specifically in relation to the botched GRA Reforms that promised much and ultimately delivered effectively nothing (and being the catalyst for ever-increasing levels of online transphobia), and yet another delay to any kind of meaningful ban on Conversion Therapy. The fact the Government intend to shine a global beacon of light on these failures is somewhat surprising to say the least.
Every new appointment in the Government to do with LGBT rights is met with fear by most within the trans community and is followed by frantic online searches to try to identify where they stand on trans rights - but what immediately struck me upon Nick’s appointment was the messages of good wishes and clear approval from both Michael Cashman, a founder member of Stonewall who is a very strong and vocal trans ally within the gay community, and from Tory MP Crispin Blunt who is arguably the strongest and most vocal trans ally within the Government. (see link ref 1#)
All the indications of his previous record appear to point to someone who genuinely does stand up for all LGBT rights, so this boded well but the next important moment was to see what he actually has to say about this new role, and from my perspective, specifically with regard to trans rights - having previously held beliefs is one thing, but in truth those count for nothing if his position and priorities have changed in any way with this appointment.
This week Nick gave his first interview to OutNewsGlobal, (see link ref 2#) and even though there was no specific mention of trans rights as the questions were more broadly LGBT based, the tone and passion of the message was powerful and also (for reasons I will explain) rather intriguing.
The first question to Nick didn’t pull any punches – Nick was asked that as a Conservative and given the residual distrust from the LGBT community that goes back to Section 28 and beyond, has the Conservative party really changed – Nick responded that (in his opinion) the Conservative party had changed massively - he pointed out that in 2005 he was the first outwardly gay man to be voted into a Conservative seat, but now there are dozens of gay MP’s (in all parties) – he stated that David Cameron had openly apologised for Section 28 and crucially he introduced equal marriage. He also believed that successive Prime Ministers have introduced measures to improve LGBT lives - whilst this might have some merit, it must be stated that there was no mention of the serious decline in the last few years.
Nick went on to say that he himself had set up a cross-party working group on global LGBT Rights that he chaired and he firmly believes there is a real commitment across all parties to work together on this issue. Nick was more upbeat (than the former LGBT Advisory Panel members) about the Conversion Therapy consultation, that he will be playing a major role in, insisting that the ban will happen. There was, unfortunately, no clarification asked whether this would be a full ban or one with any allowances for religious conversion practice to continue.
Ultimately, what he wanted to stress more than anything else in this interview was the significance of his appointment. He stated that Boris Johnson personally implementing this position of his Special Envoy sends a very strong signal of the level of importance the Prime Minister himself attaches to the issues, and he didn’t want this to be underestimated. Nick stated he intends to make the most of his role to promote LGBT Rights. He said he knows that Boris Johnson is personally committed to these issues having marched side-by-side with him at London Pride and he has talked with him about the issues and knows his commitment - it was in fact Nick himself who persuaded Boris that the UK should hold the Global LGBT Conference next year.
He stated and reiterated ‘I know, I KNOW the Prime Minister is committed to these issues’ and he sees it as very important that everybody has the opportunity to succeed and that diversity is a huge asset.
These are strong words but as always, action speaks louder than words, and these words will mean nothing if we do continue down the current path.
Nick stated that the Conference is going to be the largest ever seen of its kind. There will be not just activists and experts but also Ministers and Parliamentarians, including trans members of parliament from all around the world.
He therefore intends to drive a programme of action now in the UK leading up to the Conference starting with the ban on Conversion Therapy and also to look at the ‘other areas’ where he thinks they should pay more attention to promote equality for LGBT people. Nick didn’t clarify what these other areas are, but after Conversion Therapy, it would be hard to imagine what other LGBT issues are as high profile as those facing the transgender community.
Time will tell, but do we have a genuine ally in a position of genuine importance to Boris Johnson?
And so the question I have to ask is why Boris Johnson would make such an appointment, that on the face of it goes completely against the appointments of Liz Truss and the current EHRC members.
It is still unclear why the draconian GRA Reform changes leaked in the Sunday Times (see link ref 3#) were not pursued and were removed from the Governments actions so did not form part of their Reform implementations, and this is where I cautiously ask the question what or who actually halted the anti-trans reforms to the 2010 Equality Act - is there a possibility that it was actually Boris Johnson who was behind this? I’m not for one second saying that this is definitely the reason, but I am just leaving that door open saying that it cannot now be ruled out.
There is no question that Nick Herbert’s views and passion previously expressed on LGBT rights will have left Boris Johnson in no doubt as to exactly who he was appointing - and for that reason, this is a strange appointment given the recent path this Tory administration has followed.
It is however difficult to find any other logical reason for this appointment - the Government has just removed the LGBT Advisory Panel, who clearly could have caused the Government great embarrassment during the run-up to the Conference in 2022, which is the last thing they would want. This conference is clearly a massive PR exercise and the last thing Boris will want is for the UK to be a laughingstock and with the eyes of the LGBT world firmly on the UK, there will be a desperate desire for this not to be a massive own-goal. Boris may like to play the fool but I find it hard to believe that he would want the Conference to be chaired by anyone so opposed to the Governments position that would open wounds and expose issues for everyone around the world to see. So is the current Governments position about to change?
Nick Herbert does not appear to be the type of person to accept anything other than full backing in ensuring genuine improvements to all LGBT Rights - so it will be key to watch his progress - I suspect that if he is not supported in the way he wants and expects he will not remain quiet and simply won’t remain.
Given the understandable mistrust and fear the UK trans community in particular currently live with, ‘Safe to be me’ is a bold title for a UK LGBT conference. Under a continued stewardship of Liz Truss, the UK is most defiantly not a ‘safe place to be me’, so how much power and influence will Nick Herbert be given? If genuine improvements are not implemented quickly, and by that, we mean more than just more insulting gestures like the recent £5 GRC cost reduction, then the Government will come under real pressure and embarrassment the closer we get to June 2022.
The final words come from Jayne Ozanne (a former member of the Governments LGBT Advisory Panel) who made this statement at last week’s Women’s and Equalities Committee meeting: ‘What is needed is a rebuilding of Trust between this Government and many in the LGBT Community. They really need to see concrete actions that signal that they understand it has not been a happy period and that things have been going downhill for a year or two and we need to signal a massive change’
Ultimately at the moment, there are no answers, just questions and the main question is whether Nick Herbert’s appointment really could signal the start of change?
If it is, maybe someday soon it might genuinely be ‘Safe to be Me’ in the UK.