London's Tom Copley And Peter Whittle Reveal Why The Capital Is A World-Leader On LGBT Representation

'Now if somebody is not out in the political sphere then it is considered strange.'

12/06/2016 16:26 | Updated 14 June 2016

London's most prominent gay politicians have spoken out about the capital's hospitality to its queer community, hailing it as a world-leader in political representation.

Ukip's Peter Whittle and Labour's Tom Copley said the election of Sadiq Khan as London mayor was proof of the city's status as a world-leader on diversity.

They both stood successfully for election on May 5, and helped turn the London Assembly into the largest governmental body with the highest proportion of lesbian, gay and bisexual politicians anywhere in the world.

The fiercely-fought campaigns saw Ukip select a gay man as its mayoral candidate, Khan dance to musical numbers for a fundraiser in one of the world's oldest gay venues, and 11% (three out of 25) of Assembly Members returned being LGB.

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Sadiq Khan's election as London's first Muslim mayor wasn't the only historic victory for representation on May 5

The seminal event saw it pip the House of Commons (5%) and the Scottish Parliament (7%) to a historic record as the governmental body with the highest representation of queer people in politics. 

"London politics is so hospitable and accepting of the queer community that it's now seen as an absolutely natural thing that there would be gay people standing for election here," says newly-elected London Assembly member Peter Whittle. 

As Ukip's candidate, Whittle spoke proudly during the campaign about his hopes to become the city's first gay mayor.

"I don’t think people or voters give us candidates' sexuality much of a second thought - but I say that in a good way," he explains. 

Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Whittle said London was so cosmopolitan that many people 'simply assume there were going to be gay people in the middle of city or central government'

The Peckham-born AM (Assembly Member), who is now Ukip's culture spokesperson, thinks attitudes towards queer political leaders have changed "quite dramatically" since his life as a young adult 30 years ago. 

"We have come a huge way since when I was first politically active in the 1970s and there were no out MPs at all.

"After the short space of thirty years now if somebody is not out in the political sphere then it is considered strange, because, well, why would you not be?"

"When it comes to London, we’re a very cosmopolitan city; we’re very much an international city, so I think people would of course simply assume that there were going to be gay people in the middle of city or central government."

In 1984 London Labour MP Chris Smith became the first member of the Commons to come out as gay

Whittle first came out in his early twenties, at Christmas back in 1982, after he began his first relationship with a man. 

The former TV producer recalls how in his days as a closeted teenager, just years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality, he guessed at which politicians might gay and wondered "how did they do it?".

"If I knew that there had been a politician around who was gay I would have taken much more of an interest in that person. I would have found out all I could about them, read about them," he explains.

Whittle remembers his curiosity in Edward Heath, and his younger self wondering to what extent he felt represented by the then Conservative prime minister.

"It was a mixture of things," he says. "Heath was a single man and he was from very lowly origins. I remember that ticked boxes with me.

PA Archive/PA Archive
Whittle wondered in his adolescence whether former Tory prime minister Edward Heath was gay

"I remember looking, before I ever really understood his political positions, which of course I couldn’t disagree with more now, but at the time, I took an interest in ‘how did he do it?'."

Has life never been better for the queer community in London, though? Whittle is sceptical and points to "rising intolerance" in the capital, demonstrated by a worrying find by pollsters YouGov that 29% of Londoners think being gay is 'morally unacceptable'. 

"London’s always putting itself forward as being super sophisticated, but all over the rest of the county the figure in that poll averaged at 15/16% - low, in other words. In London, it was virtually double.


"We cannot be complacent about that so while it’s great that we have good numbers of queer people being elected, you have these stats which cause you anxiety - well, cause me anxiety anyway."

But Whittle is proud of Ukip's record on diversity in London after this month's election. 

"We are actually the most diverse party on the London Assembly. There’s the gay guy, me, and the black guy David [Kurten], so I think between us we couldn’t be more diverse.

"Admittedly, we don’t have a woman.

"If we had three [members on the Assembly] and one was a woman, then we would be about the most diverse - proportionately speaking."

Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment
Ukip's two London Assembly Members Peter Whittle (left) and David Kurten (right) pose with leader Nigel Farage

The new AM says he has never felt unsettled by some of the unsavoury remarks on homosexuality by controversial figures in his own party, although does rubbish former Ukip general election candidate Winston Mackenzie for akinning it to child abuse

"That was of course an utterly ridiculous and absurd remark from a ridiculous figure. I think it almost doesn’t bare dignifying with a comment, what he said."

Whittle reserves criticism for the capital and its Assembly's failure to represent lesbian women, though.

"The gay scene in London is much more geared towards men, simply because men have more money and that is reflection of the inequality in the way people are paid still.

"In the general culture there is a lack of visibility for gay women and it would be nice if it weren’t the case but that’s still what it is."

The drastic under-representation of queer women, trans and ethnic minority politicians is a position also lamented by Labour AM Tom Copley. 

The 31-year-old has been calling on his party to improve its diversity of LGBT membership and political candidates and thinks the issue required speedy "improvement". 

Tom Copley
Tom Copley chastised the lack of political representation of queer women, ethnic minority and those who identify as trans

"As a white gay man the London political scene is a great place to be," he says. "That doesn't mean it's wonderful for queer people in general - as far as I'm aware, there are no lesbian members, no ethnic minority queer members. 

"We have a lot of work to do to make us more representative of the LGBT community in general because, on the Assembly certainly, we don't look like LGBT London we look like a bunch of white gay men - the more privileged version."

But Copley, who, at 27, was the youngest person ever elected to the London Assembly, still thinks May's election was a firm step in the right direction to properly addressing the capital's LGBT representation problem.

He recalls his favourite moment from the campaign - an LGBT fundraiser titled 'Khan't Get You Outta My Head' - saying it "summed up" Londoners' attitude to diversity.

"We had the Muslim candidate for Mayor of London in one of the oldest gay venues in the world on the same night as Britain's fist out Muslim drag queen was performing," he said.

The advertisement for 'Khan't Get You Outta My Head' paying homage to Kylie Minogue

"I think that sums up London and its - not just tolerance - but acceptance of people from all kinds of background and communities. I think that's a wonderful symbol."

Copley admits there are many reasons why LGBT politicians might fear outing themselves, but says he is "standing on the shoulders of giants" and calls on others to be open about their sexualities to encourage the next generation queer aspiring politicians to pursue their dreams.

"I've never felt the need to hide it but I came into politics at a very good time, because for a lot of the LGBT politicians that were a bit older, the atmosphere was far less welcoming than when I started to get involved," he said.

"I've never been shy about hiding my sexuality but I can understand why people maybe who are slightly older, from slightly different areas and backgrounds would have had more reason to be more cautious than I was.

"I do think it's important for LGBT politicians to come out and be open about their sexuality because we do stand on the shoulders of giants.

"The people that came out before me were the ones who made it a better world for me to live in and be in - and be a gay politician in. We should be open about who we are if only for the next generation."

But Copley pins the ultimate example of how far London and the rest of the UK has come on gay rights and representation on a Conservative MP who has served in Westminster for 19 years.

Crispin Blunt is now an openly gay MP, but only came out in 2010 when he declared he was leaving his wife "to come to terms with his homosexuality".

Anthony Devlin/PA Archive
Veteran Tory MP Crispin Blunt, Copley said, was symbolic of the massive shift in the acceptance of being openly gay in politics

Despite having voted against lowering the legal age of consent for homosexual couples to bring it into line with straight couples in 1998, Blunt is now open about his sexuality and has even spoken in Parliament about his personal use of poppers.

"The biggest change in the sense of politicians being open about their sexuality is summed up in Crispin Blunt," Copley says.

"He was a man who voted against the equalisation of the age of consent and just years later is standing up in parliament and saying he's a poppers user.

"That for me symbolises most the significant change we've seen about importance of representation, awareness and openness of being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans in politics."

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