Angela Eagle Interview: We Must Not Be Complacent, Gay People Are 'Still Being Beaten Up'

Shadow cabinet minister Angela Eagle speaks to The Huffington Post at the launch of Labour's LGBT manifesto about the party's priorities, the "horrific" incidents of self-harm among young gay people, homophobic bullying, the danger of complacency and Nicola Sturgeon's SNP

Angela Eagle recalls how the Daily Mail greeted the news that she was gay. "Lesbian in the House of Commons," the headline screamed.

Eagle became parliament's first openly lesbian MP in 1997. "I thought, that’s it I've done it. I have managed to come out without them being able to destroy me," she says of getting through the tabloid reaction.

Labour's shadow leader of the Commons tells her coming out story, with 16-days to go until the election, at the launch of the party's LGBT manifesto in a club in Brighton's North Laines. "If it meant the end of my parliamentary career that would be a price I would have to pay, because I thought it was important I could move in with my own girlfriend, now civil partner, and I should live my life the way I wanted to without being chased around or being made to feel any different."

Eagle was first elected to parliament in 1992. Recalling how she tentatively decided to inform the New Labour hierarchy about her sexuality, she laughs at the surprise the news was greeted with from two gay male colleagues.

After struggling to get a dinner with culture secretary Chris Smith, it took her until the dessert to finally pluck up the courage. "Oh by the way, I'm a lesbian and I'm going to come out," she told him. He looked at her in a surprise as if to say: "what?" Eagle got the same unexpected reaction from Peter Mandelson.

Eagle adds: "And then I told John Prescott, who was my boss. And he said: 'Tell me something I didn't know already luv.'"

This, she jokes, perhaps, "illustrates a certain reality about gay men and heterosexual men you might want to think about."

In an interview with The Huffington Post to mark the launch of the LGBT manifesto, Eagle agrees that with the passing of gay marriage there is a danger of complacency about the problems faced by young gay people.

"We've got theoretical equal rights, we've got theoretical protection against discrimination in all sorts of ways and that is transforming lives. But we also have to make it a reality for every LGBT person in our country and there is still a long way to go," she says.

Looking around the street outside the bar, she adds: "There are high levels of homophobic hate crime in Brighton, for example, where LGBT people are often more open and they come across prejudice directly and get beaten up.

"I think some people think, 'we'll you’ve got equal rights in law, tick, what more do you want?' The reality is people are still being beaten up."

David Cameron's pushed though the same-sex marriage bill against the wishes of the majority of his own MPs. Surely he deserves credit?

Eagle praises the Bill, but is sceptical about the party. "I hope they have changed," she says of the Tories. "Gay marriage was passed with Labour votes. The Conservative party was split down the middle. There is still a significant part of the Conservative Party that doesn’t accept it and in fact the prime minister said himself he was sorry he had done it when was talking to his own party."

"It's good to see them get on board," she adds. "But there is still more work to to be done to entrench some of the gains that have been made."

Rights "can go backwards as well as forwards", Eagle observes. "We don’t want to tolerate prejudice or discrimination and we don’t want to see it coming back and being accepted."

Asked whether there is a danger that future less progressive governments are a danger for LGBT rights, she replies: "I think progressive majorities in the House of Commons always make it more likely you can make those changes.

But a majority that includes the SNP is not something that appeals. With a hung parliament on the horizon, Nicola Sturgeon has said her band of MPs would ensure Labour remains bold and progressive.

"We are going for a majority in this general election," Eagle insists. "We have progressive values. We don’t need any other party to tell us to be more progressive. We have always had progressive ideas of having a fair society of having an equal society a society where all people have their place where they have access to the right opportunities in life so they can get on.

Eagle adds dismissively of the SNP leader: "We have had these values for over 100 years now, long before Nicola Sturgeon came on the scene."

Over the weekend Eagle caused a stir in Westminster by suggesting Labour "would speak to any party" in the Commons to build a majority for a Queen's Speech. It was taken as an indication that her party was prepared to allow the SNP input into a minority Labour government's policy programme.

The shadow cabinet minister, who is in Brighton after a day campaigning against the SNP in Scotland, rejects the suggestion the comment went down badly with the Labour leadership. "I wasn't in trouble at all," she laughs. "What I'd said was there will be no SNP agreement. There will be no SNP ministers in an Ed Miliband government.

"The best way to deal with getting rid of the Tories if you are in Scotland is to vote Labour. That way you can make absolutely certain we can banish David Cameron from Downing Street."

Labour's LGBT manifesto has five key pledges: Respect in society and work, an education free from homophobia, bi-phobia and transphobia, accessible and supportive health services and fairer and more diverse representation in public life.

Before launching the manifesto, Eagle joined Labour's Brighton parliamentary candidates and her former shadow cabinet colleague Stephen Twigg at a Brighton youth centre that caters for young gay people. The experience of gay children and teenagers is arguably the greatest challenge for the next government - whatever shape it takes.

"If you look at the figures, it's quite horrific, the levels of suicidal thoughts and self harm that you find about young people growing up gay," Eagle says.

"If they are isolated, unsure of themselves, subject to ridicule, it really isn’t a surprise to me that they get those feelings. We’ve got to deal with it in schools we've got to also help in self esteem in counselling, in talking therapies, especially if they are alienated from their families."

Shadow education secretary Tristam Hunt and shadow equalities minister Gloria De Piero have promised to act against homophobic bullying in schools. Eagle says of the problem: "It is a terrible legacy of Section 28 actually, that teachers don’t feel that they are properly equipped to deal with this issue, some shy away from it."

Reflecting on Labour's previous 13 years in power, Eagle tells the manifesto launch party they should be of what was achieved between 1997 and 2010, but there is a "lot more work to do".

"We can be very proud of our record in office. We did the heavy lifting for LGBT equality when it wasn’t popular. We did it when we were being described as a 'gay mafia'. We did it when the tabloids were at their excessive worse.

Eagle adds: "Although they are doing their best to equal it in certain circumstances during this election."

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