By Chris Wills – Chris sits on LGBT Labour’s National Committee and is the Chair of LGBT Labour North West. He is also a Labour and Co-operative Party Councillor in Manchester, and an active member of UNISON.
Fifty years ago, under a Labour Government, homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales. It would be naïve to think public attitudes towards homosexuality changed overnight, and the fight for equality and recognition had really only just started – but it was a key milestone in that fight.
In the half-century since, there has been much more progress on LGBT rights, most of it under the Labour Government from 1997-2010: age of consent equalised; Section 28 abolished; the Gender Recognition Act introduced; adoption rights for same-sex couples; civil partnerships that paved the way for same-sex marriage (which would not have got through Parliament without the support of Labour MPs and Lords); and plenty more besides.
So you might think that, for young LGBT people today, coming out to their families about their sexual orientation or gender identity would be a piece of cake. Sadly, for many, it remains a process fraught with anxiety in the lead-up to coming out – and then afterwards, fraught with rejection, recrimination, and physical and verbal abuse. Suddenly, the family home is no longer either welcoming or safe. Young LGBT people find themselves out on the streets, or turning to friends who can offer a sofa or a floor to sleep on, with no guarantee of accommodation from one night to the next.
Or they have to rely on charities. In 1989, one 16-year-old gay lad desperately needed someone he could turn to. He had been in and out of care for most of his short life, experiencing rejection and abuse. One day he was chased by a gang of attackers, a chase that ended with him falling to his death from the roof of a Manchester multi-storey car park. His name was Albert Kennedy.
Albert would have become just another forgotten footnote in the care system, had it not been for the efforts of Cath Hall, a Manchester foster carer who recognised the inadequacy of a system ill-equipped to support LGBT youth. Along with others, and with the support of Manchester City Council, Cath founded a Trust in Albert’s name that continues today, with bases in Manchester, London and Newcastle, and high-profile supporters including Sir Ian McKellen, Labour MP Kate Green and Labour Peer Lord Alli. Other charities, such as LGBT Foundation and Stonewall Housing, also do work to support homeless young LGBT people.
Nearly 30 years on, there are still many Alberts out there, on the streets of Manchester, London and other towns and cities. A close friend of mine was in that situation a few years ago after being rejected by his family for being gay. The city in which he was homeless had no dedicated service for homeless LGBT people.
The homelessness crisis as a whole is biting ever harder, as seven years of Tory austerity take their toll on the lives of the most vulnerable – as a Manchester Labour Councillor I see rough sleepers not just in the city centre, but also in my own ward. And when economic vulnerability combines with festering homophobic, biphobic and transphobic prejudice, young LGBT people are disproportionately likely to be among their number. A study by the Albert Kennedy Trust in 2015 estimated that as many as a quarter of all young homeless people aged 16-25 may be LGBT. And that’s just the ones we know about – and two years ago the homelessness crisis was nowhere near as acute as it is now.
Which is why, at LGBT Labour’s recent Annual General Meeting, I moved that we affiliate to the Labour Campaign To End Homelessness, a proposal that was carried unanimously. There is a clear need for the Labour Party and the wider labour movement to work together to tackle homelessness, including LGBT homelessness. Recommendations in this 2015 TUC report are a good starting point – and there is work we can do with Labour Councils like Manchester. But those Councils have seen their budgets decimated by Tory cuts, so whilst the willingness may be there the resources too often are not.
So whilst I look forward to this joint working between LGBT Labour, LCEH and labour movement comrades on the issue of LGBT homelessness, our ultimate aim must be to elect a Labour government that will tackle the homelessness crisis with proper housing provision and support. A government that will also continue to advance LGBT equality, still far from being fully achieved, through measures such as compulsory and comprehensive sex and relationship education in schools to help tackle the anti-LGBT bullying and prejudice still present in our society.
We owe it to all the young LGBT people today who need us in power.
LGBT Labour recently voted to affiliate to The Labour Campaign To End Homelessness.