The British election was remarkable for many things — particularly the weak showing of Theresa May’s Conservative Party. But there was a milestone less widely noted: British voters elected 45 out LGBTQ candidates to parliament — 7 percent of its 650 members.
Those 45 MPs are an increase over the already high-water mark of 32 elected in 2015. In the intervening two years, seven incumbent MPs came out — leaving 39 sitting members defending their seats last week. All but two were reelected and they were joined by eight new members. Among these 45 LGBTQ members, there are now 19 from the Conservative Party, 19 from the Labour Party and seven from the Scottish Nationalist Party. In total, there were 159 LGBTQ candidates running in the elections.
In a recent study, Gabriele Magni and I found that being LGBTQ, and out, actually was a net advantage in the 2015 British general election — in particular for Labour candidates, competitive Conservatives and candidates in rural areas.
That advantage appears to have been confirmed in 2017. The Tories only made eight gains outside of Scotland and two of them were by LGBTQ Tory candidates. Two of the new Scottish Conservative MPs are also gay. LGBTQ MPs from the Scottish Nationalist Party were more likely to hold their seats than their straight colleagues and their 10 LGBTQ candidates outperformed their straight colleagues by 1.2 percent. In the Labour Party, LGBTQ MPs made four seat gains.
Nationally, the Labour vote was up by 9.5 percent and the Tories by 5.5 percent, but the 42 LGBTQ Labour candidates increased their vote by 10.9 percent and the 42 Tories by 6.3 percent.
Now the Tory government, eight seats shy of a majority, will rely on the support of the 10 members from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP has long been opposed to LGBTQ rights. The party once launched a campaign called “Save Ulster from Sodomy.” The son of the party’s founder, Ian Paisley Jr., said he was “repulsed” by gays and lesbians and called homosexuality “immoral, offensive and obnoxious.” In 2015, DUP Health Minister Jim Wells said children raised by gay parents were more likely to be abused or neglected. Last year, one of the DUP Assembly members, Trevor Clarke, said that only gay people could get HIV/AIDS.
Thus, it’s not surprising that the DUP has vetoed marriage equality in Northern Ireland five times, even though a majority of Northern Irish voters, and the Northern Ireland Assembly itself, favor same-sex marriage.
This raises a problem for May. While the 10 DUP MPs are essential to her survival, so are the 19 LGB members of her own party, and they have been steadfast in their commitment to gay rights in both Britain and overseas. Nick Herbert heads the All Party LGBTQ Parliamentary Group while Crispin Blunt was instrumental in establishing the International LGBTQ NGO Kaleidoscope and has challenged his own party when they have appeared to lose their focus on gay rights.
But perhaps the most important gay Tory does not even sit in the House of Commons. Ruth Davidson is a lesbian and Protestant unionist who is about to marry her Irish Catholic partner. Moreover, she is the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, a member of the Scottish Parliament, and the woman credited for the dramatic reversal of Tory fortunes in Scotland. Her party’s 12-seat gain in the election saved the Conservative government. Davidson is talked of as a future leader of the Tories.
Davidson demanded that May give assurances that gay rights would be strongly protected in any deal with the DUP. On Saturday morning, Davidson said that she had received such assurances from the prime minister.
But reassurances may mean little as the DUP flexes its muscles after years of seeing power slip away from them in Ulster. Most commentators see the shelf life of the new British government in months rather than years. It seems likely that the British government will fall over a battle for the soul of the British right — and one fault line will involve LGBTQ rights.
Andrew Reynolds is a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Find him on Twitter, @AndyReynoldsUNC.