With up to one million people expected to join today's Gay Pride march in London, political leaders are more desperate than ever to tap into the power of the "pink vote".
A survey yesterday found the Conservatives were attracting high levels of support from gay voters, suggesting they had shrugged off their reputation for hostility to homosexual rights.
The subject's sensitivity prompted vitriolic exchanges between gay politicians, with ministers claiming the Conservative Party was still riddled by "homophobia" and the Tories retorting that Labour was now the "nasty party".
The days when homosexuality was taboo in political circles are fading fast – 25 years after Chris Smith became the first MP to come out, at least 11 MPs are openly gay and the number is expected to increase after the election.
Those who have come out say the issue has never been a problem for them and that Britain is more liberal on the subject than its political parties.
David Cameron apologised this week for the Thatcher government's notorious Section 28 legislation banning the teaching of gay issues in schools.
Conceding the law had been "offensive to gay people", he told a Gay Pride fund-raising event: "We may have sometimes been slow and, yes, we may have made mistakes, including Section 28, but the change has happened." Gay activists said the Tory leader's words on Section 28 – an issue which helped galvanise gay activism in the 1980s – could help remove barriers stopping homosexuals from supporting the party.
Tory chiefs said an influx of socially liberal MPs would leave those hostile to gay rights as a minority in the party. One said: "You'll be left with the likes of Norman Tebbit, which says it all."
The Conservatives have selected gay candidates – including Margot James, the party vice-chairman – in seven seats that they are likely to capture at the next election. Others are likely to be chosen closer to polling day. Ms James said: "Being gay doesn't hold you back in the Conservative Party any more."
Nor does it deter homosexuals from voting Tory, research by a networking group for gay professionals has found. Jake, founded by a Tory member but not affiliated to the party, said 38 per cent of its members planned to support the Conservatives at the election. Labour came third behind the Liberal Democrats, on 20 per cent.
While Britain's estimated three million gay voters are likely to be as influenced by the state of the economy or hospitals as the parties' records on gay rights, such a shift could affect the outcome of a closely fought election.
The Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, one of three openly gay Cabinet ministers,said the Tory conversion to homosexual equality was skin-deep: "A deep strain of homophobia still exists on the Conservative benches."
Chris Bryant, a Foreign Office minister, said: "If gays vote Tory, they will rue the day very soon." He told The Independent: "I don't think David Cameron is homophobic personally, but I don't trust him on these issues.
"The Tory backbenchers – and candidates – have an appalling voting record on lesbian and gay rights. My fear is that if there was a Tory government, it would feel it had to throw red meat to those back benches ... They don't support gay adoption. They don't think lesbians should be able to have IVF. They don't think gay people should have protection against hate crimes."
Alan Duncan, the shadow Commons leader, responded: "This is the last gasp of Labour's desperation. Bradshaw and Bryant are simply trying to stir up hatred and division from the last century and it's both unwarranted and unworthy. We had reached a civilised point where politics had been removed from gay issues in the UK and it is a backwards step for Bradshaw and Bryant to attempt to re-introduce this nastiness into the issue."
The Liberal Democrats claim they lead the Tories and Labour on homosexual equality. Only one of their 63 MPs, however, is gay.
Gordon Brown sent a message of support to organisers of the Gay Pride march in London and will hold a Downing Street reception today in its honour which his wife, Sarah, will attend.
He said the Government had legislated for civil partnerships for same-sex couples "in the face of fierce opposition", and said: "This Government is committed to standing at your shoulders in the fight for equality and we are guided by one very simple principle when it comes to LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] rights: you can't legislate love."
Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner and Pride founder, said he would march with Mrs Brown and promised not to embarrass her despite an earlier row when he was not invited to the reception. "Sarah's participation is much appreciated. I will be on my best behaviour," he said.
"But I do plan to remind Sarah that she and Gordon were able to get married, whereas gay couples cannot. Her husband supports the ban on same-sex marriage. He won't give lesbian and gay partners the same right to marry as he and Sarah have enjoyed."
Who might be Britain's first gay Prime Minister?
The Tories are "bound to have the first gay prime minister" claims David Cameron. But are they? And if so, who?
Openly gay MPs – the number is expected to increase after the next election
NICK HERBERT looks more like a future gay Conservative Prime Minister than anyone else, because he has the necessary brains and steady character, and holds a senior job as shadow Environment Secretary. Earlier this year, Herbert and his 36-year-old companion Jason Eades held a civil partnership ceremony. But at 46, Herbert is three years older than David Cameron, so perhaps it is too late to think of him as a future Prime Minister.
CONOR BURNS is a young businessman working in IT who seems to have decided when he was at school that he would like to be a Conservative politician. He came close last time in the Liberal Democrats-held seat of Eastleigh in Hampshire. As the candidate in Bournemouth West, he should manage it easily at the next election. His reputation in the party and his experience of the business world suggest that he will be a big player in the Conservative Party.
STEPHEN TWIGG was the young-looking candidate who scored a famous victory by unseating Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate in 1997. It was a seat that the Tories should never have lost, and they got it back in 2005. Twigg then scored a second notable victory by ousting the veteran left wing MP Bob Wareing to secure the Labour nomination for Liverpool West Derby. And he has been an education minister. All that experience and still only 42 years old.
NICK BOLES, 44, might have been Mayor of London, instead of Boris Johnson, if cancer had not forced him to pull out of the contest. After his recovery, he was chosen as the candidate in the safe Tory seat of Grantham and Stamford, once held by Margaret Thatcher. As a member of Cameron's "Notting Hill set" he will be an important figure in the Conservative Party of the future, but Boles-for-leader is a bit of a long shot.
IAIN STEWART, a 36-year-old accountant, has an appealing sense of humour. On his website, he reveals that, hailing from Scotland, he was christened by Gordon Brown's father, that the first album he bought was by Abba, and that his friends call him "Martha". That puts two challenges in his way. First he must win Milton Keynes South against a sitting Labour MP, Phyllis Starkey, and, if he achieves that, next he must persuade his fellow MPs to take him seriously.
KEVIN MCKEEVER is a public affairs consultant, a former Labour Party organiser – and an avid Twitterer. One of his most recent tweets was: "David Cameron apologises for Section 28. What about age of consent? Lesbian fertility rights? Gay adoption?" He is hard working and committed, which he will need to be to have any chance of winning Harborough, where he is to be the Labour candidate. It may be a few more years before he is an MP.
But then again, we might already have had one...
*Two years ago, Brian Coleman, a Conservative member of the London Assembly, claimed that it was "common knowledge" in the Conservative Party that Sir Edward Heath, Tory Prime Minister in 1970-74, was gay. If true, it does not necessarily make Heath the first gay PM.
The Earl of Rosebery, PM in 1894-5, was very close to his private secretary, who was the older brother of Oscar Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde's biographer Neil McKenna believes Wilde was disgraced to cover up the greater scandal that Rosebery was gay.
William Pitt the Younger, left, who became PM in 1783, never married but had a male friend, Tom Steele, whom he took on holidays to Brighton, then a gay haunt. Pitt's biographer William Hague suspects that "Pitt had homosexual leanings but suppressed any urge to act on them."Reuse content