Now Cameron invites the gay community to join his coalition

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Indy Politics

The coalition Government is due to formally commit to its gay rights agenda tomorrow with the Conservatives' first ever Downing Street party for Britain's gay community.

The drinks reception, which is timed to coincide with the start of the Gay Pride celebrations, became a mainstay under Gordon Brown, but until the invites went out it was not known whether the Conservatives would continue the tradition. David Cameron will attend and is expected to publicly lay out how the Government aims to move forward with gay equality over the coming years.

Downing Street insiders say that Mr Cameron will back a proactive clampdown on homophobic bullying in schools, guarantee refugee status to people suffering persecution because of their sexual orientation and commit to expunging any historic convictions for consensual gay sex that were imposed when homosexuality was illegal.

But there will be no commitment from the Prime Minister to change the law and allow gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies, or to reverse the ban that forbids gay men and women from giving blood. Both concessions are sought by the majority of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) activists who say that bans on them marrying and giving blood are still two prominent stumbling blocks to full equality with heterosexuals.

Since becoming party leader, Mr Cameron has led a radical liberalisation of the Conservative Party's attitudes towards homosexuality, publicly apologising for their historical support of Section 28 and embracing greater gay rights. But although all three parties broadly support the idea of more equality, there are disagreements over what that should entail.

Prior to the election, the Liberal Democrats went further than their rivals, with Nick Clegg stating that gay couples should be allowed to marry in register offices, give blood and that faith schools should be made to teach that homosexuality is "normal and harmless". The Tories, who are more beholden to the Christian lobby than the Liberal Democrats, have been much more muted over the issue of full civil marriage rights and are loathe to meddle in how faith schools run themselves.

But despite their role in the Government, the Lib Dems seem to have had little luck persuading their coalition partners to embrace their approach to gay equality. "It's clear that the gay rights agenda of this government is very much Tory-led at the moment," said one gay rights activist with access to top officials in the Government.

The drinks party is part of a concerted effort to assure gay voters that the Conservatives remain firmly committed to gay rights. Throughout the election campaign, Mr Cameron struggled to persuade "pink voters" that his party had changed its views towards homosexuality. He was often forced to defend himself over the Tories' decision to align itself with a right-wing European coalition that contained rabidly homophobic parties from central and eastern Europe.

There was also widespread anger among gay activists a month before Britain went to the polls when Chris Grayling, then Shadow Home Secretary, was secretly recorded saying that owners of bed-and-breakfasts should be allowed to refuse gay couples.

But the Conservative Party has been able to claim serious gains over gay rights following the creation of a new parliament. The party now has 12 openly gay MPs, three of whom serve in the Cabinet, in comparison to Labour, which has eight, and the Lib Dems with two. Downing Street officials have stressed that the party is being organised by the coalition Government and that both Tory and Lib Dem gay groups will be invited. Although the guest list has not been released, Labour Party supporters are also thought to have been invited.

Veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell, however, has been excluded. Despite being one of the country's best-known gay rights activists, Tatchell was not invited to the parties when Mr Brown was in power because of his often acerbic criticism of the Labour Party. He is also yet to receive an invitation from the Conservatives.

Jess Cole, one of the key organisers of a protest outside Tory headquarters following Grayling's B&B comments, said she wished the Lib Dems had done more to carry their coalition partners. "It's good that they're continuing to hold these parties, but there's still a long way to go before we get full equality," she said. "It's rather depressing that there's still no sign that politicians are willing to give the gay community equal marriage rights."

Gordon Brown first opened Downing Street's doors to the gay community in June 2009 to mark the beginning of Gay Pride. A similar crowd was invited for a second drinks party in February to coincide with "LGBT history month".

Many activists might have expected Downing Street to cancel the new tradition of hosting a "pink drinks party" as there is a growing feeling among Conservative backbenchers that the Government should not hold parties for single-minority issues.

Earlier this month, London Mayor Boris Johnson scrapped the annual Pride reception held at City Hall as part of its overall drive to stop holding official events that only cater to single-minority groups.

Where the Government stands

What's in?

*Campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. Requires no legislative changes. The Conservatives say they will do more to allow headteachers to exclude homophobic bullies and give teachers the powers to stop violent incidents.

*Commitment that people fleeing genuine persecution over their sexuality should be granted refugee status. The proof will be in the pudding and whether any genuine gay refugees, particularly from places like Iran and Africa, are deported.

*Repeal of criminal convictions for consensual gay sex from pre-1967 when homosexuality was still a crime. This will require legislation which has not been timetabled yet. Any convictions for consensual gay sex with someone over 16 will be treated as "spent", so people would not need to disclose them when applying for jobs or CRB certificates.

What's not?

* No legislation to allow gay couples to marry in civil ceremonies.

* No reversal of the blood donation ban