Tories try to defuse gay rights protests

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Indy Politics

If David Cameron was in any doubt about the anger caused by Chris Grayling's unfortunate slip on gay rights, they would have been quickly erased by a quick glance outside Conservative Party headquarters in Westminster yesterday. A band of around 400 gay rights activists launched a colourful protest outside the Millbank building, calling on the Tory leader to "Come Out" and discuss his policies for promoting equality for gay and lesbian people. Some clutched bunches of pink balloons, others posed for photographs as they kissed in front of Mr Cameron's famed "Time for Change" posters.

The party has been quick to point out that Mr Grayling's belief that bed-and-breakfast owners should be able to bar gay couples is not its official policy. Its support for the Government's equality legislation still stands. But the appearance of the "Big Gay Flashmob" protest, arranged using social networking sites, demonstrated that some in the community saw the shadow Home Secretary's comments as an ominous sign that the Tories were still not a party that could represent gay voters.

For many at the gathering, the Tories' track record on promoting gay rights could not be easily erased by talk of a new "progressive" era by Mr Cameron. As well as the views of Mr Grayling, many cited Section 28 as the most indelible stain on the Conservative's history. The divisive ruling, brought in under Thatcher in 1988, stated that local authorities were not allowed to promote homosexuality in schools or promote the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Despite outcries against the amendment, it was only repealed in most of Britain in 2003. Among the rainbow flags and pink Union Jacks wielded by the protesters yesterday were signs reading: "Remember Section 28: never trust a Tory."

Despite the apparent hostility, it is not a constituency Mr Cameron is prepared to give up on. In fact, he sees gay rights as an area in which he can show his party has really changed. When George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, met with the organisers of the flash mob yesterday, he was able to reveal two new policies designed to win them over. He told them a Tory Government will quash the historic convictions of those found guilty of consensual gay sex. Secondly, he said there would be tougher measures against homophobic bullying in schools.

But for Peter Tatchell and Tamsin Osmond, the protest leaders, the 50-minute minute meeting did not contain the one concession they really wanted – more legal rights for gay marriages. Mr Osborne said the party would be "very happy to consider the case", but would go no further.

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