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Boris Johnson once called me a ‘shirt-lifter’ – decades later, has he built an anti-LGBT+ cabinet?

The prime minister’s dog-whistle politics may have got him this far with the Tory party rank and file, but it will backfire on him

Jonathan Cooper
Monday 29 July 2019 09:34 BST
Boris Johnson says that 'my job is to serve you the people'

It was the end of the 1980s. I was dating a lovely man. I got to hang out with his friends. They weren’t my usual crowd. They were Conservatives and all from Oxford. We had different views, but I liked them. One night we ended up in a small private club in central London. Boris Johnson was there. My boyfriend wasn’t. The banter was fun. I was introduced to Johnson, already a force to be reckoned with, as the person going out with my boyfriend. “Oh that shirt-lifter,” Johnson affectionately replied. “What’s a shirt-lifter?” I asked. I’d never heard of such a thing. With gentle ribbing, it was explained to me.

A decade or so later, I met Johnson again. He was a political figure by then. We were with mutual friends, and I regaled everyone with the story. The joke being on me and my naivety, not on Johnson. “I didn’t say that,” he declared.

What does my little anecdote tell us about the prime minister? Does it reveal inherent, latent homophobia? I was warmly welcomed into the circle of friends. My lack of an Oxford degree might have singled me out. My sexual orientation didn’t.

But the story does show a cavalier attitude towards difference in others. “Different” doesn’t quite capture society’s approach to gay people back then. Section 28, banning the promotion of homosexuality, had just been introduced. The Aids crisis was in full force. Gay men were dying. No laws protected gay people. The age of consent for gay men was 21 years. Gay men went to prison for having sex with other gay men. The consequences of this homophobic world were real.

Johnson’s throwaway comment does reveal a casualness about his views on sexual orientation. It was an endorsement of the harsh world that gay people had no choice but to live in. It may have been said with affection, but it wasn’t kind. It wasn’t respectful. That said, I didn’t feel “gay bashed” by it. It wasn’t meant nastily.

When he was foreign secretary, Johnson had the opportunity to promote LGBT+ equality. Not only did he not do that, he actively supported those that advocated for inequality. The foreign secretary is responsible for the UK’s Overseas Territories (UKOTs). Citizens of UKOTs are British citizens. Credible legal challenges to the prohibition of equal marriage in Bermuda and the Cayman Islands were brought, but Johnson’s Foreign Office defended the denial of that right to marry. Why was his instinct to retain the status quo keeping LGBT+ Bermudians and Caymanians as second-class citizens? Isn’t the point of power what you do with it? Why wasn’t Johnson doing all he could to ensure, where he could, the guarantee of LGBT+ equality?

And as we settle in to Johnson as prime minister, can we feel confident that LGBT+ equality is something we can take for granted from his government? His cabinet is rightly getting plaudits for its gender balance and its ethnic mix, but it’s far from being a rainbow cabinet in the LGBT+ sense. On that score it has more in common with John Major’s cabinet than his immediate predecessors’.

Gays are tolerated but are they equal? At least nine members of the cabinet voted against same-sex marriage, many now holding significant and relevant briefs such as home secretary, education secretary and justice secretary. Three abstained.

Johnson has thrown in his lot with a particular type of right-wing Conservative. They reject human rights. For those who have relied upon them, denial of human rights tends to be counter-intuitive. The progress made in relation to LGBT+ equality in the UK has come from the guarantee of human rights. Yet, we now have a home secretary and a foreign secretary who make no secret of wanting to repeal the Human Rights Act. If or when we get round to leaving the EU, we will no longer have the protection of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which expressly protects against sexual orientation discrimination. From an LGBT+ perspective, the future feels less secure.

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My take on Johnson is that he doesn’t give a damn about LGBT+ issues. For him, sexual orientation and gender identity are part of the rough and tumble of everyday life. I am sure that he doesn’t care whether or not he has an LGBT+ cabinet member. However, failing to have an LGBT+ champion in cabinet does matter, if for no other reason than that the LGBT+ vote makes a difference. Roughly 4 per cent of voters take account of LGBT+ issues in deciding how to vote. May was more or less silent on LGBT+ equality in 2017. Look what happened to her. Compare that with the fanfare that Cameron gave LGBT+ rights. He’d learnt from Blair and Brown. They understood that LGBT+ equality was a vote winner.

Johnson is a master of dog-whistle politics. Describing gay people as “tank-topped bum boys” and suggesting gay marriage could be compared to a marriage between three men and a dog may have got him this far with the Tory party rank and file, but it will backfire on him. Referring to LGBT+ people in his speech on the steps of Downing Street as he became prime minister isn’t enough. That old dog whistle is louder.

There’s a point where “looks like” becomes “is”. Comparisons with Jeremy Corbyn’s antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party are obvious. Corbyn is as antisemitic as Johnson is homophobic, and like Corbyn, Johnson’s past has become the architect of his future.

Johnson missed a trick when he denied describing my ex as a shirt-lifter. He could easily have become the hero of that story. I am sure it will be galling for him, but he needs to take a leaf out of Cameron’s book. He needs to stand up for LGBT+ equality and apologise for his past words and actions. If Johnson is to make the transition from swaggerer to statesman, poking fun at the “poofs” must end.

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