Last year John Bercow, then Speaker of the House of Commons and former Tory MP, was honoured at the PinkNews Awards. The event is held annually to celebrate individuals and organisations who have significantly contributed to the cause of LGBT+ rights. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, presented Bercow his award, commending him as a ‘steadfast ally and a committed fighter in the struggle to end discrimination and honour the dignity and worth of every human being’.
The choice of Bercow for an award celebrating diversity and inclusion may seem surprising given his political history, particularly his previous membership of the right-wing and anti-immigration Conservative Monday Club. He has, however, renounced his involvement with the club and demonstrated a dramatic shift towards the centre in political thought.
Exploring Bercow’s engagement with LGBT+ causes does in fact highlight his longstanding and consistent support for LGBT+ empowerment. In 2002, Bercow resigned from the shadow cabinet in protest at his party’s opposition to Labour’s Adoption and Children Act, an act which established the adoption rights of gay and unmarried straight couples. The following year, he was one of 23 Tory MPs who voted to repeal Section 28, legislation which had banned education around homosexuality in schools. In 2009 he argued that civil partnership ceremonies must be granted the same privileges as marriage ceremonies in being allowed to take place within parliament. He has also helped to launch two LGBT+ rights charities: The Kaleidoscope Trust and Diversity Role Models.
Despite his work to support social change, Bercow is considered by many an unlikeable figure. Indications of his publicity-seeking and high estimation of his own input as Speaker have led to claims of his egocentrism. However, this self-assurance also has its uses as a tool with which he defends the LGBT+ community. During a parliamentary discussion of protests against LGBT+ inclusive lessons, Bercow weighed in, stating: ‘You can’t appease bigots and homophobes’. Assertive and unapologetic language such as this works as a powerful weapon against the pervasive homophobia that masks itself under the guise of child protection. While his opinion might not have been asked for, using one’s position to condemn discrimination is the action of a valuable ally.
Bercow’s receival of PinkNews’ award nevertheless raises questions, in particular whether the voices of allies are the ones we should celebrate. Is progress not achieved through shifting the focus onto the accomplishments of LGBT+ individuals themselves? It is undeniable that this is vitally important, yet a celebration of both LGBT+ and ally voices may be the best way to ensure greater social equality. The PinkNews Awards honoured a number of high-profile individuals, including the then Chief Executive of Stonewall Ruth Hunt, and writer and LGBT+ activist Andrew Moffat. By celebrating the work of both LGBT+ figures and allies, it becomes easier to understand the fight for LGBT+ empowerment as a common responsibility, rather than the struggle of a minority.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gains huge momentum, it has become increasingly clear that social progress is most powerful when demanded by all. Bercow, whether likeable or not, is an important figure for demonstrating how allies can actively support those whose oppression they have not experienced, by using their privileges to advocate for equality.
Illustration by Holly Murphy