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'I just wanted it to come out naturally' You may think you know everything about Cardiff South and Penarth MP Stephen Doughty based on his job, but his interview here may make you think again. He's shared his story about coming out and life as a gay politician, not to grab headlines for himself, but to help others who are thinking about a career in public life...

TEPHEN Doughty says he came out "later than I would have liked to".

SNow 39, the Cardiff South and Penarth MP looks back and says he didn't come out earlier "for a number of factors".

"As always, there were personal reasons. My brother is gay and I always thought, 'There can't be two of us in the family'.

"I grew up in a loving, caring family but in a quite conservative Vale background. I went to Llantwit Major Comprehensive, where I would never have felt coming out or exploring it.

"In any small or medium town it's more difficult. I saw homophobic bullying in school. I probably realised in school, but never thought or acted on it."

At university, he dated girls, telling himself "it was a phase" and "somehow, you'll change", but he admits knowing he was lying to himself - and them.

"I had a lot of friends who were girls but it was clear I wasn't interested romantically."

As he focused on his career, becoming a MP was a distant goal.

"I always thought I'd give it a go at some point but maybe in my mid-40s. I was focused on humanitarian work and social justice. Obviously you come across the LGBT community in that line of work, both globally and in the UK.

"I had a lot of LGBT friends and sometimes they would ask me, and I would try to brush it off. I was - and am - a practising Christian and anyone who has religion in their life knows it's complex."

He says he decided he couldn't fight it any longer and decided he wanted to come out.

"Over a period, I came out to different friends, my brother, my family, but I wanted to do that when I was in a relationship or dating so that it was something more real, not just a theory.

"My family have been wonderful and it's never been an issue. The same with the overwhelming majority of friends, but I did have some sad episodes with a couple of friends, including a few religious friends who made clear that, while they liked me, they thought it was something incompatible with biblical teachings."

When the chance to become MP for Cardiff South and Penarth came around, he knew the hometown gig was too hard to pass. He also knew there was a likelihood he'd be asked about his sexuality - knowing he would be asked publicly, he wanted to "go through that in my own head first".

He was reluctant to become a "celebrity gay candidate".

"I just wanted it to come out naturally," he said. As it happened, he was never asked in his selection, or on the doorsteps. That was, he says, a chance available to him because of the "pioneers" who went before him.

"Colleagues and pioneers like Chris Bryant and others went through a very different experience 15 years earlier."

But even Mr Bryant - himself a gay MP - hadn't twigged. Stephen recalls that when equal marriage was being discussed in the Commons he was approached by Rosie Winterton - as chief whip - and Chris. They wanted Stephen to respond to Tory Sir Edward Leigh.

"They asked me to do it because I was a Christian straight ally. I laughed and said I can do it for two of those reasons, but not the third."

He still winds up his fellow Labour MP about that now. But, in the debate, he stood up and said he wanted to be free to marry whoever he wanted - man or woman.

"But then people started asking questions and I realised it was out there then and I felt some responsibility to be more of an activist and more vocal on these issues."

In the years that have followed, he's made a point of referencing those who have helped him - family, friends, constituents.

"It's a great opportunity to do it, but it's up to everyone to make sure that they're out. There's still a number of MPs and Lords who aren't out and I don't blame them because everyone has to make their own choices. But it's still sad that anyone has to go through that."

But he hopes times are changing. He's co-chair of Labour's LGBT Group. There are no trans members - but with trans candidates making their way through the selection process, he doesn't think it will be long.

"It's partly support," he says. "But mostly policy". On a party level he admits "there's as much homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Labour as in society generally. Not all of it is obvious, but it's there and we have to face up to that.

"But I would say Labour has a proud record on these issues like abolishing Section 28 or civil partnership laws or being the ones who got equal marriage through. But it doesn't mean anything can be taken for granted. We do still experience issues."

Before the summer recess, there was progress in getting equal marriage for Northern Ireland - but still some, including Welsh MPs, voted against it or were absent for the vote.

"It leaves me disappointed and with sadness rather than anger. It's interesting that some of the Tories who voted against it the first time round now aren't prepared to take steps to change that."

Before our interview began, we had a long conversation about when interviews like this will stop. Should we be highlighting "the first" women/ LGBT/BAME people to do things? And should our Pinc List even exist? What about Pride events? "We do still need Pride," he says. "Because of everything horrendous that's happened with transphobia and attacks both in the media and homophobic hate crime and the assaults reported in recent weeks.

"Whether it's the increase of mental health issues, whether it's the trauma a number of young LGBT people still face if their families don't accept who they are, leading to homelessness or exclusion or the situation elsewhere around the world that we still see people being stoned, hanged or killed for their sexuality - that's why we still have to speak out and set the example because it gives hope to younger people that your sexuality shouldn't define you and you can achieve anything you want and you can do that in a healthy and welcomed way.

"But it's also to those in other countries, that if they see that Westminster, the heart of parliamentary democracy, you can have openly gay, bi and hopefully trans MPs who aren't afraid to speak out, then that should lead the example."

He's been a vocal opponent of Donald Trump, because he thinks that his actions could reverse years of progress.

"My fear at the moment is that for all the progress we have seen, it isn't inevitable that will be maintained or continue. You only have to look at the gay community in Berlin in the 1930s - 10 years later, gay people were being put in concentration camps.

"We only have to look at the recent stats showing changes in attitudes against people of different sexualities in the US at the moment or the fact Boris Johnson thinks it's OK to say 'bumboys.'.

"Despite so much progress, history teaches us we need to be on our guard."

Currently, his personal mission is to promote mental health in the LGBT community.

"I still don't think that we understand the mental health impact and the challenges facing generally younger LGBT people. We need to do much more to make sure services are there and services that understand the challenges and context because if we fail to deal with these issues it can lead to devastating consequences later in life."

Far from being pessimistic about the future, there are things much closer to home which give him hope. The town where he went to school now has its own Pride - and taking part was something that brings a genuine smile to his face.

"When I was at school, the thought of being able to do that 20 years later was unthinkable. To see the Pride flag flying from St Illtud's Church was something truly magical and shows how far we have come.

"The teenage me would have never walked in that parade."

My fear at the moment is that for all the progress we have seen, it isn't inevitable that will be maintained or continue
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 24, 2019
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