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'I want to be honest and I have to do it personally' The Assembly's first out female politician talks to Ruth Mosalski about getting married, Twitter and why she'll keep talking about her sexuality until there's equality...

HEN Hannah Blythyn told Twitter she was logging off for a week to get married, there were plenty of messages of luck and love.

WBut when she then shared a couple of pictures of her wedding and honeymoon, there were a few responses that she can quote verbatim.

One person told her they were "shocked" she had married a woman.

Another asked how she considered herself married, given the person standing at her side was a woman.

When she entered the Assembly in 2016, she was one of three openly gay politicians to take their oaths alongside Plaid's Adam Price and Labour's Jeremy Miles.

Many in the LGBT community knew it was a milestone.

"We waited 17 years, and then three of us came along at once," she says.

"I've been out to my friends and family for years, and chair of LGBT Labour at UK level, campaigned for equal marriage and more. It's putting your head above the parapet, but there are people who have done it in much tougher times and made it possible for me to be here as one of the first out members of the Assembly.

"When I came into elected life I said I wanted to be different and honest and open. And I realised to do that I had to do it personally as well.

"Initially I didn't want to be typecast, but I realised visibility was important and I think there's a responsibility there as well.

"In the future I want it to be that it's not 'a thing' - nobody has to 'come out' and people don't feel they have to hide their sexuality."

Just before Christmas she married her partner of two years, Laura.

The pair met through Labour, and Hannah described it as the day she married her "best friend and soulmate". Others describe it as the best wedding they've ever been to.

But, as someone who has long campaigned for equality, getting married showed that the journey isn't complete.

They didn't plan to marry in a church, but even if the couple wanted to, they couldn't have. Since March 2014, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act meant same-sex couples could marry in England and Wales, it did not change the religious position.

The Church in Wales does not carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies according to its rites - although churches and chapels can "opt in" to same-sex marriage.

As the law stands, same-sex marriages may not be solemnised by the Church in Wales as it says "such marriages are also at variance with the Church's doctrine of marriage, which states that marriage is a lifelong and faithful union between a man and a woman".

The Church, however, has to recognise the legality of same-sex marriages, but also has to recognise that there is now a dissonance between it and the state's view.

"When I campaigned for equal marriage it wasn't because I was campaigning for me, it was because there's no such thing as gay marriage, just any marriage.

"I meet people who are religious or come from religious backgrounds and as things stand at the moment, in the majority of cases, they can celebrate their life in church - at their funeral - but not their love through their wedding.

"There are people within the Church who are incredibly progressive, and I imagine there's individuals who would quite like to, but there's still a way to go until the ruling body of the Church gets to that point."

Having now got married, her passion to ensure full equality happens.

"It's the final piece of the jigsaw, I'd like to see that in my lifetime and the way to do it is working with people in the Church and how we best go about it."

They had their engagement party at a venue which used to be a church.

"There were lots of people I know who are colleagues, people who are well educated and consider themselves aware of social issues, and I said, 'This is the closest place we're going to get to getting married in a chapel', and they didn't know.

"Actually, seeing the legislative change, that gave me more courage to come out and the world around me is changing, and it's not going to be like it's always been.

"Even now, I've been fairly visible but there's still the assumption when organising a wedding we were asked, 'Which one of you is the bride?'" "Or a photographer saying they'd do the bridal prep photos and me asking how they do that when there's two of us."

It's all been part of her journey from schoolgirl to AM.

She grew up in Delyn - the area she now represents in the National Assembly.

Her parents, both teachers, live in Connah's Quay, Flintshire, and she went to a local Catholic secondary school.

Her family weren't political as such, certainly not members of a political party, but she grew up in 1980s Wales, so whether she knew it or not, politics was all around her.

Her grandfather was made redundant from Shotton.

"My political awareness came from that and the conversations around it. There were lots of conversations about trade unions," she recalls.

He wasn't bitter when he lost his job, but he did explain to his granddaughter that if she felt it was unjust, she had to do something about it.

"He taught me that there's lots of things going to happen in life and if you want to do something about it, you need to stand up and do something yourself.

"I remember when I was at secondary school on what was top yard because girls weren't allowed to wear trousers.

"It didn't work at the time, but now when I go back girls are allowed to wear trousers.

"I guess I always had an awareness if I felt something was unjust you should challenge it. But it wasn't until I went to university when I met people of a similar age who were interested in what I discovered to be politics or party politics, I got more active.

She went to De Montford university in Leicester where she took a students' union role, first on the student newspaper.

After university she went home, then London to work for Mark Tami, MP for Alyn and Deeside. She worked for a charity, then for Unite.

It was working for Unite that made her think for the first time about becoming a politician - helped along by a few trade union women who said someone with her background should be in the Assembly.

"I think the different approach here - much more dynamic, fresh and modern than the House of Commons - it was definitely more appealing to me.

"I'm one of 60 rather than 600-odd. "I knew if I was going to do it, I wanted to be an Assembly Member rather than MP, and not just anywhere, it was important for me that I represented the area where I grew up."

But she had something else to overcome - her shyness.

At her first major public speaking event, to freshers while she was on the students' union, her shyness meant she completely froze.

"They put the microphone in front of me, and nothing came out.

"I look back at my contributions in the chamber compared to now and I can see the changes now. That's what I try to say to other people, you need to believe in yourself.

"I've always been a naturally shy person and Unite were brilliant with me and didn't push me politically, but in giving me support and training."

She now speaks in schools, including her own, and her opening words are: "My name's Hannah Blythyn and I'm a politician."

Those are chosen, she explains, because "they're words I never thought I'd be able to say when I was their age.

"A politician didn't look like someone like me. I didn't realise it was something possible, and I was so incredibly shy I would have stood up and spoken in front of people in a room.

"I've made a few of my teachers feel incredibly old by being able to vote for someone they taught 20 years ago."

When she has returned, she's been delighted to be told her message is getting through.

Two gay students said seeing her talk about being gay on social media had made a difference to them.

"Going home that night I got quite emotional," says Hannah. "It wasn't what they said about me, it was that we've come so far since the time I was at school, now two young people feel able to be out.

"When I was a teenager, I knew I was different and I had quite a difficult time at school anyone. Maybe some students realised something about me before I realised it about myself.

"You wouldn't then have seen anything on TV, the only thing I remember was being about 14 and seeing the Brookside kiss.

"There was nothing there you could look to and identify with, and that's why for me now I offer that visibility.

"Coming out is like devolution, it's a process not a single event, you do it over and over.

"The world we live in still assumes that you're straight unless they have reason to believe otherwise or you prove them otherwise."

It's the final piece of the jigsaw, I'd like to see that in my lifetime...

CAPTION(S):

Hannah is now deputy minister for housing and local government

<B Hannah Blythyn AM and her wife Laura on their wedding day
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 23, 2019
Words:1588
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