This morning I was up early and off into Bristol to the M-Shed for an important meeting. As you may recall, the LGBT History exhibition that I have been involved in organizing was mentioned in Parliament by local MP, Stephen Williams, during the marriage equality bill second reading. That bill is being shepherded through Parliament by the Rt. Hon. Maria Miller, MP, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Today she was in Bristol, and having heard Mr. Williams wax lyrical about our exhibition, she asked to see it for herself. I was there, partially because I’m self-employed and can take a day out at the drop of a hat, and partially because (largely by accident), I’m one of the co-chairs of the charity staging the exhibition, Out Stories Bristol.
Being involved in a Ministerial visit is a strange experience. The thing it reminded me of most was when Paramount parachuted Patrick Stewart into the San José Worldcon. In that case I was able to leave Kevin to deal with the drama and run away to hide (I went for dinner with Sean McMullen), but this time I was right in the firing line. Thankfully I had my colleague, Charlie Beaton, with me. He’s the secretary of OSB. (My fellow co-chair, Andy Foyle, who is the person who deserves all of the glory, was unavoidably elsewhere today.) There was much waiting around at the exhibition. No one knows exactly how long anything will take, and while the Minister was in town everyone wanted a piece of her. When she eventually turned up, we got about 10 minutes with her. I gather that was quite a long time. Normally at such events the people responsible for the thing the Minister is coming to see get elbowed out of the way by local politicians. But no one seemed keen to take credit for an exhibition about LGBT lives, so there we were.
I’m pretty cold-blooded about public speaking these days. (I’ve interviewed Neil Gaiman in front of 1,000 people — an audience of 40 like I had on Saturday is a piece of cake after that.) This, however, was another matter entirely. I would only have a chance to say a few sentences to Ms. Miller. I had to use those as best I could to represent the LGBT cause, and in particular the cause of trans people. What if I screwed up and she went away thinking that trans people were awful? That’s responsibility.
I think I did OK. I have, of course, been kicking myself for the rest of the day. It is easy to think of things you could have said after the event. But you do need to let the conversation develop naturally. It doesn’t do to seem pushy, and babbling nervously can seem awfully pushy.
There were a number of thing we talked about. One of the most important was emphasizing how many people came together to help produce the exhibition (we have a volunteer list of over 90 people). From a political point of view, however, the very clear message was how far we have come in a very short time. Wandering to the center of the exhibit, Ms. Miller’s eyes lit on a large police record book dating from 1960. Two of the crimes recorded in there were incidents of buggery. A copy of the 1967 act abolishing buggery as a crime sat in the display case next to it. Now here was the Minister in charge of a bill allowing gay people to get married. It was pure history.
Inevitably there’s a case of how far we’ve got, and how far we still have to go. I couldn’t resist a mention of a certain notorious newspaper column, and got what I’m pretty sure was a look of sympathy in response.
I can’t remember much of what was said, and of course any successful politician has the skill of making people feel listened to and valued. Nevertheless, I came away with the impression that Ms. Miller genuinely supportive of what we were doing. She did specifically say that she’d been moved to tears by one of the speeches on the marriage equality bill. From our point of view, I hope she went away knowing how much that bill (and other legal recognition such as the Gender Recognition Act) means to us.
And hey, when I took the plunge and decided to transition all those years ago it was still the case that trans people were treated as social pariahs. Had you told me then that one day I’d be shaking hands with and chatting to a Secretary of State I would have laughed at you. Trans people have come a long way.