Britain's first openly lesbian MP, Maureen Colquhoun, dies at 92

by Hugo Greenhalgh | @hugo_greenhalgh | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 February 2021 22:20 GMT

Labour Member of Parliament Maureen Colquhoun lobbying outside the House of Commons with her supporters to take a position on lesbian rights in London, UK, 7 December 1977. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

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Maureen Colquhoun was remembered for the way she ignored homophobic attacks to pave the way for other LGBT+ MPs to live openly

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, Feb 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's first openly lesbian lawmaker, economist Maureen Colquhoun, died on Tuesday at the age of 92, remembered for the way she ignored negative press and attacks by other politicians to pave the way for other LGBT+ MPs to live openly.

Colquhoun, who represented the Labour Party in Northampton North in central England between 1974 and 1979, was a noted campaigner for women's rights, particularly for access to abortion and the decriminalisation of prostitution.

A graduate of the London School of Economics, Colquhoun was the first woman to request the then Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas, to refer to her as "Ms" rather than the commonly used "Miss".

But while the move garnered support from the growing feminist movement of the 1970s, it also made her political enemies.

In a subsequent letter, Thomas said: "In the interests of the House, I think I must continue to use some form of prefix, but I will endeavour to slur it in such a way as to reduce, if not entirely eliminate, the audible distinction between 'Mrs' and 'Miss'."

In 1975, Colquhoun proposed a Private Member's bill designed to create equal representation between men and women on public bodies.

While the bill ultimately failed to pass, it marked a time of great personal change for Colquhoun.

In her 1980 autobiography, "A Woman in the House", Colquhoun reflected how this was the moment she decided to leave her husband and the father of her three children and move in with Barbara Todd, the editor of the lesbian magazine Sappho.

The two met while working together on the Balance of Sexes Bill.

"By the time the House met to debate the second reading of the Balance of the Sexes Bill, I knew that Babs loved me and she knew that I loved her," Colquhoun wrote.

Britain in the 1970s was riven with homophobia, with newspapers commonly using slurs to describe LGBT+ people.

In 1976, Mary Whitehouse, who campaigned against what she saw as the rise of the permissive society, brought a private prosecution against the LGBT+ newspaper Gay News for blasphemy following the publication of a sexually explicit poem.

The same year, Colquhoun's own relationship with Todd was exposed in a column in the Daily Mail, one of Britain's most widely read tabloids.

"There was never, not once, ever any attempt to hide our relationship," Colquhoun said later.

"I have always sought to give us status as a couple, for I believed it to be, as I do all gay relationships, as valid and as entitled to respect as any other relationship."

However, Colquhoun subsequently faced the threat of deselection by her local constituency party but her appeal against the move was upheld. She then lost her seat in the 1979 general election.

"(As) Britain's first openly lesbian MP, (Colquhoun) suffered much prejudice because of it," Paul Johnson, head of sociology at the University of York, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Following her defeat, she remained in politics, assisting other Labour MPs in the House of Commons and serving on the Hackney London Borough Council between 1982 and 1990.

She remained active in local politics into her 80s, acting as a parish councillor in the country's northwest until 2015.

Colquhoun was always adamant that her sexuality was irrelevant when it came to public service.

"My sexuality has nothing whatever to do with my ability to my job as an MP," she wrote in Gay News in October 1977.

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(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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