First out gay and HIV positive MP
‘Good afternoon, I’m Chris Smith, I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury and I’m gay.’
Christopher Smith, Baron Smith of Finsbury is a British politician and a peer.
He began his political career as a Labour Councillor for Islington Borough. In 1983 he was elected as the MP for Islington South and Finsbury. There were no other openly gay MPs.
A poll in 1984 found that more than half of the population didn’t believe it was acceptable” for a gay person to hold public office. Popular newspapers wanted to print stories to “out” a gay MP. Smith decided the answer to the problem was to be open about his sexuality.
In 1984, Labour Party activists were campaigning in the Midlands town of Rugby. The local conservative council had removed ‘sexual orientation’ from their equal opportunities policy. The Sun newspaper described Rugby as ‘a brave little town’.
The Labour Campaign for Gay Rights (now LGBT Labour) worked with local campaigners to organise a protest march and rally. Smith was invited to address the rally. There were over a thousand LGBT people, Labour Party members and trade unionists.
Smith decided to come out at the beginning of his speech. It was a spur of the moment decision. He was 33 years old and terrified. This was something no one had ever done before. He wanted to say that your sexual orientation does not change how well you can do your job. The audience stood up and clapped and cheered him for five minutes.
Some newspapers attacked him but he received many letters of support. It did not hurt his career. In 1997 he became the first openly gay government cabinet minister.
He met his partner Dorian Jabri in 1988 and they were open about their relationship. This helped protect their privacy and newspapers did not print stories about them. Jabri was the first same sex partner to be recognised by the House of Commons and treated the same as other MPs’ spouses. Smith and Jabri were invited to a Buckingham Palace reception as a couple.
In 2005 he became the first MP to say that he was HIV-positive. It was a front page article in The Times. He had kept his condition secret because it had not affected his ability to carry out his work. Hearing Nelson Mandela speak encouraged him to be open. Mandela said his son died of the disease and we should not hide it. The day after he went public, Mandela congratulated him personally and said they needed to combat a lot of myths about HIV and AIDS.
In 2005 he stopped being an MP. Later in the year he was given a seat in the House of Lords. After the 2017 General Election Smith joined with forty five other LGB MPs and members of the House of Lords for a photograph. The photograph celebrated how things had changed.
Voices and Visibility 2019