House of Commons talks LBT Health

Parliament

The House of Commons held its first ever debate on the subject of bisexual, lesbian and trans women’s health issues today, as part of the events around International Women’s Day and LBT Women’s Health Week.

The House of Lords has held at least two such discussions, the first in 2016 led by Baroness Liz Barker.

There were contributions from Alliance, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP and SDLP MPs.

The debate opened with Hannah Bardell MP (SNP, Livingston) explaining why she tabled it and looking forward to a debate to be conducted “with respect and integrity”. And – unusually for discussions of LGBT issues in Parliament over the time we have been publishing – that was what happened.

Christine Jardine MP (Lib Dem, Edinburgh West) talked about the challenges facing LBT asylum seekers with a hostile Home Office. Sadly this point was quickly derailed with some Commons humour about whether an MP of 30 is middle aged or “middle youth”.

Hannah Bardell turned to the subject of the toxic levels of transphobia and transphobic abuse online, in the media and in public debate in recent years. Bob Stewart (Con, Beckenham) intervened to check on a statistic – a recent report said one in two transgender people in Scotland had considered taking their lives in the last year.  Hannah responded that the actual figure was 52% and that estimates put the trans population in the UK at aroun 500,000 people so this is a significant number of people as well as a high proportion.

She highlighted how things like same-sex marriage have additional consequences with the lower rates of poor mental health that have been seen around the world after same-sex marriage laws are passed.

Hannah also spoke from personal experience about having inappropriate safer sex advice as a lesbian, and about how to use dental dams and the qualities of different dams.  Possibly the first time the Commons has been treated to tips for how to have good safer sex between women.

Crispin Blunt (Conservative, Reigate) spoke about how he, like Hannah, had come out only once he was an MP with a certain amount of financial and social security that having such a status provides.  He celebrated how his party has gone from being seen as wholly LGBT-phobic to having the largest group of out LGBT MPs in the Commons, albeit helped by having nearly twice as many MPs as the next largest party.

Crispin welcomed legal changes but noted that the law is not everything and that ensuring equal treatment is not the same as ensuring appropriate treatment for all.  Further he noted the particular mental health inequalities faced by bi women: “Something (is going) wrong in the prevention and diagnosis of these conditions”.

As Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on LGBT issues he concluded that “We must ensure LBT womens health needs do not remain invisible”.

Olivia Blake (Lab, Sheffield Hallam) spoke next, about gender identity clinic provision and care work staff who “feel disempowered to challenge homophobia, transphobia and biphobia when they see and hear it”. She noted that 1 in 4 health and social care workers say they have had no equality training.

Former NHS mental health doctor Ben Spencer (Con, Runnymede and Weybridge) spoke from experience of dealing with the problems bi women in particular face.  “Many communities still consider (being LGBT) shameful” he observed, and mental health issues are stigmatised too – and intersectionality can make this so much worse.  “Stigma ruins lives”.

Stephen Parry MP (Alliance, North Down) reflected on how Westminster has legislated on same-sex marriage due to the three year stalemate in the devolved government for Northern Ireland. “As a former Stormont assembly member I have no problem at all that this house legislated on those things for us”.

He also spoke about issues of social isolation, often a big issue for bi people as we are invisible even to one another much of the time.

Two Northern Ireland MPs contributed to the debate – Colum Eastwood (SDLP leader) in his turn thanked Westminster for delivering the marriage reform in Northern Ireland that the devolved government in Stormont had failed on.

Layla Moran (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon) spoke about education and the need to ensure that age-appropriate relationship education reaches all children.

Martin Day MP (SNP Linlithgow & Falkirk East) opined that more research on LBT women’s health needs and the causes of inequalities is needed.   He thanked Hannah for the dental dam talk – “every day is a school day in this job”.

He noted the definitions of gender used in Scottish hate crime legislation and how PrEP was rolled out first in Scotland within the UK (England is still in a trial phase).

Justin Madders MP (Lab, Ellesmere Port and Neston) – Shadow Health Minister – started the summation speeches, welcoming comments from all sides. “There are multiple barriers facing LBT women that prevent them having a healthy happy life just because of who they are” he observed.

“Over 1 in 4 lesbians and 42% of bi women report a long term mental health condition” he noted, the change in the past 15 years in research separating how it is different for bis was really showing in this debate. In BCN every issue we report on such research in the Different For Bis research section.

“I often stand at this dispatch box and praise our NHS staff” he also observed, “but that 1 in 7 LGBT people avoid seeking health care due to discriminiation” shows need for change in some aspects of the NHS’ work.

Jo Churchill (Con, Bury St. Edmunds) responded as Health & Social Care Minister.  “It’s important we don’t fall into the trap of thinking this is a homogenous group” she said, “we need to understand needs of LBT women within their own communities”

She praised the work of many charities on LBT women’s health issues and wider LGBT support, and promised not rapid action on delivering the rest of the government’s LGBT Action Plan but that work was ongoing and would reflect on pilot work already initiated.

Jo also talked about suicide and self-harm prevention work across government departments and welcomed that the debate had heard from MPs representing seats in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, all across the UK.

Hannah Bardell wrapped up, noting that this respectful discussion has been “this Place at its best” compared to toxic debate in some other places and hoping Jo Churchill as minister might respond to some questions that had gone unaddressed in letters to the MPs who had raised issues during the debate.

And that was that.

There are three openly bi+ MPs in the Commons – Conservative Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury), Labour’s Cat Smith (Lancaster) and Lib Dem Layla Moran (Oxford West & Abingdon).  Sadly of these only one – Layla – spoke and we didn’t catch sight of either of the others in the chamber during the debate.  Despite this it was a very bi inclusive debate, which was heartening to watch.  Let’s just hope it leads to change on some of the issues affecting bi people and our friends raised.