Ok, let’s start with a very short bit of modern history.
The UK government role of Minister for Women and Equality was created in 2007 (superseding the previous role of Minister for Women). The position was renamed Minister for Women and Equalities in 2010. Under both titles – and in keeping with the established pattern with the Minister for Women – the portfolio had always been combined with another cabinet-level post. Until today, all three positions had always been held by women.
The first Minister for Women and Equality was Harriet Harman. She was replaced, following the election in 2010, by Theresa May as Minister for Women and Equalities. That appointment was quite heavily criticised by LGBT people because the Equalities role meant that May was responsible for LGBT equality when her House of Commons voting record showed she had either abstained or voted against many LGBT rights measures.
It seems likely this criticism – together with his determination to press ahead with marriage equality – lay behind David Cameron’s decision to remove the Women and Equalities portfolio from Theresa May in 2012 and hand it to Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary. Miller’s own voting record on LGBT issues was ambiguous, but at least the substitution meant that the legislation to allow English & Welsh same-sex couples to marry would be piloted through the Commons by someone who had voted in favour of civil partnerships.
That brings us up to the present day – as in, literally, today. This morning, Maria Miller resigned from all her Ministerial positions. She has been replaced, as Culture Secretary, by Sajid Javid. Javid is a man, and as such it would have been politically difficult to appoint him as Minister for Women. As a result, David Cameron took the decision to appoint Nicky Morgan as Minister for Women.
You’ll note that’s just Minister for Women, not Minister for Women and Equalities. This is because Cameron took the decision to split the Women and Equalities portfolio, appointing Javid as Minister for Equalities and Morgan as Minister for Women, with both reporting directly to him. Why the split, you may be wondering. Clearly Javid couldn’t be appointed Minister for Women (not without a great deal of controversy, anyway), but why not hand the entire Women and Equalities portfolio to Morgan?
The answer is that Nicky Morgan had voted against equal marriage, which – as Cameron knew from his experiences when Theresa May held the portfolio – would have left him facing a great deal of criticism from LGBT people. Indeed, it’s as hard to see how LGBT people could have trusted Morgan as it is to see how a person who voted against marriage equality as a matter of religious principle could have taken on the job of ensuring that married same-sex couples faced no discrimination. Hence the decision to leave responsibility for LGBT (as well as racial, religious and disability) issues with Sajid Javid, who voted in favour of equality.
Still, it all worked out fine in the end, right? LGBT people have a pro-equality minister as their champion in government, women have a female minister as theirs, and everyone goes home happy? Well, no.
As you will have already realised, the problem is that the categories of ‘women’ and ‘LGBT people’ overlap. Lesbian and bisexual women now have, as their champion in the UK government, someone who thinks they should not be allowed to marry. The minister to whom lesbians and bisexual women are supposed to look for redress if they find themselves victims of prejudice is herself prejudiced (in the literally correct sense of pre-judging every same-sex couple and finding them all unworthy of marriage). The minister who is supposed to coordinate the government’s efforts to stamp out discrimination against women herself believes that it is right to discriminate against some women (again, in the literally correct sense of drawing a distinction between them and others).
This is the kind of problem that can arise when you think of equality in narrow legalistic terms, rather than in terms of a universal principle: that everyone should be treated on the basis of who they are, not what they are. This is the kind of problem that can arise when you think of people in terms of standalone characteristics – bisexual, or female, or Muslim – rather than as individuals who can incorporate several – lesbian and Asian and disabled. And this is also the kind of problem that can arise when you’re trying to show how modern and pro-equality you are, but you’re the leader of a parliamentary party that contains precious few women, and huge numbers of MPs who voted against equality. A leader of a different party – one that was less hostile to equality, and with a better gender balance – would have had rather less difficulty in identifying potential candidates for the Women and Equalities role who were both female and in favour of equality.