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Chris Smith, a name not widely known is the focus of this week’s Pink Politician. Smith was not the first gay politician in the UK, however he was the first MP to choose to come out as gay. Prior to this two MPs – Maureen Colquhoun, Labour MP for Northampton North and Jeremy Thorpe, Liberal leader and MP for Devon North – were both outed through press revelations. There was even an enquiry into Thorpe, after model Norman Scott claimed he was having a love affair with Thorpe at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain. This scandal would lead to Thorpe being charged and later acquitted by a jury for the conspiracy to kill Norman Scott, alongside three others. Although the acquittal was surely a relief for Thorpe, the trial came in the run up to the general election, where he ultimately lost his seat.
Smith was born in Barnet, London and went on to study English at Pembroke College Cambridge, where he also studied for a PhD. He further attended Harvard as a Kennedy Scholar. Smith worked for a housing charity before entering politics as a councillor for the London Borough of Islington. In 1983 he edged ahead to win the Westminster seat of Islington South & Finsbury for the Labour party, beating the incumbent George Cunningham, who had defected from Labour to the Social Democratic Party. This race was tight with a majority of 1% for Smith.
In 1984, Smith became the first MP to voluntarily come out. It was at a rally in Rugby, protesting a potential ban on gay town council employees, that Smith stood up and said, ‘Good afternoon. I’m Chris Smith, I’m the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury. I’m gay, and so for that matter are about a hundred other members of the House of Commons, but they won’t tell you openly.’ These words were met with a standing ovation from the audience.
In the 1987 General Election, both Smith and Cunningham faced each other again with the victory for Smith still being small. Having come out, his political career was far from over. Just before the 87 election he was made Opposition Whip. After the election he was made shadow Treasury minister until 1992, where he was given the shadow portfolios of environment, heritage, pensions and health from 1992-1997.
1997’s General Election saw Tony Blair take Labour back into power, and Smith was appointed the country’s first Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport with a reputation for having good relations with the arts world. It was Smith who, in 2000, secured a tax rebate which allowed numerous museums to offer free entry. After the 2001 election, Blair shuffled Smith out of the cabinet and to the back benches. He was replaced by the rising star Tessa Jowell.
In January 2005, following the death of Nelson Mandela’s son, Smith told The Sunday Times that he was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. He did not know when he contracted HIV and nor had he told Blair when he was appointed to the Cabinet, as he felt it would not impact his work.
Smith said, in coming to this decision, ‘Perhaps this is something that needs to be spoken about.’ Smith wanted to ‘demystify the condition in the public’s perception and to challenge prejudices’. Prior to this announcement, Smith had already stated his intentions to stand down from Parliament at the 2005 election.
In April 2005, it was announced that Smith would be created a life peer and his title of Baron Smith of Finsbury was gazetted on 22 June 2005.
Post-Westminster, Lord Smith has had numerous roles. Chair of the London Cultural Consortium until 2008, he became a founding director of the Clore Leadership Programme, a programme designed to develop Britain’s future leaders in the cultural sector. In 2006 he was appointed as Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority. In 2008 Lord Smith was appointed Chairman of the Environment Agency, a post he held until July 2014. He is also Chair of the Wordsworth Trust and a patron of HIV charity The Food Chain.
Smith is a man of multiple firsts, as well as proving that you could win elections being out of the closet. He has continued to challenge the lack of knowledge about HIV, and his honesty and openness is to be much admired and thanked.