Mathew Hulbert interview: Be the change you want to see

Mathew Hulbert: "the front line today is the fight for recognition,
 justice and equality for trans and non-binary people"

As February is LGBT History month, yesterday I met up (virtually, of course) with Lib Dem and LGBTQ+ rights activist Mathew Hulbert to talk about why it's important to mark the occasion and how we can advance LGBTQ+ equality more generally. We even found the time to talk about local politics, the future of the Lib Dems and globalisation. 

AP: Why is LGBT History month so important to you personally and why is it important to keep celebrating it?

MH: LGBT History Month is an opportunity for reflection: to remember how far we've come in the fight for full equality for all of our communities, those who've now passed on who were part of the struggle but maybe didn't live to see what's been achieved, and re-focusing on what there is still left to do.

AP: For me it's very important to reflect on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ people - and even how those experiences are changing. While there have undoubtedly been changes in our community and in societal attitudes, I think we can both agree that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia remain significant problems. How to do feel we should be challenging these, and what role can LGBT History Month play in forging a more inclusive society?

MH: There's no doubt that. Tragically, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia are still things we have to face, sometimes on a daily basis, as LGBT+ people. You only have to turn to the LGBT+ press, to see reports of LGBT+ coming under verbal and/or physical attack on the street, in the workplace and even at home. Just yesterday I read a frightening report of a young gay man who was brutally attacked by a gang of homophobic thugs whilst on a night out with his friends.

Now, we always have to be careful not to make our communities fearful of leaving their homes. Many of us are able to lead our lives mostly free from threat or harm today, but we do always have to be aware of where we are at any one time, who we are with and do all we can to be safe. I work with local police in my patch in regards to LGBT+ issues and, whilst they are generally very alert to them, there is always more that can be done. You're right that LGBT History Month is crucial in reflecting on those who, often at great personal cost and risk, have fought the fight for justice and equality down the decades.

AP: You’ve mentioned ‘those who've now passed on who were part of the struggle but maybe didn't live to see what's been achieved’. Which of the LGBTQ+ figures of the past stand out for you – perhaps even inspire you – all these years later? And are there any you think deserve more recognition?

MH: Like many I think of the great Alan Turing, without whose brilliance we may well have no longer remained a free people after the Second World War. The way he was treated by the State, just because he happened to be a gay man, will forever remain a stain on our national reputation. Of course he was just the best known of many gay men and others who were treated as criminals by the State just because of who they were and who they loved.

AP: History of course is still being made and people like you are part of that. What would you like to see happening, from an LGBTQ+ perspective, in the next decade or so?

MH: I think the absolute front line today is the fight for recognition, justice and equality for trans and non-binary people. The national conversation in regards to trans and non-binary people has become poisoned by those who, in an organised and systematic way, have sought to try and turn trans and non binary individuals into almost non-people – people to be shunned – rather than the reality which is, of course, that they are individual human beings seeking to be their true selves. They should be embraced and given help, love and support in their journey – not be made to feel as if they are not part of our society and community. There needs to be much harsher penalties for those found to be engaging in transphobia. The government needs to make the ability to legally change one's gender easier not harder. And we all, especially those of us who are trans allies, need to speak up and out (if safe to do so) against those who seek to peddle hate against our trans, non binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming cousins.

AP: You’re a member of a political party, the Liberal Democrats, who last year adopted a new definition of transphobia. What was your take on this and what else/more do you feel political parties should do to better support and empower trans and non-binary people?

MH: I was pleased to see the party adopt it and deeply saddened to hear a number of individuals, even in our own Liberal family, who were peddling deeply troubling views and anti-trans tropes, during that debate. Transphobia, to a greater or lesser extent, is clearly an issue in, from what I can tell, all political parties in this country. All of us who believe in full justice, recognition and equality for all LGBT+ people – who believe that none are equal until all are equal – must call out those who harbour such views in our parties, be they ordinary activists or, indeed, Members of Parliament. Trans rights are human rights and human rights are trans Rights and there are no ifs, buts or maybes when it comes to that. Political parties – all of them – must be fully inclusive, safe spaces for all LGBT+ people and party rules need to reflect that and those who flout those rules must be disciplined.

AP: You were formerly a councillor on Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council and you currently serve on Barwell Parish Council. Why should anyone want to be a councillor? What differences can you make? In the light of the unedifying video of the chaotic meeting of Handforth Parish Council, which seems to have confirmed a lot of prejudices and misunderstandings about parish councils, what can be done to better inform the public about what parish councils actually do and the influence they have?

MH: Yes I was a Borough and Parish Councillor from 2011 to 2015. I lost both seats in the nadir post-Coalition year, and won a parish seat back in 2019. I love serving my community. There is, I'd argue, no greater honour than being voted for by your friends and neighbours, to serve them, reflect their interests and concerns, and work to make the community you and they live in better.

The whole thing around the video of part of a meeting of the Council you mention became an unedifying circus and whilst, no doubt, the behaviour of some of the people at that meeting was disgraceful, I didn't appreciate the ease with which many on social media felt happy to mock a parish council almost, it seemed to me, because it was a parish council. As if, 'well what do you expect from them?' As if, in their opinion, we're all 'Vicar of Dibley' style country bumpkins who shouldn't be running a whelk stall let alone a layer of government.

Of course the reality is that parish and town councils, up and down the land, are overwhelmingly populated by good, decent hard working people who volunteer to serve their communities and try to make them better. We do ourselves a great injustice as a country, I believe, if we belittle voluntary public service in the way many did in response to that particular video.

AP: Are you ever concerned about the class divide in the Liberal Democrats? Or that the social make-up of the party is distinctly different from those we need to better represent?

MH: To be blunt, yes. It is a very middle class party. Now there's nothing wrong with being middle class, many people are. But not, of course, everyone. I'm proud to be working class, from a working class family, and representing the working class community where I've always lived. And the trouble with a political party being overwhelmingly populated by one class of people is that it starts to think only in terms of that class of people and, whether wilfully or not, ends up ignoring other communities.

Our party needs to broaden its appeal; it needs what I've called Blue Collar Liberalism. It needs to have policies that appeal to communities like mine: community policing, improved infrastructure, more opportunities for young people and so on. I'm working with others in the party with this agenda but I'm yet convinced that the party leadership recognises how important it is for the party's survival moving forward.

AP: What discussions would you like to see the Liberal Democrats having in the next few years?

MH: I think, to be frank, the party faces an existential crisis. Even, in its different forms, having been around for centuries British Liberalism as a parliamentary force has no God-given right to exist. We're in danger of being all but wiped out if we don't, in a clear and hopefully charismatic way, start spelling out in clear language why our mix of Liberalism and social democracy is the right political philosophy to solve the great issues and problems, foreign and domestic, that we face today and will face tomorrow. No one will do that for us, we have to do it.

We have to become the party of the broad Centre – not fence-sitting or middle of the road, but able to see the whole road, the full vista. We must be a party of business and the worker, of aspiration and compassion, of the new green economy, of every community: village, town, city and country. We have to be more than a party of the 'tolerant' society, which accepts social change but doesn't much like it, but rather aspire to be one that celebrates the fact that our very diversity is what makes us strong. We must be a party that accepts neither a 'let the market do what it will' nor a 'only the State knows best' attitude but, instead, values private enterprise but recognises that State intervention is sometimes needed to ensure opportunity for all. A party that supports fair votes and a basic income. We can be the new radicals in British politics...but only if we are true to our founding values, of course, and are able to look at new ways of expressing them in terms of policy to fit a new and changing world.

AP:  What is your message to activists committed to social and political change? And what difference can an individual make in the era of globalisation?

MH: I think Trump and, to a great extent, the Brexit vote were, at least in part, a response by communities that felt increasingly ignored by political parties and left behind by globalisation. Now I think globalisation both was and is inevitable in an increasingly interdependent world, with cross border challenges like terrorism, climate change and, indeed, global pandemics. The only response to these issues – that will work, at any rate – is a global one. But, and this is the crucial point, what is global has to also work and be understood and accepted by those who are local. If you leave communities behind in the sweep of globalisation, if you make them feel like they do not matter, it's no wonder that they respond in a way which (even if, in the end, is self-destructive) seeks to overturn the tables and shake up the regular order and way of doing things. So to do the global we must first (and continue to get) the buy-in of the local.

AP:  You’re clearly a self-motivated person. What personal political aspirations do you have?

MH: Well, I am very self motivated. I believe passionately in public service which is, in my opinion at least, the highest of all callings. But, though very proud to be a councillor, that can and must also be achieved beyond solely elected office. I'm increasingly of the view that it's only by an empowered citizenry, engaged and able through a level of direct democracy, public budgeting and citizens’ assemblies, that the real changes we need will be impressed upon government in a fashion that means party politics doesn't get in the way of them happening. It's why, for example, I'm involved with grassroots groups like Compass, Make Votes Matter, and the UB Lab Network, as well, of course, as LGBT+ organisations. We really do have to be the change we want to see in the world.


Mathew Hulbert is a Lib Dem Parish Councillor in Barwell, Leicestershire, having previously served as a Borough Councillor in Hinckley and Bosworth from 2011-15. From 2017 to 2020 he was Chair of the Leicester LGBT Centre. He graduated in Broadcast Journalism from Nottingham Trent University in 2002 and was a newsreader and reporter with a group of radio stations in the Midlands from 2004-9.