We raised concern to Cumberland Council about their lack of LGBTQ+ representation on their council plan.

Since this piece was written in Feb 2024 Queer Cumbria have worked with Joel Rasbash to review Cumberland Council plans to include fair representation of queer people. We have met with Andrea King, Assistant Director of Children’s Services, to talk about what younger LGBTQ+ people need in Cumberland and to feed into her research to improve the lives of young people. We are continuing conversations with Anna Chippendale who has promised more support of queer creative initiatives in Cumberland.

We will continue to ensure the council fulfil their promises and are working on policies and projects that Cumberland so desperately needs – ones which unapologetically support queer communities and that promote wellness, safety and quality cultural opportunities.

We wil keep you all posted!

North and West Cumbria’s local government had yet to impress us with strong support for queer people after its recently released council plan failed to recognise LGBTQ+ people. It’s not good enough to be unmentionables when in the county we have no fortified representation and hate crimes against queer people have risen. Cumberland Council leader Mark Fryer stated in the plan’s foreword:

“I’ve said from day one, if you do what you’ve always done then you’ll get what you’ve always got.
“We don’t have all the answers yet, we might get things wrong, but I can promise you that we are going into this with our eyes wide open.

“Our people are our priority.
“We aren’t afraid of a challenge. Local government reorganisation is hard, it won’t be easy, but it is also a gift, the chance to bring equality to the lives of those living in Cumberland.”

In many ways, Mr Fryer’s frank description of the challenges ahead is a refreshing change from the promises of levelling up that we are yet to experience. In others, we believe that our council has yet to do anything to change the long standing status quo of a lack of clear, distinct, and powerful institution to change persistent woes of Cumbria’s queer demographic. Much has been said about the former Carlisle City Council’s frankly lackadaisical approach to challenging queer-phobia in the great border city, and not taking action against previous council members who made it part of their mission to slow the progress of queer rights.

Thankfully many of those people are gone, we’ve got mostly new members on the council, and a fresh outlook, but in the council plan, there was no mention of queer people on a page dedicated to the demographics of the community.

They had included statistics, for example of ‘ethnic minority’ children living in the council area and by doing so, it’s an acknowledgement that government must work for those with less of a voice, yet this sentiment appeared not to extend to queer people.

The council decided to print figures on average house prices, age groups, income and data representing various sectors of the community. The data came from the most recent census in 2021 that showed roughly 0.23% of people identify as a different gender to which they were assigned at birth. Further census data showed over 2% of people in the Cumberland Council area identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. The lack of mention of this in the council plan leaves the queer population asking questions, namely: how is the council making sure we’re safe, and do they care about us? Particularly acute concerns when considering many queer Cumbrians already feel dissatisfied and lack faith in government to provide safety and change, particularly young people. We wrote to Mr Fryer in January this year to express our points. In the letter, we said:

“Queer identity is intersectional and includes people from global majority backgrounds, neurodiverse people, and LGBTQ+ people, to mention a few.
“Queer people are an important part of the fabric of Cumberland and we help make the county function. “We are valid people who rely upon visibility to remain safe and we deserve representation and respect from our council.
“We have seen over recent years hate crime and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people rise, in particular against trans and non-binary young people.
“Feedback we are given from LGBTQ+ people living in Cumbria is that of isolation and lack of support.
“The stark reality is that many LGBTQ+ people don’t feel ignored by the council, they feel actively unsupported.”

Mr Fryer responded in due time, and we found his response to be thoughtful and refreshing.
He apologised and promised that the council will work to make things better, and work with us to achieve goals. He said:

“I am sorry for any hurt this may have caused and would like to assure you that we would be very keen to work with all LGBTQ+ organisations in Cumberland to understand the issues and bring those up the agenda in the council and with all our partners and businesses in the area.

“The points you raise are highly pertinent and sit alongside similar work we have begun around anti- racism, tackling misogyny, and addressing many of the inequalities disabled people experience in our community.”

He added: “In the coming months, we will be undertaking a major exercise to talk to many community groups and organisations as we develop our community strategy for Cumberland.

“Building on the council plan, this will take a much longer-term view of the needs and aspirations of communities, so will be an excellent opportunity for Queer Cumbria to be part of how we shape the vision and what we set out to achieve.”

To get a deeper understanding on exactly how the plan was written, we spoke to those more familiar with the matter in terms of equality. Joel Rasbash, the council’s ‘strategic policy advisor’, works on the ‘equality, diversity, and inclusion’ board in the authority. Mr Rasbash has been a bastion for queer people in government, having worked with the former city council, been supportive of queer projects, and helped Cumbria reach the milestone of opening the first gay bar in Carlisle.

He said that the council can do a ‘huge amount’ to support queer inclusion in the council area.
“Currently, I am working with fellow officers on a set of equality objectives that will be going to the council’s executive in April.

“These are based on lots of conversations I have had with different groups representing various strands of the equalities agenda,” he added.

Mr Rasbash said that a summary of said approach would be to make sure the council has a ‘clear and supportive line’ on queer inclusion; make sure all policies and strategies are ‘considering the implications’ for queer communities and; that the council is a queer friendly employer.

We also spoke to Anna Chippendale, who is the council’s service manager for arts, culture, and heritage, and was events manager at the former Allerdale Borough Council.

Ms Chippendale has also been historically supportive of queer people in Carlisle and Allerdale in her previous role and has remained a consistent ally of queer people along with Mr Rasbash.

She commented on her work in the arts to curtail a lifetime of inequality and underrepresentation of queer people in government.
“I’m aware of incidents that have happened historically,” Ms Chippendale said, referring to hate crimes against queer people in Cumbria.

She added: “Learning from young queer people is really important. What has become very apparent is people not understanding why the rise of pronouns is so important.” She added that she has been encouraging colleagues to include pronouns as part of their council email signatures.

She said that art is a great way to bridge the gap between queer people and cis-het people, to discuss things like this, and it’s something the council is trying to do.
“It’s something we should carry forward, we can use art to educate.
“My team tries to make sure this representation of the queer community happens, but we could always do better.
“I’m really keen to work with all communities to try and demonstrate that we are looking forward to making sure that we are inclusive,” Ms Chippendale concluded.

Accountability in local government is something we missed in recent years and we can honestly say it has been refreshing to work with a new authority that has openly accepted and welcomed healthy criticism. Having spoken more to the department heads, we understand more about how the council plans to bring more representative arts and culture to the city, namely Chippendale’s plans to create more safe spaces in the city, something she has Queer Cumbria’s confidence behind. Indeed at the time of writing, we are speaking to her about how we can work alongside Cumberland Council to shape queer projects that create lasting changes in Cumberland.

Words Seph Santiago

Art Adam Phillips (Twiggy)