Published: 06:00, 10 September 2021
| Updated: 16:33, 10 September 2021
In September last year Ben Fitter-Harding became the first openly gay leader of Canterbury City Council.
Ahead of the much-anticipated Canterbury Pride tomorrow, he tells how he once feared his sexuality would prevent him from ever entering politics...
I am Canterbury’s first council leader from the LGBTQ+ community, and I could not be more proud.
As children we believe we can do anything; ambition is encouraged and there’s no job or goal that seems out of reach.
Then we move into adulthood and it can feel like a lot of those open doors are suddenly slamming shut.
I didn’t grow up with the dream of being a police officer like my husband did or, like my eldest son, a bus driver. But I’ve always had ideas, and I’ve always loved the challenge of bringing them to life, and for the most part that’s what my career so far has been about.
But that hasn’t been without challenges. For five years I ran my first business without ever having a face-to-face meeting, terrified that as a young gay man I couldn’t possibly be taken seriously among the power suits and branded stress balls.
"For five years I ran my first business without ever having a face-to-face meeting..."
Hidden behind a computer and rarely leaving the house I didn’t have to confront my sexuality, which is probably why I didn’t come out until I was 25.
I’m not sure in today’s world of virtual meetings that would have even been possible, and perhaps the anxiety would have been too crushing to ever get to where I am today.
And where am I, exactly? Well, for starters, I’m married. That’s something I never thought would be possible for a same-sex couple growing up, and I hope that this seismic change has helped thousands of young people feel so much more accepted as part of mainstream society.
I’m also a father of two. Kent County Council’s adoption service has been so terrific and the debt of gratitude that I owe them for matching Jon and I with our two beautiful boys is one I will never be able to repay.
Again, this is just another part of life that I’d assumed would be closed off to me.
Believe me, you cannot underestimate the impact on a person’s wellbeing and confidence that the gift of such simple things, things that most people take for granted, things like starting a family, can bring.
Work life aside (I work full-time, as studio director of Dodgems and Floss and running the small hotel above it), in September 2020 I became the first openly gay leader of Canterbury City Council and, on Saturday, I will have the incredible honour of holding that position and speaking to the crowd at Pride Canterbury - the district’s largest event and an incredibly important day for supporting diversity and inclusion.
My message to everyone as the festivities kick off is one of uninhibited hope. Our Community Can.
"We’ve come so far since I was a child, but even now society, and sometimes the law, holds people back..."
We’ve come so far since I was a child, but even now society, and sometimes the law, holds people back from being who they are. Together we can achieve everything we want from our lives; we can marry, we can raise our children and, here in Canterbury, I can be a Conservative, gay and leader all at the same time.
It may seem obvious to many; yet, when I first ran for council in 2012, my biggest fear was that voters in Blean Forest would reject me based on my sexuality. They didn’t, and I went on to serve them for a further term, meeting many wonderful people along the way, but the fear is still there and I intend to make it clear to all of those in the LGBTQ+ community that absolutely nothing should stop you from trying - and if you don’t succeed then our wonderful community will help pick you up and stand with you to try again.
But, as much as Pride Canterbury is always a celebration of how far we’ve come, how much we’ve changed together and how much good that has brought to so many lives, it doesn’t stop there. Members of our community are still hurting, and they need us now more than ever.
Recently, for example, Rosie Duffield MP has once again come under fire for liking transphobic tweets. For all of those grappling with issues of gender the last thing they need is their MP, last seen at Pride Canterbury petulantly handing out ‘Never Kissed a Tory’ stickers, supporting sweeping claims about who can and who cannot be a woman. That this woman in particular, who was so celebrated by the LGBTQ+ community when she defeated Julian Brazier in 2017, could now inflict such pain upon it is something many of us find hard to bear.
Yet progress continues, even as people like Ms Duffield attempt to stand in the way. The Canterbury district is filled with good people, people who accept others for who they are and who don’t try to tell others how to live their lives. Through the kindness and respect that I have been shown as a councillor, and especially since becoming leader, I believe more than ever that our society is becoming more inclusive, not less.
One thing’s for sure - I’m proud. Proud of my husband and the directors of Pride Canterbury, and all the committee members and volunteers, for their incredible work putting on the event for everyone who wants to join together and celebrate diversity. Proud of my two sons. Proud of everyone who has been on this journey of inclusivity, which means having a parent or parents who are LGBTQ+ can be normal. And always proud, of course, to represent this incredible district.
See you tomorrow!
Read Rosie Duffield's response to Mr Fitter-Harding's article here.