He was born in North London; his mother, Gladys, was a mathematics teacher; his father, Colin Smith was a Whitehall civil servant. The family lived in Watford until Chris Smith was 10 years old when they moved to Edinburgh when his father was transferred to the Scottish Office. His mother became the head of mathematics as a girls' school. He studied at the Cassiobury Primary School, Watford, and at George Watson's College, Edinburgh.
He was at Pembroke College, Cambridge from 1969-75 studying English. He was elected president of the union and chairman of the Fabian Society. He stayed at Cambridge and obtained a doctorate on solitude in 18th-century poetry with particular emphasis on Wordsworth and Coleridge. He was then at Harvard University as a Kennedy Scholar from 1975-76. While in the USA he worked on Arizona democrat Mo Udall's failed presidential campaign.
It was during 1970s when he was in his 20s when he became clear that he was gay. He returned to Britain and was taken on as a graduate trainee by the government quango, the Housing Corporation. Nine months later he left to become the Development Secretary for Shaftesbury Housing Association from 1977 to 1980. He was then the Development Co-ordinator for the Society for Co-operative Dwellings from 1980 to 1983.
He was a Councillor in Islington from 1978 to 1983. He became Labour whip and chair of the housing committee. In 1979 he stood in the general election for the unwinnable Tory seat of Epsom and Ewell.
He became a Member of Parliament in Britain for the Labour Party for the constituency of Islington South and Finsbury in 1983. It was a close-run campaign against the sitting MP George Cunningham who had defected from Labour to the SDP, and Chris Smith won by only 363 votes after a recount. There were contingency plans to talk about him being gay during the election campaign if the issue arose but it was not mentioned.
In November 1984 he was invited to address a protest meeting in Rugby after the Conservative-controlled council dropped a policy banning discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. He opened his speech with the words: "My name is Chris Smith. I'm the Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and I'm gay." This made him the first openly out gay MP at Westminster.
In 1988 he was at a lobby of MPs about Section 28 when he first met Dorian Jabri who was there as communications director for the teacher training agency and asked Chris Smith to speak at a conference. A few months later they were living together. There was some press interest in the two being invited as a couple after the 1997 election to a Buckingham Palace function. Dorian Jabri later became a consultant advising companies on ethical investments.
Chris Smith was the Opposition spokesperson on treasury and economic affairs from 1987 to 1992, on environmental protection from 1992 to 1994, on national heritage from 1994 to 1995, and on health from 1996 to 1997. He was on the executive of the National Council for Civil Liberties from 1986 to 1988, on the executive committee of the National Trust from 1995 to 1997, and a Governor of the Sadler's Wells Theatre from 1987 to 1997.
He became the first out-gay British cabinet minister when he was given the job of Secretary of State for National Heritage when the Labour Party won the general election on 1st. May, 1997. His own majority in May 1997 was 14563. Within weeks the name of his department was changed to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. In the general election on 7th. June, 2001 he held his seat with a majority of 7280, but he lost his job as a minister.