The dark side of gay liberation
Officially no one cares about a politician’s sexuality. The William Hague case shows that isn’t true
Gay, blue, proud and out? Then book your table at Tory conference pride next month. “Adam Rickitt will host the evening at Nightingales, Birmingham’s top gay club, and there will be appearances from cabinet members and high-profile MPs,” a party email urged last night.
And then, moments later, news came that William Hague’s special adviser had resigned after an internet smear, and the foreign secretary felt so miserable that he issued a pained statement promising anyone who cared that he had never slept with a man.
From joy to shame in one easy step, yesterday saw the bright and dark sides of gay liberation.
There is no reason to think Hague’s statement is untrue, and every reason to sympathise with his and his wife’s position. No couple should feel forced to reveal that they have suffered miscarriages because some people at Westminster chatter and put things on internet sites. But Hague was forced, and we should ask ourselves why.
We should admit that the positive side of the gay revolution – the Britain of 2010, when even the prime minister jokes that Nick Clegg is his civil partner – is not quite the whole of the story.
Of course now that pink is in and lesbian, bi and gay are the new normal, there’s not supposed to be anything to hide. Yet some people choose – and have the right to choose – to stay hidden. Others aren’t hiding anything at all. They just don’t want to say.
A decade ago no one would have dared to ask. Now we do, and of course that is far healthier. After all, what is there to deny? But for some people, this brings with it a problem.
Gay and lesbian politicians, and those suspected of being in this group, are now quite routinely expected to make a declaration of their sexuality, as straight ones, by and large, do not. It is as if speaking out is becoming a compulsory contribution to the cause, and intrusion into privacy not gossip but therapy.
No one rings up ministers to ask if they are secretly attracted to women. No one made John Prescott resign when it was revealed that he was having an affair with a junior member of his staff. No one blinked at the gush about women in Tony Blair’s memoirs as they surely would have done had he written about a man. Yet it was still a big story when the prisons minister left his wife the other day and said he was gay.
Officially, of course, no one cares two hoots about sexuality. It’s no longer the gay sex that brings you down: always the lying, or money, or shame of deceit. Cash did for David Laws: not a gay scandal, everyone said, though of course it was, in part, at its core – the Telegraph’s intrusion prompting him to expose his partner. The same attack was being cooked up against Hague: that he might have employed someone he loved.
We like to pretend that the type of person a minister sleeps with is of no more interest to us than a preference for sheets and blankets on a bed rather than duvets. But that simply isn’t true. There is still something about gay sex that sits hard by salacious.
Those well-intentioned activists, in Stonewall and elsewhere, who feel every gay man in politics should be able to come out overlook the pressures that some people feel themselves to be under. Of course while some people remain in the closet, some people will always talk. But it’s the talk that is the problem, not the secrecy.
This isn’t a moan about some secret prejudice. Obviously gossip is the currency of every political transaction. That Tory pride event at conference is not a fake: the party has changed. So has Labour, which led the way. Gay and lesbian MPs thrive in Britain, as they do not everywhere else in the world.
But the change has been fast and incomplete and some people have been left behind or choose not to participate. Names other than Hague’s are being bandied around at Westminster, with no more evidence or necessity. Some of the stories might be true. Others not. It simply shouldn’t matter.