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Who’s obsessed with homosexuality?

It is the liberal elite, not the public, that kicks up a fuss about gay MPs.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The UK Sun’s outing of Lib Dem leadership contender Simon Hughes last week was presented as yet more evidence of the British masses’ homophobia. Brave individuals rushed to defend Hughes against the millions who apparently would shun him. ‘It’s okay that he’s GAY!’, liberal commentators shouted towards the public gallery.

By these accounts, it was fear of public humiliation that had kept Hughes in the closet for so long. One columnist talked about the ‘irrational loathing’ and ‘bigotry’ that marked the Sun and its readers, and predicted that Hughes would now receive hate mail (1). The Guardian’s news blog consoled: ‘Sadly, it is hard to believe that Britain, at least as filtered through the media lens, is ready for a major party leader who is single, let alone gay…. Having a demonstrably virile family man in Number 10 has set the bar high. Is it any wonder that politicians deny they are gay when the penalties for admitting it still seem steep?’ (2)

But all the fuss about the affair came from Islington dinner tables. SE16 – the area of south London where Hughes is MP – remained nonplussed. There were no voters on the streets outraged at their representative’s perversions. One constituent told BBC Radio Five Live that everybody in the constituency had long known anyway, and that it was not as if he had been caught ‘dressed as a Nazi doing it with donkeys’. The only notable public reaction was from a handful of Muslim Lib Dem party members who switched back to Labour (they had recently switched to the Lib Dems over the Iraq war, so were hardly party faithful).

Nor was there reprobation from the Sun. Yes, there were the usual sharp headlines (‘Another Limp Dem… Bites the Pillow’), but the paper’s concern was less with Hughes’ sexuality than with the fact that he had denied it. Hughes was pictured having a heart-to-heart with political editor Trevor Kavanagh, who reported ‘Lib-Dem leadership challenger Simon Hughes last night spoke frankly about his gay sex life – and said he had been WRONG to hide it’. According to Kavanagh, ‘Mr Hughes appeared relieved to get his confession off his chest after living under suspicion of a secret life for 30 years in politics’ (3).

The Guardian blog cited the Sun’s earlier headline to mark the recent marriage of Elton John and David Furnish – ‘Elton takes David up the aisle’ – as evidence of prejudice. But what it failed to note was the Sun’s lengthy descriptions of Elton John’s nuptials – the groom and groom’s choice of clothing, their guest list, their pledges of love – that almost gave it the air of a royal hitching.

It is simply not the case that being gay is political suicide for an MP. There is a long list of openly gay politicos – Peter Mandelson, Chris Smith, Matthew Parris, Alan Duncan – most of whom are far closer to power than Hughes (though not all of them are entirely happy about being photographed with their boyfriends). Nick Herbert, a gay Tory MP, won a seat in the fusty Arundel and South Downs at the last election. In the current issue of Gay Times, four MPs are pictured on the dancefloor with their shirtsleeves rolled up. Alan Duncan recalls: ‘When I came out, there was nothing but a positive reaction from the Tory Party. I still get two or three thank-you letters a week.’ Indeed, former Tory leadership hopeful Michael Portillo confessed his previous gay love affairs in an attempt to boost his political standing.

So why all the fuss about homophobia? This issue owes less to public prejudice, than to the conceit of the liberal elite. The gay issue has become one of the signature tunes for an otherwise vapid elite; a point of principle it uses to mark itself out from the crowds. Overtures to gayness are implicitly directed at the backward and bigoted masses, who supposedly aren’t sensitive enough to appreciate the finer points of gay love. Though public tolerance is growing, the gay question is kept politically fraught by constant attempts to turn it into a public education programme.

Just look at the fuss surrounding Brokeback Mountain: commentators fell over themselves to talk about how ‘deeply moved’ they were by the Western gay love story, and rubbed their hands with glee at the thought of Midwest America having to swallow this bitter pill. (Meanwhile, the film is quietly mainstreaming at cinemas all over the Western world, with not a gasp to be heard.) Or take the pages of commentary that accompanied the first wave of gay civil partnerships. This wasn’t just about saying ‘how nice that couples are finally able to tie the knot’, but was instead a self-conscious posture, with journalists proving their sensitivity and appreciation of gay relationships.

All of this is not good news for gays. Gays were once a freak show because of their exclusion from mainstream society. All the most artificial aspects of gay culture – from drag queens to bull dykes – developed as a poke in the eye for the heterosexual mainstream. The gay community was shunned and ridiculed, and so it wore its marginalisation almost as a badge of pride; rather than being at ease with itself, it was always putting on a pose.

Now, at a time when public attitudes have eased, gays are becoming a new kind of freak show. Instead of achieving free and easy equality, their role as pin-ups for the liberal elite sets them apart from society. They are pushed forward as a lesson for all: ‘He’s GAY! Do you have a PROBLEM with that?’, go commentators’ cries. The new sin is not to be gay, but to hide it – an assumption that perhaps puts the Sun in bed with the Guardian blog.

Once, gay public figures were outed in order to suggest that there was something wrong with being gay. Today, there is a new breed of outing, which is about shining a light on the perceived prejudices of the masses. Gay figures are pushed forward and put on awkward parade. This keeps homosexuality politically live, at a time when by rights it should be fading as an issue of public concern. In this context, who could blame some politicians for wanting to keep the closet door firmly shut?

Read on:

Cruising for hate crimes, by Josie Appleton

Gay times, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Still stuck with closets, Guardian, 27 January 2006

(2) News International, gays and Lib Dems, on the Guardian blog

(3) Hughes: I’ve had gay sex, Sun

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Topics Politics

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