Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 28 August 2014

The problem wasn’t the affair but the desire to keep it secret

Many years ago, I heard one of Quentin Crisp's inimitable performances in Cambridge.

In the second half of the evening, he took questions from the audience. “Should I tell my mother I'm gay?” the first one ran. “Never,” Quentin raspingly responded, “tell your mother anything.” He continued for some time before coming to his conclusion. “And, by the way: if you're over 30, she knows.”

David Laws, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is 44. He shares a house in London with another man and has done so for over a decade. It must have come as a great surprise to Mr Laws' friends, neighbours and perhaps even his family to discover that he was under the impression that nobody knew he was gay.

Try to reconstruct the lives of Mr Laws and his partner James Lundie and it quickly runs into a quicksand of implausibility. How did they present themselves to their neighbours — as landlord and millionaire tenant? Did they have no friends? Did they go to entirely separate parties, or did they arrive and depart in separate taxis?

How people choose to live their lives is their own business. But, looked at coldly, a life like this has one overwhelming quality: it must be quite staggeringly inconvenient.

The ordinary, everyday burden of ensuring that an impregnable wall exists between your emotional life and the knowledge of everyone you and your partner know would be too much for most people to bear.

Since the fact became clear that Laws paid some £40,000 in rent to his partner without declaring their relationship, some very curious comments have been made. A recurrent one has been that Laws was entitled to keep his sexuality private, by which is meant ‘secret’.

Of course, that is true: you may try to keep any aspect of your life secret. Personally, I don't know any heterosexuals who try to keep their sexuality private. It seems very odd to assume that different rules should apply to gay people.

It can't be done and there's no reason why it should be done. The only way that a gay person can genuinely achieve secrecy is by closing down his sexuality. That solution, 50 years ago, constituted the traditional way of life for homosexuals.

There has been an immense increase in the number of openly gay MPs in recent years. Nevertheless, many gay MPs still feel uncertain about declaring their sexuality. When Gordon McMaster, a gay Labour MP, committed suicide in July 1997, he used his suicide to accuse two fellow Labour MPs of persecuting him.

And what has life been like for Mr Laws in the Liberal Democratic Party? They don't seem very quick to follow programmes of social diversity. There are thousands of gay men living their lives openly within half an hour's walk of the house that David Laws and James Lundie share. Most of them have never had the slightest cause to think of themselves as brave. It is truly bizarre to hear of independently rich, white gay men choosing to live their lives in total secrecy. Clearly, Mr Laws is an intelligent man; he made his money in the first place from balancing risks. He must have made some kind of assessment here which led him to choose secrecy as a rational mode of existence.

We cannot know all the factors in his life: in particular, his relationship with his parents is a genuinely private matter. But others may be worth interrogating. His relationship with his party, for instance, is not a private one, and one which is likely to affect other people in the same position.

The way that Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and David Laws came out is surprisingly similar.

A week before Hughes's outing, he was asked directly by a newspaper if he was gay, and he said “No”.

A week ago, David Laws was asked about his domestic situation, and described himself as “single”. Only when incontrovertible proof was presented to them, did they feel obliged to acknowledge what everyone around them must have known. Is this a problem of politics in general? Or might it be that, nearly 30 years after the notoriously homophobic Bermondsey by-election in which Simon Hughes defeated Peter Tatchell, the Liberal Democrats are much less easy a party for gay people to be open in than they perhaps believe?

David Laws deserved to lose his job. It was disgraceful to pay his partner in secret. But that debate is over.

The other question that the case brings up is whether a human being can live his life openly in accordance with both his heart and his ambition, respecting his privacy — not resorting to secrecy.

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