David Laws, regarded by many commentators as the brightest star of the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition fell victim to something so evident in the lives of any gay or lesbian, utter fear. His downfall after what must have been one of the shortest ever spells in the cabinet is a personal tragedy that was ultimately inevitable as soon as the Daily Telegraph obtained the expenses claims of every MP in the last Parliament. But why is he the third prominent Liberal Democrat MP to be forced to come out as either gay or bisexual in the past few years given their party’s whole hearted support of gay rights?
Yesterday PinkNews.co.uk the website I founded revealed it had been aware of Laws’s sexuality but had not published details to respect his privacy. Something that has subjected this publication to a barrage of questions from the wider media. For the record, it is an editorial policy to never out anyone unless they are hypocrites and campaign against LGBT rights while secretly engaging in an LGBT relationship. David Laws on the issue of his sexuality is clearly not a hypocrite.
I first heard whisper of David Laws’s sexuality in 2006 while I was still PinkNews’s editor. It wasn’t unusual to be told tales of MPs personal lives often by their closest confidants. But David Laws’s sexuality wasn’t the cliche of an ‘open Westminster secret’.
He wasn’t one of the apparently straight politicians that are a fixture of the VIP rooms of gay night clubs like Heaven with a tendency for liaisons with fresh faced students. He wasn’t one of the handful of ‘straight’ MPs that have boasted of their gay sex lives to me while a little worse for wear at the end of my friends’ dinner parties. He wasn’t one of the ‘straight’ MPs stupid enough to have profiles on gay social networking websites.
David was different. The details of his relationship were secret, I never knew the name of his lover.
Coming out is always a drama, it’s always embarrassing. Far more so than it needs to be but far less than anyone in the closet fears.
Coming out and saying ‘I’m gay” is unfortunately interpreted not as an admission of the gender of the person you love but more about something deeply private, your sex life. The “I’m gay” line tells your parents, your grandparents, your boss, your friends, what you’re doing in the privacy of your bedroom (often actually far less seedy or dramatic than they imagine). Telling your parents that you’re gay immediately conjures up images of a life of promiscuity and instability when for some, like me or many of my friends it is nothing of the sort.
I don’t know David Laws or his partner so I don’t know how his family have reacted or the sort of people they are. But I know from my own experience that coming out (as I did to most of my family) from the stability of a loving relationship makes the whole thing more manageable and sensible. My parents looked at the relationship of me and my former partner as two people deeply in love with each other and about to live together in much the same way as they did with my sister and her straight partner. It could have been like that for David Laws had it not been for his wretched expenses claims.
It is a greater tragedy given his political party. Officially the Lib Dems are the most gay friendly of all parties. Nick Clegg has always supported full gay marriage and it is the only party whose LGBT wing is an official part of its governance. But it’s a party whose politicians too often are forced to come out rather than do so voluntarily as Conservatives Alan Duncan, Nick Herbert and Greg Barker have shown is perfectly acceptable.
The 2006 leadership election was awful for the Liberal Democrats.
Mark Oaten whose complicated sexuality has never been fully spelled out foolishly stood for the leadership with TV cameras filming his wife and he feeding his children their breakfast while knowing a rent boy had engaged in un-publishable sexual acts with him.
A week later, the single Simon Hughes (a great friend of PinkNews.co.uk) was forced to come out as bisexual after a tabloid revealed his previous entanglements with men found on gay dating phone lines. The fact he’d won the 1983 Bermondsey by-election as the “straight choice” against the openly gay Labour candidate Peter Tatchell in a virulently homophobic campaign didn’t help. Simon later apologised and Peter graciously accepted the apology and actually backed his campaign for Lib Dem leader. Simon had a brilliant gay rights record in Parliament and explained to me that he didn’t want to shock his elderly, Christian mother with the complicated life of a bisexual. He has been in relationships with both genders but had actually proposed to a woman.
The problem with the Daily Telegraph’s possession of the un-redacted expenses claims was that David Laws’s coming out was always going to be a nightmare. Any Telegraph journalist with access to the full expenses documents and who’d scrutinised David Laws’s claims would have put two and two together when hearing the name of his partner. Although the newspaper has asserted that its motivation was not to out Mr Laws. But it was always going to end in tragedy. Perhaps had the coalition he negotiated had not have been formed this would have been a tiny storm in a tea cup for a Lib Dem education spokesman. But when the man, a millionaire, is in charge of Government spending it could not have ended any other way.
For a day David Laws was the most powerful openly gay man in Britain. Today he is just another Lib Dem caught out by his fear of coming out.
Benjamin Cohen is the founding publisher of PinkNews.co.uk and is a correspondent for Channel 4 News