Deputy speaker Nigel Evans: ‘I lost 35 years of my life in the closet’
Nigel Evans gives good interview. In contrast to some MPs, who seem to be regurgitating press releases, he’s candid, humorous and happy to chat away.
The Tory MP, who is the hugely popular deputy speaker of the House of Commons, came out as gay last December, saying he was tired of living a lie.
I remember seeing him at the Stonewall awards in 2009, more than a year before he came out. Although clearly not too worried about being spotted at a gay event, he was quiet and reserved. Now, he seems taller, more confident and far more jolly. In Westminster, he’s generally respected and much loved.
He announced he was gay in the Mail on Sunday shortly after another Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, came out. Although Evans’ secret was well-known in Westminster, the news came as a surprise to his family and many in his constituency. Blunt’s admission came as a shock to all, as he was married with children.
However, Evans says there are still “quite a number” of MPs who remain in the closet. “Dozens”, he estimates. Some live with partners and are deeply private, he says, others are classic cases of the last to know.
While he says he hopes those who want to will come out, he acknowledges that his is a cautionary tale, rather than an inspiration: “I’m the last one to lecture them, to say, you’ve got to come out.”
He did not come out until the age of 54. “I’ve thrown away 35 years of my life,” he says.
Although this statement is unemotional, it’s deeply moving. It’s not that unusual for gay men of his generation to come out late in life, but rumination on the relationships, years of togetherness that could have been, are inevitable.
Thinking of his career, and rise to one of the most powerful positions in the Commons, I ask whether he really feels this way.
“Yes, without a shadow of a doubt.”
Frowning, he says: “I see a lot of my young gay friends now, who are leading as fulfilled a life as their non-gay friends. And shouldn’t that be as it is? Why should it be any different? Why should people who were born gay have to lead second-class lives anyway?”
He then runs through an encounter with young Polish students, who professed a love for Margaret Thatcher and a burning desire for equality for all – except gays.
The mood breaks for a second when I ask if he is still single. “I am clearly available!”, he says, laughing.
“And that’s what I mean by throwing away 35 years of my life. If I was a teenager now, I think the chances of me having found somebody and then staying with them for a long period, I think would have happened. So it has repercussions, the later you leave it.”
Evans, who grew up in the “dreary sixties” in “one of the rougher sides of Swansea”, became interested in politics at a young age. His family owned a newsagent and the young Nigel would race through all the newspapers each day, before placing them back on the newsstands.
In a fit of precocity, the ten-year-old shocked his primary school teacher by telling her that Ted Heath would win the 1970 general election. She was “absolutely dumbfounded”, he says, not least because he appeared to be a budding Tory.
His father, he says, began working in the shop after the war – “the biggest mistake of his life”. Evans, seeing his father’s resentment, decided he would not follow the same path after finishing university. “I was very conscious in deciding I could not get sucked in to spending the rest of my life in a shop.”
A fascination with the “aura” of the US Kennedy dynasty and an admiration for his “icon” Margaret Thatcher’s move to sell council houses to tenants – a boost for many in his area – prompted him to get into politics and stand as a local councillor. He later won the seat of Ribble Valley in 1992, where he has been the MP since.
He was elected as one of three deputy speakers in June last year, having come first in the ballot of MPs. He says he is hugely enjoying the job, although still struggles to tell a small handful of MPs apart.
He jokes that as a young man, he felt like the only Tory in the whole of Wales. Of course, he felt he was the only gay person too.
“I didn’t know anyone who was openly gay in Swansea at that stage,” he says. “Nobody. Not a single person. I just carried on, thinking it could not be possible to be openly gay and involved in politics, especially in Wales.
“And the seismic difference between then and now… the progression has been massive, from Lord Chris Smith [the former Labour peer who came out in 1984] who was clearly dynamic in what he did and pioneering, quite frankly, for not just me, but people like David Cameron then to say, well, hold on now, we believe in equality. And actually, David has been absolutely amazing in what he’s done.
“It’s never easy to come out… the older you are, it’s more difficult. Whereas now, I think it’s a lot easier for people to come out as gay as soon as they know they’re gay.”
He recalls the old question asked by constituency selection committees: “Do you have any skeletons in your cupboard?”
“We all knew what the question meant,” he says. “It didn’t mean have you murdered your brother or do you believe in the extermination of races of people, it was, are you gay? That was the code. I took it in the literal sense and said I had no skeletons in my cupboard. Now that question is banned … in recognition of what that question was all about.”
He adds: “[Being gay] is not going to be the deciding factor any more. Well, for some people it may be, but that’s their problem, not the candidates’ problem.”
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When Evans came out, his friend the former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe criticised his decision, asking in a newspaper column why gay people feel the need to declare their sexuality.
He says views like that mean they must come out, although he doesn’t seem insulted by Widdecombe’s words, joking that she appears to have many gay friends, even if she is unaware of that fact.
“Ann doesn’t understand gaydom,” he says, laughing. “I don’t think Ann is homophobic in that sense, I just think she doesn’t understand it.”
“But by far, the vast majority of emails and letters I got were congratulatory. Some people would say, well why do you need to do this? And it’s because of them that we need to do it. They don’t understand it, particularly the amount of bullying and intimidation that goes on, in the workplace right down into schools. It’s still there, sadly.”
He prefers the word ‘gaydom’ to ‘homosexuality’: “I just think it covers everything – the world of gay. I suppose it sounds like a theme park! I think I invented the word gaydom. The kingdom of gaydom…”
Later, he says he’s on a “one-man campaign” to remove ‘straight’ from the lexicon, saying he dislikes the word’s connotations and prefers ‘non-gay’.
Evans said he decided to come out after getting involved with HIV and AIDS issues while in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).
He said he began “espousing the gay cause” at conferences, particularly to Iranian delegates. At one event, he spoke to an Iranian delegate who informed him that while gay sex behind closed doors could be tolerated, doing it “in public” could not and offenders would be be tortured.
This was shortly after shocking reports in 2005 that Iran had tortured and hanged two teenage boys accused of sexual activity.
Evans says: “I just looked at him and I went, yes, you did torture them. And then you hanged them. I mean, I was stunned by his openness, about what he thought was decent to do. ”
He says he still works with the CPA and “they can see I’ve got a head, two arms, two legs like anyone else and I’m gay – so what’s the problem?”
Joking again, he says: “At one point, I thought there were so many MPs coming out, we would have to print t-shirts saying ‘I’m not gay, get over it’.”
When he came out, Evans was criticised for having voted against the equal age of consent in 1998. He later voted in favour, although he abstained on some other important votes.
He says now: “I didn’t show any leadership and that was the problem. I guess I was hiding behind the fact that even though I was gay, I understood that a lot of people didn’t like that sort of thing. Instead of taking it head-on, and even working it out in my own head … I actually thought they [opponents of lowering the age of consent] had a point at some stage.
“I am delighted that there is equality out there now. And that people cannot turn people away from their hotels or guesthouses or anywhere else simply for being gay. Anything that is acceptable on the heterosexual side must also be acceptable on the other side too.”
As deputy speaker, he must take care to demonstrate impartiality.
But on the subject of gay marriage, he’s quite open and is excited about America’s progress on the issue.
“In the past, before I was deputy speaker, I made it clear that equality means just that. Before I became deputy speaker, I did say that MPs like Chris Bryant shouldn’t have to get married in some other part of Westminster. We have our own chapel where William Hague got married, where if any gays want to get married, that is the rightful place to do it.”
Although he couldn’t make London Pride due to a hospice fundraiser in his constituency, he is keen to attend another Pride event this summer and suddenly tells his researcher to check his diary and Google the date of the Manchester festival.
Unlike some, he thinks Pride remains important. “I know some people say it’s outdated. I don’t think so.” Later, he says: “It is a demonstration by doing it – that there are still people out there who don’t see that it’s right. And my message to them is [that] it is necessary to come out and it is necessary to go on demonstrations because people like that think that it is not necessary.”
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Times for gay people have changed hugely since his youth. He says he’s heard some “horrific speeches” in the House of Commons in his years – from both sides – but says there’s now “zero tolerance” on homophobia from all parties, especially when it comes to cracking down on errant local councillors.
It’s sad that it took him this long to come out but he doesn’t seem to dwell on it, at least not in this interview.
“I am incredibly happy about being gay,” he says, smiling. “If I could press a button and make myself not gay, I would not do it.”