The reaction to David Laws’s sad downfall this weekend has, as Stephen Tall noted, been pretty depressing, for all sorts of reasons.
That Laws did something which in retrospect was a bad idea is not in question. He infringed the rules, by not changing his arrangements when the rules changed. He has treated himself in a somewhat heavy-handed way, but it’s his choice, and what’s done is done. I hope this is an end to the matter, and that he awaits the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner’s verdict before taking any rash decisions. He would be sorely missed if he lets this finish his political career.
How we react to it, however, is what interests me. It’s not that surprising to me that, in general, the reaction amongst the partisan blogosphere and twitterverse has split down party lines. Reaction, after all, is heavily swung by how charitable one feels towards him. Labourites have spent the week setting him up in their minds as The Enemy. For the coalition parties, he was a rising star. It takes a willingness to look beyond the immediate facts of the case to see reasons to be kind to Laws, but I would urge people to do so. The reasons we might do so have been adequately rehearsed elsewhere, so I will not repeat them here.
The thing about this whole thing that really gets to me, though, is the attitude of many gay people which I have seen expressed. Several people who ought to know better have been snarky and unsupportive of Laws, on the basis, so far as I can tell, that if they managed to come out surely everyone else ought to have managed it. The worst example, to my mind, was Ben Bradshaw, about whom I was unnaccountably rude on Twitter last night, but there are several more, including one or two within our own party. Ben Summerskill has denounced Laws, in an article (and rolling news appearances) which seems to betray rather more irritation at Laws for not coming out before than genuine outrage at his expenses claims.
Matthew Parris has written more eloquently than I can about the reasons many people like Laws have not come out, so I will simply quote him:
But wouldn’t it have been more sensible to come clean from the start? Of course it would. Mr Laws knows that. Hundreds of thousands of closeted, middle-aged gay men in Britain know it about themselves.
How they wish they had, half a lifetime ago. But they feel trapped in an account of themselves constructed when they were young.
You start by declaring nothing — and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.
Imperceptibly, but in the end fatally, the outer self diverges from the inner. And whenever you grit your teeth and resolve to blurt it out, there’s always a mother who might be heartbroken, a dad who’d be devastated, a boss who’d be contemptuous, mates whose trust you might lose, or a frail grandma for whom this might just prove the final blow. The years go by, the gap widens and calcifies.
Parris’s generosity of spirit has been sadly lacking in much of the rest of the media, but even he seems to give the impression that it’s all different these days, that nobody, say, my age could possibly have any trouble in coming out if they were gay or bisexual. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is true. Society at large is largely (though not universally) accepting of homosexuality nowadays, it is true, but it’s not society at large’s reaction which someone coming out worries about. Like David Laws, if your parents have potentially strong views about homosexuality, that is naturally going to be the first thing on your mind. Even if they don’t, Parris’s line
“You start by declaring nothing — and friends and family assume there’s nothing to declare. You find yourself, by your silence, playing along with a lie you never meant to tell.”
rings as true now as it was for the now middle-aged people Parris is describing.
We also have to ask why our society demands that people “come out” at all. Straight people are not expected to announce their chosen orientation to their friends and family, they are just the “default setting”, and therefore under no obligation to tell their friends and family anything about their sex lives.
Disappointingly, people like Summerskill and Bradshaw clearly find it easier, since they and their campaigns have an interest in gay people maximising their visibility to the wider world, to berate gay and bisexual people who have not seen fit to proclaim their sexuality to the world at large. It is, after all, easier to leave Laws to the pitchfork-bearing mob screaming “thief!”, than to point out that hundreds of married, straight MPs are given money, perfectly legitimately, towards joint mortgages. It’s easier not to bother to ask why the rules are the way they are. After all, if a married couple with a mortgage get the money, and an MP living with a friend (but not a partner) would appear to be allowed to claim for money, why does this rule make any sense? If a couple are paying rent on a property, why shouldn’t an MP claim for their share of the rent? For David Laws himself, the rules are the rules, but for other commentators, surely these questions bear examination?
But no. The painful outing of a man by a newspaper (and lets be completely straightforward here, the Telegraph’s claim never to have intended to out Laws is complete bollocks; they would have known that the explanation they would force from Laws would involve his outing himself at a time he did not choose) seems not to bother them, because they prefer to join everyone else sitting in judgement of another MP “on the fiddle”, regardless of the more nuanced facts of the case. It suits them to minimise the issues which many gay and bisexual people still face in coming out.
If they think they’re helping the people they claim to speak for (oh-so-legitimately, being such paragons of out-and-proud-ness), they are sadly mistaken. What people struggling to find the right time to come out need is understanding and support, not a mirror image of the homophobic bigotry they fear which correspondingly tells them that their failure to come out represents self loathing, dishonesty, or any other fault on their part.