Leading article: Hypocrisy masquerading as tolerance

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The Independent Culture
PERSONAL STATEMENTS to the House of Commons are usually opportunities to score a few political points, twist the knife of resignation a little, garner some publicity for the recently deprived of office. But Ron Davies's speech was a much more private and, in its way, quietly powerful performance. It was a brave thing to do, and Mr Davies was right to warn us about the danger of the press wielding power irresponsibly and raise questions about how tolerant we really are.

Mr Davies has been the subject of media coverage, some of it prurient, historical and with only the most tenuous link with what happened the other night. But he is wrong to conclude that the answer to his problems lie in that old chestnut, privacy legislation. Without revisiting the whole question of legally enforced press censorship, it is important to note that there is a catch 22 operating in this strange case. In order to conclude that something is entirely private, it is necessary to know something of the detail of the case. And still there is so little known about the circumstances leading to Mr Davies's resignation, it is unreasonable to expect the public and the press to be anything other than curious about this unhappy saga.

But there is an important lesson to learn from the events of the past week: namely, that homophobia is still endemic in Britain. The remarks by Norman Tebbit, to the effect that homosexuals should be barred from certain cabinet positions, because of the possibility that they might indulge in a sort of gay conspiracy is, even from that source, remarkable. When Archie Norman, the Conservative Party vice-chairman attempts to modernise his party's procedure for selecting parliamentary candidates by ditching the spouse vetting that, effectively, acts as a bar on gay men, he is attacked. Dr Adrian Rogers, of the Conservative Family Institute, was unashamed when he told Mr Norman that: "I hope the party will make clear that these deviant lifestyles have no part in the Conservative Party." So much for modernising the Tories. And, of course, there is the continuing campaign to prevent the equalisation of the gay right of consent, tellingly led by the most reactionary elements in the House of Lords.

Of course there are those tabloid newspapers and commentators who claim that they have no objection to homosexuality as such, but who find the idea of gays and lesbians pursuing their sex lives in what is, in fact, a normal fashion, offensive. They don't mind gay ministers, of course, they even impertinently talk about helping them come out, but they do not like homosexuals "flaunting their sexuality". Needless to say, cruising is anathema for these elements. But it is only when the vigorous promiscuous heterosexuality that they approve of, indeed encourage, is tolerated in homosexual behaviour that their hypocrisy can be said to have ended.

Whatever the truth about Mr Davies's resignation, he was certainly right in his statement to ask about how tolerant a society we really are. To make the general point, why should any MP be frightened about being "discovered", or "found out", or "outed"? The only reason is the continuing intolerant climate of opinion, which is still only slowly and painfully changing.

The general case has to be that no politician, police officer or soldier should feel that their sexuality is a cause for shame or resignation. As Ron Davies warned, we do not want to add more deterrents for the best and most talented to pursue a career in public service.

The days when the words "minister", "gay" and "scandal" are not routinely found in the same sentence may be some way off. In the meantime we have to keep reminding society that sexual tastes do not affect anyone's abilities and are no disqualification for office. As Mr Davies told us yesterday, we are what we are. And that is certainly no grounds for ending anyone's career.