Queens' country

In this extract from his hilarious new travel book, Paul Burston presents a guided tour of the gay ghettos, queer spots and camp sights of, er, deepest Derbyshire
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU HAD told me 10 years ago that I would spend a weekend holed up in a farmhouse in Derbyshire, surrounded by gay Tories, and that I would enjoy the experience, I would have beaten you over the head with a rolled-up copy of Socialist Worker, screamed "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - Out, Out, Out!" and sworn never to speak to you again - at least not until you had paid proper penance by purchasing every record ever made by the Communards. Life is so much simpler when you're young. For years I refused to entertain the possibility that someone could vote Conservative and still be a decent human being. I was what you might describe as "far righteous". I firmly believed that "people are their politics" - a line I picked up from Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were. These days I take a far more sophisticated view. People - gay people included - are made up of many things. The way a person votes doesn't tell you all you need to know about them. And people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

My host in Derbyshire was Matthew Parris - parliamentary sketch writer for The Times and an ex-Tory MP. Ex-MP that is - Matthew is still very much a Tory. And I have to say that I still retain a hint of my old cynicism where gay Tories are concerned. It's not that I think of them as being intrinsically evil, or stupid, or bad in bed. It's not that I don't accept the fact that the Conservative Party has a strong libertarian strain (as demonstrated by Edwina Currie during the age of consent campaign of 1994), or that the Labour Party isn't always as gay-friendly as certain people might like us to believe (David Blunkett and Ann Taylor both voted against an equal age of consent at 16). It's just that, to my mind, being gay and voting Conservative still don't add up somehow. How can you be gay and support the people who gave us Clause 28, who regularly launch attacks on gay men and women in the name of family values, and who sport some of the worst hairstyles since The Young Doctors? On top of which, Matthew was a great personal supporter of Margaret Thatcher - a woman who was to gay rights what Hannibal Lecter was to vegetarianism. Still, as an ex-boyfriend of mine is fond of saying, if we all thought alike and shared the same tastes, we'd have much smaller shopping centres (shopping being the one gay pastime even the most rabidly homophobic of Tories is happy to promote).

Anyway, Matthew's own track record on gay rights is pretty exemplary. As the Right Honourable MP for West Derbyshire, 1979-1986, he behaved, well, honourably. Even in the days when he preferred to keep his sexuality private, he regularly stuck his neck out to make public pronouncements about gay civil rights. He was one of the first public figures to call for a change in the law surrounding the "gay crime" of gross indecency and to condemn the use of "pretty policemen" in police entrapment operations. In 1982, he voted in favour of the extension of gay rights to Northern Ireland.

The first time we met, he was on the managing committee of Galop, an organisation which offers legal advice and support to gay victims of violence and to those who've had the misfortune to be caught with their trousers down. These days, he regularly uses his position at the Times to raise awareness of gay issues. And besides, he's a thoroughly charming fellow.

We drove up to Derbyshire late one Friday night - Matthew, myself, a mutual friend named Jeremy and a young friend of Matthew's called Richie (I've altered names). What the exact nature of their friendship was I couldn't really tell you. Matthew tends to be quite coy about these matters, but it would be true to say that there was a fair amount of flirtation going on. I did notice, also, that Richie tended to bait Matthew rather a lot, with the kind of sadistic fervour that usually implies some degree of physical intimacy. A large part of the discussion revolved around politics and the media. Richie worked for a national newspaper, and was evidently quite proud of the fact. At one point in the conversation, he remarked that he thought it unfair that the Daily Mail had been voted Newspaper of the Year. Matthew agreed - it wasn't especially good that year.

We arrived in Derbyshire shortly after 1am and drove down a series of narrow, winding lanes until, finally, we pulled up at a large farmhouse. The first thing that struck me was how dark it was. Stumbling out of the car and falling into a ditch where the drive was supposed to be, I found myself wondering how anyone manages to survive in the country. The fact that there is no underground system I can just about contend with, but whoever decided to cut down on the electricity bill by not installing street-lights needs to have their head examined. What is the point of electricity if not to light our way in the darkness? In the city, people kick up a fuss if there isn't a street-lamp illuminating every corner - the argument being that a dimly lit street is an open invitation to muggers, rapists and criminals of all descriptions. In the country, people simply stagger merrily on their way, falling into ditches and fending off attacks by marauding livestock and assorted wildlife as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Perverse, I call it.

The farmhouse where I very nearly broke a leg is situated between two towns - Matlock and Bakewell. The nearest, Matlock, is six miles away. I could see the street-lights winking away in the distance, quietly mocking me. On the map, Derbyshire shares a border with Manchester. But really it's a different world. Matthew bought the farmhouse back in the days when he was MP for the area and keeps it on as a sort of weekend retreat. He doesn't do much in the way of farming, although he does keep a few ducks and some geese. He recently had the cowsheds converted into holiday cottages, which helps pay for the upkeep of the building, and for the Italian housekeeper, Marta, who looks after the place while he's away. What can I tell you about Marta? She's a fairly large, very pretty woman in her early thirties, with a natural affinity for gay men, outweighed only by a deep, abiding love of cats. She and Matthew met a few years ago, while she was in London visiting her gay brother, Stefano. They got along so well that Marta cancelled her plans to go back to Italy and moved to Derbyshire instead. I suppose there's only so much Mediterranean living a girl can take. I mean, who needs Italian sunshine and olive oil when you can have English drizzle and dripping?

The following morning, Marta demonstrated her skills in the kitchen, cooking up a none-too-traditional English country breakfast of scrambled duck eggs, sausages and kangaroo steaks. Over breakfast, Richie teased Matthew about being "an uptight old thing". Matthew took it all in good humour - even allowing that, yes, he probably was a bit of a cold fish. He put this down to his upbringing. At 14, he was packed off to boarding school, he says by choice, but he was terribly homesick. His first job was at the Foreign Office. Again, he felt homesick. Even now, at the age of 47, he remained extremely close to his mother. He said he dreaded her death more than anything - "I can't even think about it without crying." Old age doesn't worry him, though. He reckons he's more comfortable with himself the older he gets.

I asked Matthew how people in the area perceived him, a man regularly described as one of the 40 most influential gay men in Britain. Was it even an issue? He said he thought not. Everyone in Matlock knew he was gay, even in the days when he was their MP, although no one ever brought the subject up - "It wouldn't be polite." This sort of English reserve wasn't always a good thing where gay people were concerned, he said, but it wasn't always bad either. "It allows people some space." Thus, if a gay person moved into the village and decided to flaunt their sexuality, they might feel a bit frozen out, but they wouldn't experience outright hostility. When I asked him about the local gay scene, he started by describing it as "a cross between Mykonos and Ambridge". By the time he'd finished telling me about the various gay people he knew and the various places they frequented, it sounded more like something out of Beatrix Potter.

This is largely down to "The Rabbits". This is the term Matthew and Marta use to describe their nearest gay neighbours - a couple who live "just over the hill" in Marby. Let us call them Alistair and Peter, but Matthew and Marta took a vote and decided that "The Rabbits" suits them better.

They moved into the area six years ago. For the first couple of months, they kept themselves very much to themselves. Every so often, Matthew would spot them pottering about in their garden, or arriving home with the groceries, and would drive by to say hello. As soon as they saw his car approaching, they would dash into the house and peer out of the window nervously - thereby earning their nickname. Matthew was clearly very taken with the idea of having a pair of rabbits for neighbours and had developed quite detailed character sketches of them (which, one day, I expect to see illustrating some children's book). Apparently, Alistair is "the buck rabbit" and collects wind organs, which he stores in three large barns dotted around the area. Peter is "the doe rabbit". He lives and works in Nottingham, and spends the weekends with his lover of 10 years, climbing mountains and scouring the local junk shops for wind organs. (Matthew ascribed the terms "buck" and "doe" on the basis of what he saw as the couple's respective masculine and feminine qualities - ie Alistair is the bossy one, while Peter tends to panic more easily.)

Naturally, I couldn't wait to meet them, and as luck would have it I didn't have to wait very long. Just after we'd finished clearing up our breakfast things, there was a knock on the door and two men in their mid- thirties appeared. Both were fairly handsome in a ruddy faced, chunky- sweaters-and-hiking-boots kind of way and were carrying rucksacks. "Hello," they said in unison. "We're 'The Rabbits'." "Hello," I said back. "I'm Mr Fox." I didn't really say that, but, believe me, I was sorely tempted. Anyway, there was no need for me to take the piss out of them, since Matthew was obviously far better qualified for the job. Introducing me as a friend from London who was writing a book about gay lives around the country, he announced that he'd just been telling me his theory about which of them was the buck and which the doe. Alistair, the buck, smiled confidently and helped himself to some coffee. Peter, the doe, laughed nervously and insisted that it was really more of a give-and-take affair - that they each took responsibility for different aspects of the relationship and that they were both quite masterful in their different ways. Neither of them seemed particularly embarrassed about having their private affairs discussed in the presence of a total stranger. On the contrary, they seemed to enjoy it. For 10 minutes or so, they stood there smiling happily. Then Alistair announced that it was time they were leaving, and within seconds they were gone. I hesitate to say that they bolted, but it wouldn't be so far from the truth.

THE AFTERNOON passed without much incident. Richie took a train back to London ("deadlines, sweetie, deadlines"), and the rest of us took a drive around the local area, with Matthew pointing out places of historic interest. There was the George pub, where Prince Charles once took a pee and where there is now a plaque commemorating His Royal Highness's visit. There was Riber Castle, where we stopped for a while and stood around looking at ruins - something I am especially well practised at, having spent more hours than I care to remember at a pub in London called the Brief Encounter. Then it was time to go and collect the Christmas tree. Matthew wanted the biggest tree he could find; Marta was more concerned about the shape. By the time they'd agreed on which one to buy and we'd got the damn thing home, I had built up quite an appetite. Marta offered to whip up some more duck eggs, but I declined when Matthew announced that he, myself and Jeremy had been invited for dinner by Sean of the vicarage.

The vicarage is one of those grand, enormous, draughty piles that probably sounds like a great place to live if you're a bat, don't mind the occasional bout of hypothermia or still haven't recovered from watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show when you were very young and far too impressionable. The building is set well back from the road, with no driveway. Instead, you have to park your car roadside and walk through a very long, very narrow, very dark alley, across what looks like and - oh my God - is a graveyard, then down some stone steps thoughtfully encrusted with a particularly slippery variety of moss. By the time we made it to the door, I was half expecting Richard O'Brien to pop up singing "The Timewarp". Instead, the door was opened by a young, blond, slightly spotty gay man who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the members of the Muppet family.

Sean is 24, and lodges with an older gay couple named Mark and Vince. Matthew had hoped that I would have the chance to meet them also, only they'd changed their plans at the last minute and had gone away for the weekend. Mark is rumoured to be something of a bully, which may have been a contributory factor to Sean's nervous disposition that evening. Then again, it could have been me. Call me old- fashioned, but if someone asks me if I'm cold and I am, then I say so. Sean asked me if I was cold as soon as I walked in the door and I answered yes, I was. I couldn't help it. It just came out - like the clouds of cold air that escaped from my mouth the moment I went to use the bathroom. Anyway, I was soon wishing I hadn't said anything. Sean was terribly sweet and a very kind host, but his embarrassment at the fact that his guests were slowly freezing to death took the edge off the evening. I tried to make it up to him by enthusing wildly about the food - homemade tomato, apple and celery soup, followed by broccoli lasagne with roast potatoes and roast parsnips, topped off with a chocolate mousse. I even tried taking my jacket off to reassure him that, hey, it really wasn't that cold after all. But to no avail. Sean spent the entire evening apologising for everything - the food, the fact that Jimmy Somerville hadn't had a hit in years. In the end, I did the only sensible thing and got thoroughly drunk.

It seemed fitting that after dining at the vicarage we should go for a drink at a place called Marsden's. In Stephen King's Salem's Lot the Marsden House is where nightmares come to life - home to a 7ft vampire and his guardian (played by James Mason in the movie), who passes himself off as an antiques dealer. There were no 7ft vampires at Marsden's and no sign of James Mason, but there were a few who could have quite easily passed for antiques dealers. Five years ago, Marsden's in Chesterfield was the home of the local Conservative Club. These days, it's a gay club (so, little change there, then). We arrived a little before 11pm - Matthew, Jeremy, myself and Sean, whom we had managed to drag away from washing- up. The DJ, who looked a lot like Deirdre from Coronation Street, was trying to keep the party going with the latest remix of some old hit by George Michael. The crowd weren't impressed. The only person dancing was a cute boy in a tight black shirt - and he had his face to the wall and a bottle of poppers jammed up his nose. Finally, the DJ admitted defeat by announcing the bar was closing. "But you can go upstairs for another drink if you like. For now, this is me, Sheena, wishing you all goodnight."

We went upstairs. Upstairs was called the Warehouse. Upstairs was a notice saying "Private Party". We turned to leave, but were assaulted by a young woman coming up the stairs. "Ignore me, then!" she said, very indignantly. It took me a moment to realise that her remark was directed at me. Apparently, we had met here last week. I had broken up with my boyfriend and had turned to her shoulder to cry on. By the end of the evening, she had persuaded me that there were plenty more fish in the sea and I had gone home happy, but not before thanking her profusely for taking the time to care, and promising to be her friend for ever. And now here I was pretending I didn't recognise her - typical. I tried to explain that I couldn't have met her here last week, for the simple reason that I lived several hundred miles away and had never stepped foot inside this club before tonight. She stared at me for a moment, obviously not believing a word I was saying, then decided to let bygones be bygones and invited us to join the party, on the condition that we paid for our own drinks.

The party was something else. Apparently it was a joint celebration for somebody's engagement and somebody's 21st birthday. The man celebrating his 21st was very clearly gay. The man celebrating his engagement I wasn't so sure about. If I just tell you that he had long, heavily processed black hair tied back in a ponytail, wore a white shirt open to the navel with a pair of tight black trousers and silver-tipped cowboy boots, and made a point of dancing very energetically whenever we happened to look in his direction ... well, you can draw your own conclusions. The two black men dancing next to him didn't look entirely straight either. One was dressed in a calf-skin waistcoat and very little else. Both had perfected the kind of wiggle that would have put Marilyn Monroe to shame.

The girls, meanwhile, were stomping around the dance floor in thigh-high boots, micro-skirts and rock-hard hairdos, oozing testosterone and alcohol from every pore. It was quite alarming. One of their number, who said her name was Kirsty, grabbed Jeremy firmly by the waist and started flinging him around to the strains of some supposedly ironic hillbilly dance record called "Cotton-Eyed Joe". (He still has the bruises to prove it.) Shortly afterwards, another girl (who would have been extremely pretty had she not been so drunk that her head was hanging to one side) shimmied towards me and started bumping and grinding to Tina Turner singing "What's Love Got to Do With It?". I quickly discovered that she was the one engaged to marry the man in the cowboy boots, and immediately felt so sorry for her that I insisted we have one more trip around the dancefloor. The biggest hit of the night was the dance version of "Total Eclipse of the Heart", sung by Nikki French, with added backing vocals from every dizzy queen and scary fag-hag in the room. Just as I was really getting into the spirit of things, stomping around and wishing I was man enough to wear thigh- high boots and a micro-skirt, the lights came on and someone announced that it was time to leave.

On my way downstairs, I decided that it might be a good idea if I went to the toilet. As it turned out, this wasn't such a good idea after all. In the toilet there were a handful of gay men in tiny T-shirts, gossiping about some poor queen who wasn't there to defend himself, but who was apparently guilty of fancying someone who was the desired love object of someone else and who therefore deserved to be bad-mouthed all over town, or at least all over the walls of this public convenience. Apologising for the interruption, I pushed my way through the bickering throng and stood at the urinal. Moments later, another man came and stood next to me, smiled and then broke wind extremely loudly. "Sorry," he said, still smiling away. "I only came in for a fart."

ON THE WAY out of Marsden's, I picked up a copy of SP Mag, a gay freesheet "incorporating Sheffield Pink" and distributed "across South Yorkshire and beyond". The following morning, while Matthew was tucked away in his office writing his column for the Times, and Jeremy was helping Marta prepare lunch, I lay in bed flicking through SP Mag. You can learn a lot about the gay character of an area from the local gay freesheets. Did you know, for example, that South Yorkshire is home to a woman who goes by the name of "Decadent Dyke"? It's true. She has her own column in SP Mag. This particular column was all about the South Yorkshire police, who had recently placed a recruitment advert in Gay Times, sparking complaints from the Police Federation. One local detective chief inspector rejoicing in the name of David Bullett had "slammed the plan to target homosexuals for recruiting". Another officer, described only as the head of Rawmarsh CID, was reported to be "ashamed and embarrassed". Being a decadent sort of dyke, our columnist was none too happy with this state of affairs and was calling for readers to write to the Police Federation and complain "unless of course you have a different view or experience, then you should write to me". It was encouraging to hear that the spirit of open debate was still alive and well in the pages of the free gay press.

And so it went on. A few pages later, I came across a lively little item about the use of the word "queer". It began with a quip about how we're all into finding alternative labels these days, what with all the fuss about queer and so on, then went on to suggest a few more words lesbians and gay men might like to reclaim, like "muff diver" and "mattress muncher". And there was a multiple choice thrown in for bisexuals - "Betty bothways", "catflap" or "fence-sitter". The item ended by saying that of course readers were under no obligation to choose any of these words - "You could just be extra cool and decide not to define, as your sexuality is fluid." Personally, "fluid" is not a word I have much time for. I feel much more comfortable with the word "aqueous". Then again, I could just be being picky.

Next to this item was a larger opinion piece on the subject of cottaging. Entitled "Domestic Bliss?", it opened by stating that very few subjects nowadays were likely to provoke outbursts of moral outrage in the gay community, and cottaging remained one of the last taboos. Already, I was finding myself in disagreement. In my experience, there are still plenty of subjects likely to provoke outbursts of moral outrage in the gay community. Indeed, I know of dozens of lesbians and gay men who like nothing more than a good old moral outburst. They usually begin by saying, "Speaking as a lesbian ..." or "As a gay man I think ...", before going on to prove beyond all doubt that they haven't really thought at all - at least not recently, and certainly not for themselves. Instead, they derive some perverse satisfaction from merely repeating the same second-hand, half- baked rhetoric they've been spouting for years, smug in the belief that this will be enough to guilt-trip the other party into submission and thereby win them the argument.

And the truly bizarre thing is, it usually works. Outbursts of moral outrage are still regarded as a legitimate form of debate within the lesbian and gay community - although not, I need hardly say, by the likes of me. I'll admit that, yes, there was a time when I would have quietly given in to any lesbian who declared that, as a gay man, I was a potential rapist and therefore not entitled to comment on anything. And there have been occasions when, confronted by a gay man hysterically screaming that I didn't know the first thing about Aids because I hadn't been to half as many funerals as he had, I would have backed down rather than add to his grief. But not any longer. Outbursts of moral outrage are no substitute for reasoned argument. The sooner gay people stop behaving like small children, the sooner they'll start winning respect as adults. In the meantime, if someone takes issue with you by stamping their foot and threatening to scweam and scweam until they are sick, do as I do and laugh in their face. Believe me, it works every time.

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes, the article about cottaging. Once I'd read beyond the first paragraph, I discovered a lot of things that I didn't know already. Were you aware, for example, that "the parks, toilets and lay-bys of Sheffield are imagined to be the territory of dirty, raincoat- clad, pervy old men," whereas in fact, "some areas can be very popular with younger people" (hence, I would imagine, their appeal to dirty, raincoat- clad, pervy old men)? Did you also know that, far from being the exclusive preserve of those unfortunate souls who haven't yet seen the light and are still locked firmly in the closet, "some scene queens also enjoy a quick trip to a popular toilet for a change of atmosphere and punters"? It makes you think, if only about what constitutes "a popular toilet". I picture a large, white-tiled room with porcelain hand-basins, gold taps and a steady supply of freshly ironed, neatly folded hand towels. (Then again, given gay men's overwhelming loyalty to bars and clubs where even toilet paper is in short supply, I could be wrong.) The article gave a cautionary warning that cottaging is illegal and that, "if arrested, you could be exposed", before ending on an upbeat note, suggesting that "with care, cottaging can be fab", and "we should give support to those who cottage, not condemn them".

Now I'm all for giving support to people who feel compelled to hang around public toilets looking for sex because this is their only means of expressing their homosexual desires. And I do think it's time the laws surrounding such activities were relaxed - if only to help the British constabulary make better use of their resources. It's quite absurd that police divisions all around the country continue to invest massive amounts of time and money in operations designed to catch the perpetrators of what are, after all, victimless crimes. I'm sure most reasonable people would much sooner see the police out patrolling the streets than hiding in public conveniences for days on end.

However, I do find some of the things said in defence of gay public sex a bit hard to swallow. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't regard the freedom to have sex in public as a matter of civil rights, or otherwise. I have no desire to see heterosexuals bumping their uglies in full view of everybody, and I don't see why they'd feel any differently where I am concerned. There are historic reasons why gay men go looking for sex in parks and public toilets, mainly to do with the fact that, for years, those were among the few places where they were likely to find it. These days, most of us have other options available. If we choose to indulge in what is, after all, antisocial behaviour, then we can hardly be surprised if other people take offence. And before anyone starts banging on about transgressive sexuality and all that nonsense, please remember the words of the great American pro-sex dyke activist and writer Pat Califia - we can't simply fuck our way to freedom. In other words, waving your willy in public doesn't make you radical, it just makes you a willy-waver.

Sorry to bore you with all of this. I was going to pop it down on a postcard and address it to SP Mag. Unfortunately, unlike my friend the Decadent Dyke, the author of this spirited defence of anonymous sex had chosen to remain anonymous and certainly wasn't encouraging readers to write in with their comments. That's radical willy-wavers for you - no balls.

Have you ever noticed how the most closeted gay men are often the most screamingly gay? Liberace was a case in point. So, too, is Matthew's friend David (not his real name). Matthew had invited David to join us for lunch - possibly out of sheer hospitality, although I suspect other motives were involved. Matthew is one of those people who likes putting potentially volatile combinations of people together, then sitting back and waiting for the sparks to fly. I don't condemn him for it - it's a game I quite like to play myself. Anyway, he was sorely disappointed that he hadn't managed to get me and the dreaded Mark into the same room, if only because he was so confident that there would have been a clash of egos. Inviting David to lunch may have been his last-ditch attempt at making mischief before the weekend was over. Certainly, nothing I had heard about him so far had led me to think that we would get along. He was a young Conservative at the local council and firmly in the closet. The night before, on our way to Marsden's, Sean had insisted we stop off at the restaurant where David was dining with some colleagues, so that he might pass on a message. The rest of us were instructed to wait in the car while he did so, lest we alerted David's workmates to the fact that he was gay (personally, I thought my leather chaps and pink feather boa provided the perfect camouflage for a night out at a former Conservative Club, but evidently I was alone in this). Sean was inside the restaurant for exactly two minutes before coming back with a flea in his ear. Apparently, he had embarrassed David by not being straight-acting enough. You'll forgive me, then, if I say that I had prejudged this person somewhat.

David arrived just after 2pm. He was, without doubt, the most effeminate homosexual I had encountered all weekend. He had plucked eyebrows and big bouffed hair with blond highlights. He had very tight jeans, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier - who, he wasted no time in mentioning, was one of his favourite designers. He sat with his legs crossed and flapped his hands a lot when he spoke. His voice was more camp than a row of tents. He talked about the outfit he was planning to wear to the works Christmas party - a sheer top, with John Richmond "mirror-ball" trousers. Last year he'd worn a little something by Vivienne Westwood, with his hair tied into tiny pigtails as modelled by Bjork. The sheer top he'd chosen this year was perfect because it revealed his pierced navel. No, it hadn't hurt as much as he'd expected it to, but even if it had it would have been worth it. After all, pierced navels are still quite unusual, aren't they?

I listened to all of this in total disbelief. If David's friends at the council really thought he was straight, then they were a bigger bunch of loonies than Lambeth has ever produced. I sincerely hoped they weren't ever asked to decide anything important - like whether or not to have biscuits with their tea. How can we be expected to have faith in government, even at a local level, when the people making the decisions can't spot a homosexual as obvious as David? Of course, I'm sure the reality is that they can. I've little doubt that David's colleagues knew full well that he was gay, or at least had their suspicions. His refusal to be open and honest about his sexuality merely saved everyone the embarrassment of having to talk about it. And I'm sure this suited them perfectly well. The British do like their homosexuals in their proper place - skulking in the shadows, not swinging from the chandeliers. Speaking as someone who has been accused of swinging from the chandeliers in his time, I have to say that, on balance, I think it's a lot more dignified than cramming your life into a closet, and your body into a sheer top and a pair of mirror-ball trousers.

I don't mean to sound so hard on David. After all, political life in this great country of ours is awash with people who say one thing in public and do another in private. Shortly before the last general election, it was estimated that there were between 40 and 50 gay MPs in the House of Commons - nearly all of them closeted. Ian Greer, the gay former lobbyist at the centre of the "cash for questions" affair, described the situation on Radio 5 Live's gay news programme Out This Week. "Some are married but are still gay," he said. "Many are actively gay. Others perhaps are not married but have chosen not to make any declaration as to their sexuality. I think it is very sad if you are an MP and you are gay, if you feel you have to get married to cover that sexuality [in pursuit of] an upwardly mobile career to the Cabinet." Matthew himself was quoted in the Guardian as taking a more sympathetic line, stressing that one shouldn't rush to pass judgement on what is, ultimately, a personal decision. "Whether or not you come out, or how far, is a moral decision for a politician to take. There are conflicting obligations, protecting the feelings and sensibilities of people close to you, for example. But balancing those obligations is something only an individual can do."

Personally, I take the somewhat quaint view that people in public office have a responsibility to be honest with the people who put them there. This is why I could never understand all the fuss about outing. When Peter Tatchell and the gay rights group OutRage! threatened to expose the closeted gay MPs who had voted against an equal age of consent in the 1994 vote, people threw up their hands in horror, condemning the threatened action as barbaric and demonising Tatchell as the most evil man in Britain, if not the world. Yet nobody complains when MPs who claim to represent traditional family values are exposed as adulterers, or when newspapers print the names of those MPs accused of taking cash for questions. In these instances, any invasion of a person's right to privacy is deemed to be in the public interest. Well, I am a member of the public and I regard it as being in my interest to know if a person empowered to vote on matters directly affecting me has a guilty secret which may affect the way they vote. Outing, as the late Vito Russo said, is simply a dirty word for telling the truth. Closeted gay MPs who vote in favour of anti-gay legislation and against the principle of gay equality have no right to expect other gay people to be complicit in their deception. It's as simple as that.

Thankfully, we appear to be entering an age when such arguments will soon be redundant, when being open about one's sexuality will be regarded as a possible vote-winner, rather than an automatic bar to a successful political career. One of the highlights of the last election was watching Ben Bradshaw, the openly gay Labour candidate for Exeter, beat his virulently anti-gay Conservative opponent, Adrian Rogers, into the ground. In the run-up to the election, Rogers had called on voters "not to let the pink flag fly over Exeter". The final leaflet of his campaign said, "I ask every Exeter parent and everyone concerned about our country's children: do you want an MP who wants to promote homosexuality in schools?" Come election day, the good people of Exeter answered with a resounding yes, giving Bradshaw the biggest swing to Labour in the South-west. When the results were announced, a grinning Bradshaw described the result as "a victory for truth over bigotry". Then there was the even lovelier sight of Michael Portillo, darling of the Thatcherite Right, losing his seat to another openly gay candidate, Stephen Twigg. Twigg, who achieved a swing of 17.5 per cent (almost double the national average), admitted to being "quite overwhelmed at the time", though obviously not quite as overwhelmed as Portillo, who appeared to have tears in his eyes when being questioned by Jeremy Paxman.

We now have six openly gay MPs in Parliament - including, for the first time in history, a Cabinet minister. I don't want to make too much of this, but I do think it is worth noting that they all got there on a Labour vote.

I LEFT DERBYSHIRE with a whole load of questions still unanswered. Would "The Rabbits" ever tire of collecting wind organs? Would Sean ever recover from my telling him that his house was too cold? Would the couple celebrating their engagement upstairs at Marsden's ever make it down the aisle? Would someone write a letter to the Decadent Dyke at SP Mag saying that, actually, they thought it only right and proper that the Police Federation didn't want lesbians and gay men joining the police force? And last but by no means least, would David wake up one morning and realise that, really, he wasn't fooling anyone?

I ended my meeting with David on a tender note. While Matthew was loading up the car for our return journey to London, David followed me outside for a cigarette. It was 5pm and already pitch black. There was an awkward silence as we both stood sucking on our Silk Cuts. To ease the tension, I asked him what the traffic would be like tonight. "The roads will be packed with people going back to London," he said mournfully. "They're the lucky ones. We have to make do with a trip to Matlock." And at that moment, I felt immense sympathy for him.

! Extracted from 'Queens' Country' by Paul Burston, published in hardback this week by Little, Brown & Co UK at pounds 16.99. 'Independent on Sunday' readers can order copies at the reduced price of pounds 14.99 (including P&P): call 0181 324 5515 for details.

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