Personal Column: Alan Duncan - 'Admitting I was gay was the best thing I ever did'

Edward Heath concealed his homosexuality, it was said, to maintain his political career. Alan Duncan, Shadow Trade Secretary, says times have changed
Click to follow
The Independent Online

On 29 July 2002, I gave an interview in The Times stating un- equivocally that I was gay. It was the best thing I've ever done.

When I came out, I'd been an MP for 10 years. I'd always known that, one day, honesty was going to be the best policy. But I didn't want to make an announcement about my sexuality when I was a just a junior MP, because all I would have been remembered for was being "the Tory gay".

I wanted to make the announcement when I had established myself more, and when I could make my announcement more relevant to the direction I thought the party needed to take. As it happened, it worked perfectly. I decided to do it, and when to do it, although of course I did tell the party what I was going to do so they weren't caught by surprise.

I think it smashed a massive taboo, permanently. I was the first Conservative MP ever to come out of my own volition, and no one can take that away from me. My professional life has improved as a result. What used to bug me was that, after the announcement, people would say: "Oh, we always knew." I used to say: "How the hell did you always know? The cheek!"

The overwhelming reaction was fantastically positive. I've still got a box of about 700 letters, of which five were negative. And I still get letters - some say that what I did helped them feel that they could come out, and still be respectable. In Tory circles, unlike the campaigning left, it was always felt that it was a bit indecent to parade these things. If you were gay that was fine, but you didn't need to go banging the drum about it. But that attitude left far too much scope for people to conduct psychological warfare against gay people by being snide and sniping. I think that's gone now in the Conservative Party. It's now a source of humour, rather than nasty competitive jibes.

I had my 50th birthday party the other day. William Hague made a hilarious speech. Rory Bremner did a very funny piece. And yes, there were lots of gay jokes. So you've got the whole Conservative front bench, plus Ann Widdecombe and Norman Tebbit, roaring with laughter. Could that have happened 10 years ago? The party has changed.

When I was starting as an MP, it was difficult being gay, and not being out. Constituents would ask me things like: "When are you going to get married?" It was just there hanging over me like a cloud. And knowing that people might be whispering about you was offensive.

Now I would like to think that's gone. You have to give some credit to Tony Blair and the Labour Party for that. They championed an agenda that has made life for a lot of people lots better. They have done a good thing.

I've been political since I was 12. And I thought that being gay could seriously hamper my political career. When I was first picked as the candidate for Rutland and Melton, the area agent, a woman, took me out for lunch, and said: "Is there anything embarrassing you need to make clear now?" I knew exactly what she was talking about. I said: "No, nothing embarrassing at all."

You could just see that in the climate of the time it meant, is he gay, is he the right sort of person for us? The ingrained attitude there was actually pretty poisonous stuff. What's great is that the Conservative Party now is totally open and at ease with gay people. I hope that when I came out, it helped make being gay totally irrelevant in politics - a matter-of-fact thing like having red hair or being tall or short.

I don't notice bias against gay people in the serious media, except in places like the Daily Mail. They need a makeover. They can never resist saying "bouffant-haired" or "overly neat", or whatever it is. They're always insinuating with those kinds of adjectives, and not just about me. I wish they'd grow out of it.

If someone in the party wanted to come out, and they wanted to speak to me, then of course I would offer them advice. My view, though, is that no one - in politics or anywhere - is obliged to parade their sexuality. They can keep it private if they want. I do not approve of outing people. Having said that, we should provide an environment in which it is easy to come out if they wish.

Cameron has been brilliant on this issue: personal liberties. This is a party that now embraces personal freedom in a way that suits the modern age. Previously, we used to be tough and moralistic. I don't like moralising judgements.

I think Conservatives were once thought to have been finger-wagging and old-fashioned. But people in the party weren't, generally, as censorious as they were made out to be. No one in the party ever told me not to come out. I think that's because, apart from the bouffant hair-do, I've always been pretty conventional, so I don't think it was a problem for anyone. The matter of my sexuality didn't arise until I wanted it to, which is as it should have been.