A shy gay? It's only natural

Peter Tatchell is an effective campaigner, but his bitter stand against Michael Portillo is outdated and out of order
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On Tuesday, Peter Tatchell will decide whether to stand as a candidate in Kensington and Chelsea against Michael Portillo. If he does, Outrage! his organisation which survives on donations amounting to less than pounds 6,000 a year and which is staffed pretty much on a full-time basis by volunteers, will have to find the pounds 1,000 necessary to fight in the certain knowledge that this money will be lost. No doubt they will be approaching prominent members of the gay community like me, asking for a donation.

This presents me with a dilemma. I am a long-term supporter of the Tory party but I have also for a long time been a good friend of Peter Tatchell.

He may be infuriating to both the straight and gay communities, but legislation has usually followed his demands. However, while most open-minded people concede this, they argue that his methods are hard, and alienating. His personality is synonymous with direct action of the most intrusive kind, and he has become both a legitimate target of hatred for PC heterosexuals and a source of embarrassment to the most trussed-up leather queens. They all argue that his tactics are outdated and counter-productive and they point to comparatively serene and infinitely admirable, OBE-winning gay lobbyists such as Angela Mason from Stonewall, who conduct their business in a much more genteel manner.

In fact it is clear that when it comes to fighting for gay rights the two approaches not only work well together but are dependent on each other. Tatchell, the "hard cop", keeps the issues on the front page while members of Stonewall with their "my best friends are straight" approach schmooze the New Labour lovey scene, working their magic through the restaurants of Parliament and the surrounding area. The two approaches are yin to the other's yang. But the great cost is to Tatchell. For every pat on the back or award doled out to the Stonewallers, Tatchell gets three beatings and at least one dose of excrement squeezed through his front door from his less than sympathetic neighbours in the Elephant and Castle estate where he lives. In fact, he is the most prolific victim of hate-crime I have ever met.

When it comes to standing in this election against Portillo, Tatchell's point is simple, even if it is difficult to comprehend. In his opinion Portillo has chosen to marry rather than to face what Tatchell believes to be his true sexuality, and as such has avoided the institutionalised homophobia that Tatchell himself sees as being the fault of the last administration.

Whether or not that is true and fair, in a letter to Portillo last weekend, Tatchell outlined the following facts. In 1994 Portillo voted against an equal age of consent which meant that he was agreeing with the arrest and criminalisation of 16- and 17-year-old gay men for relationships that would not be a crime between heterosexuals. Under the age-of-consent laws these young men can be imprisoned for up to two years. Before that he was one of the people who voted for Section 28, the law which prevented local authorities from doing anything that might be construed as promoting homosexuality. In 1987 he also voted against amendments that would permit "counselling, advice and support to vulnerable lesbian and gay pupils". And as Defence Secretary, Portillo enforced the ban on gays and lesbians in the military which as Tatchell sees it "authorised the witch hunt and dismissal of homosexual personnel - even those who were celibate and never had gay sex".

Tatchell has promised not to stand against Portillo and to drop his campaign to embarrass him if the Tory politician agrees to make any move towards conceding that he had changed his mind about these issues.

Portillo's reluctance to respond to this offer, however, is understandable. He cannot be expected to make statements to order - just for an "easy ride", even if a lot has changed (including, perhaps, some of his views) since both of these two started on their political careers. And it is not only Portillo who has previously been reluctant to go on record about his sexuality. In 1983, when Tatchell fought the Bermondsey parliamentary election, he admits to not being open with the press about his sexuality (although he has always been "out"). He explains that things were different then and that it was more difficult. But this must again be seen in context. Tatchell was standing for the Labour Party, in what amounted to a pretty street-wise London constituency. You would think that openness about these issues would have been easy for him, especially now that about a quarter of the Cabinet have come out as gay and no one has batted an eyelid.

The same is becoming true within the Conservative Party. William Hague and many of his Cabinet colleagues voted for an equalisation of the age of consent as far back as 1994 and are very progressive on these issues. However, to be a Conservative, even if you have had gay experiences yourself as a student, you don't necessarily have to vote with the crowd if you feel that the legislation is unwise. It is possible that Portillo felt this. I know of gay men and women who think that 18 is the right minimum age - although they do feel that this should be extended to heterosexuals.

Regardless of Tatchell's accusations against him, Portillo is clearly not homophobic, although he is perhaps a little shy of being aligned with "gay" issues; but that is only natural. In this country being gay can mean that if you are not careful, you become a single-issue politician and are never given the opportunity to involve yourself in other projects. Would Portillo, for example, ever have been given the job in Defence if he had revealed his past earlier? Even Labour, for all its chat, is believed to have shied away from giving the Defence portfolio to Mandelson on the grounds of his sexuality.

Portillo, quite clearly, knows that he is of the stuff of which prime ministers are made but that he has potentially jeopardised this. Given that no further revelations about his private life have emerged, and that he spoke of his past freely and without pressure, he obviously displayed immense courage in doing so. He has risked everything he has ever dreamed of by making this announcement, and only time will tell how it will affect his future.

Even doing this just before he intended standing in a by-election demonstrated that he wanted to enter politics with a completely clean slate, regardless of the consequences. This kind of honesty in politics is unusual, and difficult, even if the whole world seems to be "coming out" in one way or another.

As Hague has opened the door to a much more accepting and inclusive Conservative Party worthy of a country it reflects, Portillo has in turn paved the way for those of a less conventional mould to come through the ranks. As such, I am sure Tatchell will understand why this week I will be canvassing on Michael Portillo's behalf on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea.

Ivan Massow is the founder of Massow Financial Services. He is chair of the ICA