Agents with a secret come out at last

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The Independent Online
How many people can keep a secret? How many people can lead a double life? About 20,000 think they can. That's the number of people who responded to MI5's first public advertisement for recruits last week. Those among them who happen to be homosexual need not, however, keep that secret any longer. After designating homosexuals a security risk for most of its history, MI5 has relented and embraced equal opportunity. The gay weekly the Pink Paper was informed that homosexuals would be welcome to apply.

And, of course, homosexuals have historically made great secret service operatives. In danger of discovery most of their lives, they received the most intense and rigorous training anyone could hope for. Burgess, Maclean and Blunt were some of the best spies we ever had.

Unfortunately they happened to be batting for the other team in more ways than one. Which is the only reason we ever heard about their homosexuality. If they had restricted themselves to looking for reds under the bed, instead of getting in with them, their colleagues would have kept quiet about their sexual preference, as they did with the many other queer members of the intelligence community, including Sir Maurice Oldfield, the former head of MI6 who later admitted he was homosexual. Once made public, the sexual treachery of these men shaded easily into their political treachery, their willingness to serve a foreign power a function of their foreign orientation.

In the out-in-the-open Nineties, where homosexuality is no longer an occult phenomenon, MI5's decision looks like a common-sense solution to the catch-22 situation. We can't employ homosexuals because they're a security risk. Why? Because they're open to blackmail threats? Why? Because we would sack them if we found out they're homosexual.

But ironically, as homosexuality becomes less of a stigma and less of a secret vice, homosexuals may not be so interested in the secret service game, with its Byzantine mysteries and deceits.

Homosexuals used to be one of the most important symbols of the dichotomy between the public and the private, the secret and the explicit. They were tolerated only on condition of their "discretion". Nowadays they seem to be applauded for their indiscretion. In the past few years the most private of creatures has become the most public. In soap operas, films, tabloid newspapers - and now MI5 - the "out" homosexual has become the symbol of the compulsory transparency of our times.

But no matter how transparent a homosexual you are, there are always more secrets to be told. Julian Clary, perhaps the most public and obvious homosexual in the country, was "outed" on the front page of a Sunday paper yesterday. For having had a heterosexual affair.