Beatrix Campbell: Out & out betrayal

I came out of the closet at 23, and was traumatised by it. Politicians such as Simon Hughes - who come out only when forced out - have no right to claim privacy as a defence. They give the young the impression that homosexuality is shameful and let down those who fought for gay rights
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Coming out can be horrible, scary, embarrassing and unfair. It is not easy, and it never stops. But you must do it, especially if you have power, and most especially if you are a politician. Parliamentary culture has no excuse for making it so difficult, but Members of Parliament have no excuse for not coming out.

There are only two excuses with merit: that you would be sacked, and that you cannot bring yourself to tell your mother. Politicians are not sacked, and if you are a politician, somebody else is going to tell your mother. So, for a politician, there is no excuse.

This is not to say it is not onerous. Coming out to my family was worse than telling my parents I had been done for shoplifting (pinched a book from an art shop). It was worse than telling them I had failed my A-levels (they minded for me). And it was worse than telling them I was going to get married (no one was good enough).

It is worse because gay people have to do something no heterosexual person ever has to: draw attention to something you do not want them to have in their head, your sexuality and your sex life. And it is worse because you are giving your parents something to deal with at that point in your life which is about autonomy.

In the early 1970s, I told my mother I had fallen in love with a woman. I was 23, married, and intoxicated with the Women's Liberation Movement. I had my own home, my own Hoover, my own husband - all the signifiers of having my own life. Although this new thing was tumultuous, I was suddenly living my life; it was such a surprise, such a thrill. But still, this was something so seismic that it rustled everything, all the way to my mother. Of course, it was my business, not that of my mother, but it was an issue, because being gay is always an issue.

She was good, as I knew she would be. Whenever anything homophobic was said in our house, only by my father, she would challenge him with the tenacity of a sly fox. She was a hospital nurse, she worked with gay people, they were part of her universe.

After I told her, she must have been sleepless, because she woke me in the middle of the night and said: "Homosexuals should have the same rights as anybody else." Then she went back to bed. She did not mind me being gay; what she struggled with was another loved one in my life other than her.

I dreaded my father's reaction. I did not want to talk to him about my sexuality and I did not want to negotiate his political prejudice. He was a British bolshevik who prized the muscular iconography of revolutionary heroism. He endorsed a leftist fiction that homosexuality was a bourgeois deviation. It was a legend encouraged by spy scandals implicating upper-class fops, or class contempt for posh camp.

His working-class hauteur was transformed not by me, but by watching Quentin Crisp's bewitching autobiography on television. My father wept. Whether it was Crisp or his daughter, he softened, and took strength. The reaction I was not prepared for was from sympathetic relatives who congratulated me for not, well, looking like a lesbian. "You're not an evangelist." Oh, but I am, I thought. I had been compromised by my good manners.

And I will never forget coming out to a boss. This was during the ecstatic swirl of 1970s sexual politics and the organisation was hot with scurrilous gossip about a couple of women who had fallen in love. I went into his office and told him I expected him to do the right thing, to support them. (I knew he had not.) He had affairs, but his desk was crowned with photos of his wife. His reputation was intact. I also told him I expected him to do the right thing by me. Instantly, I saw a blush, not of embarrassment, I am sure, but of arousal. We all know the place of lesbians in the fantasies of some men. I was exposed. He was not.

Among my lesbian friends, some women are out with everyone except their mothers. One friend survived a custody battle in the days when lesbians always lost their children. She had to do something no heterosexual person in a custody case has to, describe "what you do in bed". She did that, she survived grotesque humiliation and the hazard of losing, she showed her valour, but she could never use the "L" word to her mother. Why? "I didn't want her to reject me."

That nightmare - losing your mother - is indicative of the risk. Every gay man or woman I know has a story of great imagination, dignity and fortitude. Being gay commands great courage. As the brutal death of poor David Morley reminds us, being gay can get you killed. The greatest heroism is shown by people who are ordinary. They are not stars, they are not politicians, they have no social power, no back-up, only other gays.

The most culpably craven are politicians. Their mothers are no excuse; they routinely recruit their "private life" in the service of their power. Simon Hughes has told us about the respectable poverty of his parents. Peter Mandelson, the former MP who never wanted to tell us he is gay, has assiduously told us about his genealogy: his grandfather was the right-wing, post-war Labour politician Herbert Morrison. The connection, presumably, added value to his CV. Mandelson used his public power, his proximity to the Prime Minister, to control what the BBC could say about him.

Neither Mandelson nor Hughes resisted the temptation to intervene in the private lives of others. Simon Hughes, in many ways a likeable advocate of liberalism, used his power to restrict access to abortion. He is a Christian. His church has, for a millennium, regulated where men put their willies, what women may do with their bodies, when and if they have babies, and who may couple with whom.

Mandelson was a guru of the late and unlamented cult, the Third Way, that sponsored the misogynist family policies of the first term when, lest we forget, one government priority was to cut benefits for lone parents.

The marque of New Labour's modernity was the aura of representivity of the class of 1997: the energies of the black movement, the women's movement, the gay movement that transformed Labour's parliamentary profile. These were the new social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which had confronted the historic settlements that shaped modernity, colonialism, patriarchy, and the polarisation between work and home, public and private. These were the movements that brought us the idea of personal oppression and the concept that "the personal is political". But they were ostracised by New Labour, which lent its endorsement to the idea that it was right on to be right off.

It is a fable of populist politics beloved by politicians - always more conservative than the civil society they represent - that private life is private. The notion relies on conventional wisdoms about nature and tradition, it trades on public anxieties during times of social rupture, and it invokes traditional power as a way of restoring security. Their moralism makes them conservative about the "private" lives of the public.

The vanity and grandiosity of the parliamentary mission is personal; career politicians do it because, they tell us, they want to make the world a better place. Neither Hughes nor Mandelson has any right to claim the shield of private life, not because they are "public" figures, but because political power, uniquely, allows them to intrude in our collective "private life", for better or worse.

A private domain, a sequestered refuge beyond the marketplace, uncontaminated by politics, is a fiction. There is no such thing as private life. Our sexualities are social relationships. Sexual orientations, births, marriages, deaths, domesticity, all of this is as intensely regulated as traffic lights, or the nuclear bomb.

The solitary confinement of women in the home was not an effect of evolution but the outcome of a 19th-century power struggle between men and women, and the intervention of public men - in the state, corporations and trades unions - which determined when, whether, and how much women may be paid for their labours.

Marriage is as natural as Pot Noodle; the impetus for modern marriage en masse is relatively recent, it was the public enforcement of women's personal dependence on men rather than on the church or the state. Church and state determined when marriages may begin and whether they could end. The state determined, until recently, that men may beat and rape their wives, but they may not bond sexually with men.

Everything about our bodies, how we imagine them, where we put them, with whom, whether on a bus, or in a park or in a bath house, or a home, has been the subject of public regulation. Desire and pleasure, likewise, have been scrutinised and legislated by the public guardians of corporeal activity. When we are born, we are scrupulously monitored, tested and immunised, and now the Government is fighting for access to our DNA. I do not mind the state accessing my DNA, but then I do not think there is any such thing as privacy. These claimants of privacy, Mandelson and Hughes, never had it; people talked about their sexuality all the time. They knew that.

Hughes' resistance to definition has resonance. Heterosexuality's dominion ensures it is never defined. And it claims the power to define the deviation. Hughes' protest is, inevitably, about shame. He may not feel he is gay. But there is a difference between what he is and what he does. Desire is activity not identity.

That is the beauty of the label: gay is what you do, not what you are. And that is why his denial is a lie; by lying he revealed he is not proud of himself or other gay people. He has done a disservice to young people finding their sexuality, and older people who had to fight for it. Hughes and Mandelson have a generational public duty to be proud. I am, because I, like them, belong to the generation that made our gay lives liveable and lovable.