Philip Hensher: Being gay is no longer disapproved of. Hiding it is

One's first reaction was: 'Paul Burrell? Who on earth would have thought it?'

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Since the dawn of time, gay men, talking to each other, have been claiming the ostensibly heterosexual as one of their own. I have no doubt that in ancient Egypt, there were conversations that went like this. "Khufu? He's down Nefertiti's Nitespot every Friday night. And have you heard about that big camp pyramid she's putting up in the desert? She thinks it's going to look butch. Pur-lease."

Perhaps the time has come, however, to put an end to this much-enjoyed game. Could we possibly hand some of them back? There are some "outings", as they used to be called, which fill us all with total dismay. It would be much better for everybody's peace of mind if they were allowed to maintain the implausible façade of a ladies' man.

A Sunday tabloid has produced evidence that Mr Paul Burrell, the former butler to the Princess of Wales, lives a strenuously gay and somewhat promiscuous private life. He was filmed snogging a Channel 4 producer, and a nameless source has supplied evidence that he trolls hotel saunas for rough trade. His wife and children, it was said, live quite separate lives from him, and are tearfully resigned to his shameless antics.

One's first reaction was, of course: Paul Burrell? Who on earth would have thought it? The man who, from an early age, dreamt of nothing else than working for the Royal Family? Who for years lived and breathed the heady glamour of Princess Diana, expertly choosing what cocktail dress she was going to put on that evening? The man who starts to hyperventilate whenever he is allowed to mention the Queen? The man who presents a television programme about etiquette and deportment called – pur-lease – American Princess?

Some years ago, after an ugly run of similar stories, several red-top newspapers let it be known that they had no further interest in "outing" well-known figures. The decision was influenced by a number of factors. In the first place, in a climate of increasing openness, they ran the risk of looking pretty stupid. The humiliating aftermath of George Michael's coming out, in which he was generally conceded to have run rings round the fake moral posturing of the media, was not quickly forgotten.

There was, too, the point that readers seemed to dislike such stories a good deal. Way back in the mists of time, when a newspaper decided to out Elton John over a series of weeks, its circulation fell sharply. People loved Elton John, and clearly disapproved of him being hounded to the point where they just wouldn't buy the paper to read allegations which turned out to be untrue in specifics. The economic factor was decisive.

And yet, in 2008, here we are reading what I admit to be a horridly fascinating story about Paul Burrell. Surely, nobody cares much if someone is gay or not any more. What, if anything, has changed since the dark ages?

The moral argument has shifted its ground, clearly. In the past, being gay appeared to be grounds for disapproval on its own. These days, the grounds for moral disapproval are not being gay on its own, but the dishonesty of concealing it, and living a life of clear hypocrisy. If you said in print that a public figure was gay, incorrectly, I doubt that claim on its own would be enough to sustain a legal claim for defamation. It would only be like saying that someone was Jewish when they were not.

What would be defamatory would be the suggestion that they were living a life of deceit. The libel lawyer's definition of something disapproved of "by all right-thinking people" has shifted from the nature to the behaviour. No-one would care about this story, if there were not a wife and children involved.

We've seen a number of these stories recently. Simon Hughes effectively disqualified himself from leading the Liberal Democrats, not because he was gay, but because he had not had the courage to be honest about it, even when asked directly. The American senator recently discovered in lurid congress in an airport lavatory deserved our contempt because he had not only supported oppressive policies of a "family values" variety, but paraded his devotion to his own family for electoral gain.

Burrell doesn't give the impression of ever having calculated or planned in that manner. Having read one of his rather awful books, and observed his bizarre appearances in the witness box, I would say that the quality he conspicuously lacks is bravery. We talk about bravery as if it were a rare quality, and give it medals. But the sort of ordinary bravery which millions of gay men and lesbians exhibit in not concealing their nature seems to have been quite beyond him. If we can't hand this specimen back, let's at least agree to look down on him with some distaste.

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