Philip Hensher: It was secrecy, not privacy, that Laws wanted

There are notoriously no ethnic minority Liberal Democrat MPs, and only one serving peer

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Many years ago, I heard one of Quentin Crisp's inimitable performances in Cambridge. In the second half of the evening, he took questions from the audience. "Should I tell my mother I'm gay?" the first one ran. "Never," Quentin raspingly responded, "tell your mother anything." He continued for some time before coming to his conclusion. "And by the way: if you're over 30, she knows."

David Laws, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is 44 years old. He shares a house in Kennington with another man, and has done so for over a decade. He has, as far as we know, exhibited no other romantic inclinations. It must have come as a great surprise to Mr Laws's friends, neighbours and perhaps even his family to discover that he was under the impression that nobody knew he was gay.

Try to reconstruct the lives of Mr Laws and his partner James Lundie, and it quickly runs into a quicksand of implausibility. How did they present themselves to their neighbours – as landlord and millionaire tenant? Did they have no friends? Did they go to entirely separate parties, or did they arrive and depart in separate taxis? When they went out to dinner, did they pretend to be strangers, sharing a table for convenience's sake? Did they say to their families that they were still waiting for the right girl to come along in middle age, and in the meantime, that decade-long arrangement with a colleague's spare room in London was very convenient? Did they really? In London, in the year 2010? And did any one of their acquaintances believe them for a single moment?

How people choose to live their lives is their own business. But, looked at coldly, a life like this has one overwhelming quality: it must be quite staggeringly inconvenient. The ordinary, everyday burden of ensuring that an impregnable wall exists between your emotional life and the knowledge of everyone you and your partner know would be too much for most people. As everyone knows, the private decision that a politician like David Laws made has the tendency to assume a public aspect. Not just because it seems to have led him to a position that obliged him to break rules on public expenditure, but because it brings into question the public institutions that may have inadvertently pressured him to live his life in so completely extraordinary and inconvenient a way.

Since the fact became clear that Laws paid some £40,000 in rent to his partner without declaring their relationship, some very curious comments have been made. One recurrent one has been that Laws was entitled to keep his sexuality private, by which is meant "secret". Of course that is true: you may try to keep any aspect of your life secret. Personally, I don't know any heterosexuals who try to keep their sexuality private: they are always ramming it down your throat, with distasteful talk of their husbands and wives and children. It seems very odd to assume that different rules should apply to gay people: that it is somehow normal for them to want to conceal the most ordinary facts of their lives.

It can't be done, and there's no reason why it should be done. The only way that a gay person can genuinely achieve secrecy is by closing down his sexuality; to enter into a cruel pretence of a heterosexual relationship, or to keep a tight lid on any kind of expression of desire. Those solutions, 50 years ago, constituted the traditional way of life for homosexuals. Now, these solutions are only still common in some professions: parts of the City, professional sports players and, in part, in politics.

There has been an immense increase in the number of openly gay MPs in recent years. Nevertheless, many gay MPs still feel uncertain about declaring their sexuality, and different parties may not be equally welcoming. When Gordon McMaster, a gay Labour MP, committed suicide in July 1997, he used his suicide to accuse two fellow Labour MPs of persecuting him. The sort of life which a Gordon McMaster led in politics was very different from the one a gay Tory MP leads who represents a sophisticated and educated constituency, say.

And what has life been like for Mr Laws in the Liberal Democratic Party? They don't seem very quick to follow programmes of social diversity. There were openly gay MPs in the Labour Party in the 1980s; Matthew Parris, a Conservative MP at the same time, did little to conceal his sexuality, and was soon followed by others in his party. The first openly gay Liberal Democrat MP was elected as late as 2005. When Simon Hughes was outed in 2006, he gave the same response that Laws was using this week. "There are lots of people who have tried to keep their private lives private," Hughes said. It was an unfortunate thing to say, immediately after his married colleague Mark Oaten was discovered to have paid rent-boys; and, in any case, Hughes did not mean "private" but "secret".

There are thousands of gay men living their lives openly within half an hour's walk of the house that David Laws and James Lundie share. Most of them have never had the slightest cause to think of themselves as brave. It is truly bizarre to hear of independently rich, white gay men choosing to live their lives in total secrecy. Clearly, Mr Laws is an intelligent man; he made his money in the first place from balancing risks. He must have made some kind of assessment here which led him to choose secrecy as a rational mode of existence.

We cannot know all the factors in his life: in particular, his relationship with his parents is a genuinely private matter. But others may be worth interrogating. His relationship with his party, for instance, is not a private one, and one which is likely to affect other people in the same position.

The way that Simon Hughes and David Laws came out is surprisingly similar. A week before Hughes's outing, he was asked directly by a newspaper if he was gay, and he said "No". A week ago, David Laws was asked about his domestic situation, and described himself as "single". Only when incontrovertible proof was presented to them, did they feel obliged to acknowledge what everyone around them must have known.

Is this a problem of politics in general? Or might it be that, nearly 30 years after the notoriously homophobic Bermondsey by-election in which Simon Hughes defeated Peter Tatchell, the Liberal Democrats are much less easy a party for gay people to be open in than they perhaps believe? After all, there are notoriously no ethnic minority Liberal Democrat MPs, and only one serving peer. Could it be that the Liberal Democrats are no more at ease with another significant minority in society today?

David Laws deserved to lose his job, though everyone must regret the loss of so talented a figure. It was disgraceful to pay his partner in secret. But that debate is over, and the rules will just be applied. The other question that the case brings up is whether a human being can live his life openly in accordance with both his heart and his ambition, respecting his own privacy, not resorting to secrecy. The Parliamentary Commissioner that can rule on that one has not yet been appointed.

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