It seems like an odd question even to ask. At Holyrood the rump of the Lib Dems is four square behind equal marriage, and their activist base is almost certainly less heteronormative than the other larger parties.
Furthermore, parliamentary politics as practiced either at Holyrood or Westminster hasn’t that much residual homophobia going on.Â As it was put to me in conversation this week, every political party is essentially LGBT-friendly now, even the Tories (imagine Ruth winning even ten years ago) – with the possible exception, my friend noted, of the SNP, where LGBT MSPs have to rub shoulders at group meetings with the likes of John Mason and Bill Walker. Even Jackson Carlaw, probably the most right-wing person at Holyrood apart from Fergus Ewing, has signed the Equal Marriage pledge.
And yet, and yet.
The story of Simon Hughes and his relationship with both the newspapers and his own sexuality is back on the agenda again. For those who don’t know the original story, he was the Liberal Party candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, taking on Peter Tatchell, then in Labour and now someone I’m proud to have met while we were both out campaigning for Caroline Lucas in 2010. Peter had already been an LGBT activist with the Gay Liberation Front, and as a result the Liberal Party leaflets were larded with innuendo, endorsing Hughes as “a straight choice” for Bermondsey, despite, as it turns out, his closettedÂ bisexuality. Peter’s accepted Hughes’ apology for the hypocrisy and negativity, but that’s just because Peter’s a better person than I am.
The story has come back again because, as the Guardian reports, Hughes finally pre-emptively outed himself to the Sun in 2006 following alleged phone-hacking that would have revealed he’d called gay chat lines.
That’s an understandable response to another shocking breach of privacy, but the article also contains a peculiar new angle. The Guardian quotes Hughes indirectly as follows. “Hughes added that he believed the forced revelation came at the time he was running for the party leadership and pushed him out of contention.” Really? Being bisexual would make it impossible to lead the Lib Dems? Either that’s true, in which case their membership is a lot more homophobic than one might expect, or Hughes has not just seriously misread his party, he’s also bad-mouthed his colleagues.
Hughes is not an isolated case, though. Leaving aside the more complicated situation of Mark Oaten, consider also David Laws. Despite the best efforts of his supporters, it wasn’t his sexuality that brought him down – it was the sight of a millionaire chiselling the taxpayer by lying about his living arrangements, not to mention doing so after making probity on his expenses a major part of his election campaign. But he couldn’t feel comfortable being out, and it wasn’t clear whether that was because he feared for the reaction from friends and family, or the party, or the electorate, or the media, or what combination of those.
What’s more, the specific language and way in which he announced his resignation were problematic. As a former Lib Dem friend of mine put it to me: “He said the past few days had been the “longest and toughest” of his life because he was outed – what a message to send to young people thinking about coming out. The whole thing about wanting to keep his sexuality a secret just had this tone of gay equalling shameful. It was horrible.”
The expectation is that the Lib Dems would be a safe crowd to be out amongst. But perhaps Simon Hughes is right, and perhaps that’s not the real truth.