Westminster’s sordid history of queer sex scandals

In common with most of humanity, I like sex. So, probably, do you. If you don’t like it, and plenty of people don’t, that’s your prerogative and equally dandy – but personally, I like various kinds of it with various people and with various motivations. I’m not a nymphomaniac: it matters less to me than Doctor Who, say, and more than Stargate SG-1 (at least in later, less happy seasons). Certainly, I know I’d rather give up sex than Doctor Who if forced to choose – if you think this makes me pathetic, I think it makes me cool – but broadly speaking it matters to me, and all else being equal, I enjoy sex for its own sake, with enthusiastic partners and at moderate intervals, while not currently craving wedding rings or joint mortgage payments.
Except perhaps the Doctor Who part, nothing here seems unusual to me. Essentially, it’s quite mundane. Try to imagine an MP saying it though, and there’s a fair chance you’ll hit a wall.Ten years ago, as Iraq rocked the second Blair government and Michael Howard oozed as Tory leader, Chris Bryant – Labour MP for the Rhondda and now Shadow Immigration Minister – faced ministerial and press lambasting when photos of him posed provocatively from Gaydar.com surfaced in the papers. Along with the scantily-clad photos, messages including ‘I’d love a good long fuck’ reached Fleet Street, sourced from exchanges with other users. ‘I’m sorry this has happened’, Bryant’s official statement read, its careful wording drenched in je ne regrette rien – after all, what had he to apologise for?

Conspicuously keen as New Labour was to liberalise LGBT laws, it always observed the culture of intense erotic shame specific to legislators, insisting its gay MPs – their sexuality a particular transgression – perform as highly articulate Ken dolls, respectable and pleasant but incapable of fucking. Yesterday, it came to light that Nick Clegg knew about the claims Lord Rennard harassed women; in government however, all sex is a crime. Had Bryant cheated on a partner, exploited an employee or divulged official secrets via pillow talk? Had he pressured or threatened partners into sex with him, or else been violent or verbally abusive? On the contrary, the act which publicly disgraced him at the time and seemed to threaten his career was his pursuit of casual sex. The same sex you, I or anyone we know might seek out unremarkably on Friday night.

Few countries have Great Britain’s rich-veined tradition of high-up sex scandals, and historically gay sex has been more scandalous than most; Westminster had queer debacles, in fact, before it had straight ones. While minister John Profumo’s dalliance in 1963 with Christine Keeler, a sex worker also linked to Soviet agents, is sometimes thought of as Parliament’s first bedroom fiasco, the scandal which kicked off gay politics in Britain occurred almost a decade previously, when the journalist Peter Wildeblood, the peer Lord Montagu and several others were charged with sex offences during time spent at Montagu’s beach hut. Wildeblood’s outing during the trial may have triggered commissioning of the Wolfenden Report, which later recommended relaxation of British laws against gay sex, but the targeting of Montagu was symptomatic of a sexual McCarthyism desperate for high-profile scalps; a few years later, MP Ian Harvey – like Montagu, a Conservative – faced arrest, found cruising in St. James’s Park.

At the same, gay sex remained taboo in any context, yet the witch-hunt for sodomites in the ruling classes stands in evidence of sex itself as an offence among politicians; its motive was to show that if the rot of homosexuality had set in even at Westminster, whose cleaner-than-clean paragons of fluidless virtue made up Britain’s parliament, it seriously must warrant drastic action. Post-legalisation, puritanism remained: during child-free, unmarried Edward Heath’s time as Prime Minister, rumours of his homosexuality persisted – as if anyone not drawn to the established tableau of the married politician with wife and children must be enveloped in sordid and forbidden desires – and two years after Heath’s defeat at Harold Wilson’s hands, claims of past indiscretions with a stable boy forced Jeremy Thorpe, then Liberal Party leader, to resign. What liberated advances in sexual politics we tell ourselves we’ve made rarely if ever reach the Westminster village: choose anything but lifelong, heteronormative monogamy, and your prospects there are shaky.

In the decade since Chris Bryant was so roundly tarred and feathered, not much except his hairstyle seems to have changed (it has, admittedly, made some degree of progress). A mere three years afterwards  two candidates for Liberal Democrat leader were Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes. Though neither won, each managed to succeed Thorpe in at least one way, as both campaigns were scandal-hit within a few days. Hughes, after details reached the press, was forced to come out as bisexual; Oaten, the News of the World made public, had hired a male sex worker for an extended period. That he was cheating on his wife, even with a man, provoked less outrage than the kink-filled threesomes it was claimed Oaten enjoyed – we may have become used, in the age of Edwina Currie and John Prescott, to adulterous parliamentarians here or there, but God forbid they have the wrong kind of sex.

As recently as 2010, Foreign Secretary William Hague alerted the nation to hitherto unnoticed rumours he was gay by publicly denying them at a specially arranged press conference, opting bizarrely to reveal fertility problems which he and his wife had faced – as if the absence from his life of squealing, blue-and-yellow-wearing Coalition babies were more likely to have fed the relevant rumours than his sharing a hotel room with 25-year-old Christopher Myers. (In their cringe-inducing, much-publicised photo together, Hague certainly looked like he shouldn’t be allowed near children, vulnerable adults or effete Italian nail technicians). Like Edward Heath before him, his failure to procreate publicly  – that is, to be wholly traditionally heterosexual – seemed to mark him out as a potentially sexual deviant, at least in his own eyes.

As last century’s Westminster gossip haunts us, the sex scandals of the past shed all too much light on contemporary ones; tell ourselves as we might that attitudes have changed, those tasked with running our society remain captives of a bygone sexual Zeitgeist  compulsively re-enacting the most straitlaced heteronormativity, shamed by queerness, kink or casual encounters. If a lesson here exists, it’s that our politics must be far-reaching: we might accept the legal reforms which Parliament, under electoral pressure, offers us, but our goal should be its liberation as well as ours from puritanism. People like sex in all its sizes, colours and shapes, and so do politicians – the instinct which stops them saying so is one we’d all be better off without. Quite unlike Doctor Who.

Nothing to declare – praise for Jodie Foster and the politics of coming out

One irony of Jodie Foster’s speech at last month’s Golden Globes has been its lauding – despite her statement, ‘There won’t be a big coming-out speech tonight’ – as a closet-leaving moment.

‘It has been been widely known in Hollywood circles for years’, the Guardian’s story read, ‘that Foster … is gay’; the actor, according to the Indian Express, ‘confirmed long-running speculation that she is gay’. What Foster did, in fact, was refer in passing to a female ex-partner and state, uninterested in giving further details, that she came out decades previously while ‘a fragile young girl’. (At no point did she specify that she came out as gay, or identified as such, but we all know everyone with a same-gender partner does.)

Given the recent trend of celebrity self-outings, it’s difficult to blame the press for wanting another. ‘Living a gay life without publicly acknowledging it’, Zachary Quinto wrote in 2011, ‘is simply not enough’; the following year, Anderson Cooper told Andrew Sullivan and his readers, ‘The unintended outcomes of maintaining my privacy outweigh personal and professional principle.’

We’ve all known people hesitant to come out, and the privacy defence is a common one. ‘It’s my business,’ they’ve told us. ‘Why does anybody else need to know?’ Coming out, the usual answer goes, is political: creating visibility erodes established stigmas, and the more people are openly queer, the less extraordinary it will seem not to be straight, making others feel less marginalised, alienated and alone. If some of us are able to be out, Cooper’s and Quinto’s statements argued, we ought to be.

Foster’s speech was notable for its departure from this loud-‘n’-proud narrative, informing us her coming out took place ‘a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age’ as a gradual, private process, before the average star was made to share ‘the details of their private life’. ‘Privacy,’ she said. ‘Some day in the future, people will look back and remember how beautiful it once was.’

The politics of erotic privacy have always been contentious, and while each of us deserves the time to go public (or not) when we feel we can, it’s easy to appreciate the sentiment that all those who can come out should, in whose face Foster’s emphasis on privacy flies. As long as our society punishes non-straight identities, after all, they aren’t a purely personal area, and if the closet means anything, surely it means the public presumption of heterosexuality?

Insistence on queer desire as private, too, has often worked to shame it. Arthur Gore, the Conservative whip who co-sponsored the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, asked that those aided by it act ‘quietly and with dignity’, without ‘any form of public flaunting’ – in other words, that they deviate as much from sexual norms in private as they wished, but never think of acting out (that is, acting ‘queer’) in public, instilling in the straight populace a troublingly more-than-academic awareness of their lives. (The Act itself legalised gay sex in private, but public displays of even the mildest affection stayed subject for decades to police harassment).

It’s worth considering on the other hand that in practical terms, Jodie Foster was already out before the Golden Globes – not just to the ‘trusted friends and family’ her speech made mention of, but to her industry and the world beyond. As Robyn Harper has pointed out in the Huffington Post, her relationship with Cydney Bernard was publicly acknowledged in a similar speech from 2007 while still ongoing, and their split the following year was covered in the press. Anyone who’d wanted to find out if Jodie Foster was a straight woman could easily have done so, and no doubt many did. Vilifying her refusal, then, to come out explicitly as gay, lesbian or anything else ignores that she already served as a queer public figure, and was never required to utilise received identifiers. (Some of us, myself included, aren’t willing to define ourselves except as non-straight).

The retroactive pressure exerted on Foster by her critics demands not just that she be out, but that she come out, with all the PR bells and whistles we’ve grown used to in the last few years. As with Jaymi Hensley’s coming out on The X-Factor last autumn, the subtext is that famous people are straight until they announce otherwise. The closet, in this sense, is recuperative: the more loudly and dramatically one exits it, particularly as a public figure, the more surprising the disclosure is made to seem, thus reinforcing straight identity as the presumptive default. If anyone is anything but heterosexual, then like contraband at an airport, this is something to declare; straight people are in danger, otherwise, of being forced to acknowledge those around them as potentially queer.

It isn’t just celebrities, of course, whose revelations can cause a stir – hence we’ve found ourselves historically trapped, wedged captive between erasure in the closet and the othering co-optation of theatrical comings-out. What Jodie Foster models is a radical third option, a politics of being but not coming out, concealing nothing while rejecting problematic identity-narration. There’s much to be learned from her speech, which troubles the sexual status quo as much as it troubled columnists.