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.

On the pathologising of queer desire

“Not gay!”, the adverts said, “Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”

The people behind them, Anglican Mainstream, planned this April to drive them through London on the sides of buses. Boris Johnson, acting as chair of Transport for London, vetoed the plans (the mayoral election, after all, was only weeks away). What the banners advertised was conversion therapy, described by the group as ‘supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change’ – the same ostensible counselling techniques investigated in Patrick Strudwick’s exposé “The ex-gay files“.

There’s nothing new in using psychiatric structures to queerphobic ends: let’s not forget that it was only in 1990, the year before my birth, when the World Health Organisation stopped calling homosexuality a mental health disorder. The word itself was coined inPsychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Victorian volume on so called perversions, in which cross-dressing and BDSM are similarly pathologised. What’s interesting about Anglican Mainstream’s work, apart from their misuse of “post-gay” and expectation Oxford Street would be a hotbed of homoerotic repression, is their insistence that “there is [no] indisputable scientific evidence that people are “born gay”, and…have no choice but to affirm their homosexual feelings”.

As “The ex-gay files” shows, the current conversion movement strongly resists the notion of the homosexual person. It never refers to being gay, but always to experiencing same sex attraction; never to a mode of inherent being but always to a chosen lifestyle. This sets it apart from historical homophobes like Krafft-Ebing – who saw queer desire as a chronic medical condition and whose book reads “homosexuals…recognise one another by their gait, natural shyness and by signs just the same as normal persons of opposite sexes do” – and also from much of the LGBT community now, where the strongest opposition to Anglican Mainstream’s adverts was the “Born This Way” argument. Chris Bryant, for example, said: “Homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.”

The ads’ creators and the ex-gay industry are, of course, monstrous, but isn’t it striking how Krafft-Ebing’s rhetoric, to which that of twentieth century bigotry can often be traced back, has taken over the groups it attacked? When I look at LGBT dialogue today, I see queer bodies pathologised again: homoerotic desire ascribed to an elusive ‘gay gene’, sexuality “explained” by prenatal hormones and correlations of finger-length and gender preferencebrandished as proof that, as one of Stonewall’s people put it, “being gay is [pre]determined rather than being a so-called lifestyle choice”.

That humans exist who aren’t straight is deemed a biological phenomenon, biologically resolved. We’re invited to believe that the brains and bodies of (for example) gay and straight men are, by definition, categorically different. Don’t doubt my support of science for one moment, but in British skepticism, we’re fond of one motto above all others. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Genetics might account for sexual preferences in many cases, as it influences all kind of predispositions, but it’s far from the alpha and omega of the sexual self. Of all the world’s fiftysomething men married to women, who were raised in exclusively straight environments and have never consciously experienced queer desire, surely some will possess whatever ‘gay gene’ does exist? Likewise, is a destitute m4m sex worker without it somehow straight, and unaware of that?

Ask me if I’m gay and I’ll say no – although I do gay quite a lot. Our orientation has at least as much to do with social order as bodily nature and it can’t be reduced to something we innately are. There is no state of homosexuality: we shouldn’t view it as a mental health condition, because it’s not a condition at all. There are no homosexual people, just people who like doing homosexual things.

The problem with conversion therapists is that they teach people, as churches have done for millennia, that harmless and enjoyable impulses (whatever their provenance) are a source for guilt. So what if this is a lifestyle choice? So is vegetarianism. And if you prefer a meat free diet, that’s perfectly fine.

What are the implications of the ‘queer bodies’ narrative? If we accept that gay brains and straight brains exist – not to mention those the rest of us have – aren’t we handing people ammunition who want us to be cured? Most of us, after all, would love it in the not-too-distant future if genetic engineering eliminated cancer; once queerness is accepted as genetic, though, what’s to stop it being targeted the very same way?

Leave the idea of sexuality as a physical state unchallenged and we only risk more medically cloaked attempts to eliminate anything that isn’t heterosexuality. That those attempts would be fruitless is beside the point – they would still make queer people back into sufferers of illness, the medically defective carriers of sociosexual plague. I don’t want that to happen: they wish to cure us, as Magneto says, but I say we’re the cure.