September 1999 | Coming Out For the Count
Michael Portillo's record on gay rights is both appalling and hypocritical. His 'confession' suggests this may not change.
This story will not go away. Ask Ron Davies, Peter Mandelson, or even Bill Clinton. We voters have a lively interest in the sex lives of our politicians, simply because they are famous. We gleefully pick up a used copy of the Sun for the latest dirt, even as we condemn the intrusion — just as we would for a celebrated entertainer or footballer. Anything to share in the humanity of those whose lives would otherwise seem remote from our own.
But in the case of Michael Portillo our concern is more righteous. He is returning to politics — brave man — and as a public servant once more he can be expected to answer for what he has put on public record. This now includes the stumbling words with which he emerged from whatever closet it was in Thursday's Times. That same evening, but with sterner jaw (a great part for Martin Shaw or Colin Firth) he twice "flatly" denied any indiscretion with Peter Lilley.
A cardboard illusion shattered! I had always thought they would have made a lovely pair, in some homely nook, plotting their fascist bed-games. Such has been the sly caricature of the gay press and its readers. For while both of them had power, serving under General Thatcher, following her lead they voted against the gay population unerringly.
They were against equalising the age of consent. They declined to lift the ban on gays serving in the British armed forces. They voted for Section 28, the nasty little law which meddles, among other things, in what a local authority school can,, or cannot, teach about homosexuality the "red meat thrown to our right-wing wolves", as Tristan Garel-Jones described it to me at the time.
Their public stance meant that they could not, surely, be gay themselves, for that would mean they were voting to say: "What has been good enough for me is too good for the rest of you." Yet still the rumours persisted, to the embarrassment of them both. We now know that they even discussed going to court to tackle the rumours, but then didn't.
I know how annoying all this must have been for them. For 49 years, until I said otherwise, people invariably assumed that I was straight. I hope that Mr Portillo is feeling as relieved as I was to proclaim publicly a truth that was previously shared only with friends. The Press Association called it a "confession", though Mr Portillo hoped we wouldn't be much interested. We shall see.
The news was broadcast in large headlines by broadsheets and tabloids alike, and the latter will play Hunt Polly's-Old-Flames until they run their prey to ground.
Further revelations should there be anything left to reveal would significantly alter the political dynamic. But for now it seems likely that the Kensington and Chelsea selection committee may well be attracted to a candidate with a racy past to replace Alan Clark, a man who in a somewhat bolder manner was happy to parade his sexual escapades to an admiring public. (Incidentally, Mr Clark's views on homosexuality were changing of late, under pressure from his gay constituents. Their influence may yet prove Mr Portillo's stumbling-block.)
But there are wider issues than the predilections of the local party. Tory apologists in the media have tried to minimise the situation by talking of their man's "youthful indiscretions". Interestingly that is not a term Mr Portillo has himself used. Nor has he talked of "experimentation". Rather he has, in effect, defined himself as bisexual, without using the word. Are the Tories ready for their first openly bisexual party leader?
The truth is that such a man may well choose to restrict his sexual activity to one gender, to one partner, or to be celibate. But his basic sexuality does not change. Which perhaps explains the nervous tone of Mr Portillo's original announcement. Often people who come out as gay or bisexual haven't talked to others enough about it before. They handle it as though it is a uniquely personal problem which nobody else has ever experienced. They fail to relate to their fellow citizens who share their sexuality. That, regrettably, seems to be the case with Michael Portillo.
Party stalwarts have spoken of his honesty and courage and yet those look pretty meagre compared with Stephen Twigg, who took Portillo's seat at the last election and who was open about his homosexuality before first standing for public office. Twigg is not alone; there are a number of elected politicians in European, national and local politics who are openly gay and some of them are Tories. By contrast with their stance, Mr Portillo's own tentative announcement reads as old-fashioned, as if he were caught on the hop by a clever journalist, rather than a declaration of personal identity.
But how to explain his voting record? Perhaps the poor youth had a miserable sex life with other men and it's on that basis that he thought an equal age of consent for gay sex should be denied to others. On the other hand, he did say on Thursday that he had no regrets about his past. Let's hope he truly is at ease with his bisexuality and his happy marriage. But let's also hope part of that happiness is the memory of those affairs or whatever went on at Cambridge.
Yet the fact is that whether the undergraduate sex was one-night stands or longer relationships it was, in those days, all illegal if Mr Portillo was under 21 at the time. So if illicit gay sex did no harm to Mr Portillo why does his voting record assume that others will be harmed by it? Also, if he is fit to serve his constituents in parliament, why should other gay men and women be unfit to serve in the nation's military?
Mr Portillo's muddled thinking is out of touch with our times. The United Kingdom is in a period of flux. There is, particularly in our big cities, an increasingly open culture, at ease with homosexuality. Today we live in a world where the Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, is welcome to take his male partner to official receptions at Buckingham Palace, where there are popular gay characters in soap operas, where there is an openly gay area in the heart of London which Prince Charles thought it appropriate to visit after an anti-gay bomb exploded at the Admiral Duncan pub.
There is change in the air and the favourable comment last week showed that Michael Portillo is a beneficiary of it. It may not be likely that the Conservative peers who voted down an equal age of consent for gays will be less fearful of homosexuality now that they can see that Mr Portillo's character and maturity have not been endangered one jot by his youthful gay experiences. But certainly Mr Portillo has the chance to be in the vanguard of changing attitudes by applying his personal experience to his political stance, by recanting and taking his supporters with him. The charge of hypocrisy is what he has most to fear. And the remedy for that is in his own hands.