Comment: So what if Hughes and Oaten are gay or bisexual?

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.’s Benjamin Cohen considers the sexual controversies that have engulfed the Liberal Democrats.

You’d have had to be on another planet to have missed the news that two of the candidates for leader of the Liberal Democrats have been “outed” by the tabloid press. But does this really matter in modern Britain, and what does it say about our society that they couldn’t out themselves?

Coming out is hard. I have yet to meet anyone who is either gay or bisexual that found it a particularly easy process. The build up to saying, “mum, there’s something I need to tell you…” is terrifying, even today in a society that appears to embrace gay role models like Will Young.

It’s got to be a hell of a lot harder if you are an MP and don’t just need to tell your parents but also your constituents and ultimately the country as a whole.

It’s got to be even harder if you entered public life before you came to terms with your own sexuality.

Consider Simon Hughes. Peter Tatchell (who stood as the Labour candidate against him in the 1983 by-election), says that he knew at the time that Mr Hughes was bisexual. But in 1983, there were no openly gay MPs and part of the reason that Mr Hughes was first elected was that he was considered the “straight choice” against the openly gay Mr Tatchell. Once elected, voters assumed that he was simply straight, but unmarried.

Mark Oaten’s case is different. He was first elected in 1997, a different era and is married. He has his own problems, presumably coming to terms with the fact that he is either gay or bisexual. Being “outed” in a national newspaper as having slept with a rent-boy could hardly have helped his state of mind.

So both men were no exactly truthful. They didn’t stand up shouting, “I’m gay/bisexual.” But then Mark Oaten was never asked, and Simon Hughes never said he was straight, he just denied being gay. I know it may be pedantic but he didn’t lie, being bisexual is very different from being gay.

As a journalist, I know of other so-called “open secrets” concerning closeted gay MPs. I lack the evidence to publish them and I’m not in the business of ruining peoples’ lives.

What makes Messrs Hughes and Oaten different from these other closeted MPs is that they’re not hypocrites. They’ve never opposed gay rights within parliament. Both have consistently voted for the age of consent to be equalised and strongly supported the introduction of civil partnerships last year.

Their position is so different from former Conservative MP, Michael Portillo who admitted that he had been in a sexual relationship with another man. Whilst Messrs Hughes and Oaten always voted for gay rights whilst closeted, Mr Portillo did not. As Defence Secretary he enforced a ban on gay men serving in the military. It was not until after he “came out” that Mr Portillo became the gay friendly media pundit we see today.

All in all, it does say something about our society that a politician chooses not to “come out” unless they are hounded into it by the baying wolves of the tabloid press.

I suppose though, that times are changing, the last election saw record numbers of openly gay candidates standing for office and there are many gay MPs who have chosen to “come out” of their own accord. We can therefore hope that last week may have been the last time that an MP is forced to “come out” against their will.