Simon Hughes: Coming out is a burden lifted

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Simon Hughes found himself at the centre of a media storm earlier this year when he unsuccessfully ran for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats following revelations that he was bisexual.

In his first interview on his private life since the leadership election, he tells’s Benjamin Cohen how he came to the decision to come out, his role in the Bermonsey by-election and why he’s proud of his records on gay rights.

“You must be Ben!” exclaims Simon Hughes as he comes to meet me in the uba-cool reception of Portcullis House in Westminster. “Shall we grab a drink?” As I opt for the rather staid English breakfast tea, Hughes picks out his favourite pink smoothie from the vast selected of bottled drinks on offer.

As he leads me up to a vacant committee room on the first floor of the building that houses the parliamentary offices of many MPs, he points out his navy blue tie with pink stripes that he picked out especially for the interview. “I had to chose a tie I could use for a memorial service and this interview” he explains, “it’s almost the exact same pink as you use in your logo!”

As we settle down in an overly large room for a two person interview, we delve back to the first stage of Simon Hughes’ public life, the controversial Bermondsey by-election of 1983, where he as the unexpected victor was thrust into the public eye.

His rival in the election was the now veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell (coincidentally the last subject of an in-depth interview with During the campaign, Hughes was described by the then Liberal Alliance (as the party was then called) as the “straight choice” whilst Tatchell was denounced in the right wing press as being gay, despite the fact that he had not formally come out of the closet.

I began by asking Simon Hughes if he regretted the label: “The short answer is yes but it really wasn’t an issue in those days until the very last minute. In most elections people try and present the case as a choice between two, in other words a straight choice. That’s the genesis of the word, dating from a time when the word straight meant nothing other than uncomplicated or obvious.

“I think it was used at any major election, at every by-election that the then Liberal Alliance fought. The battle here was with Labour, a Labour run the council, having the largest majority MP in London and a massive majority for the GLC (Greater London Council). The Tories were never really in the race. We wanted to build ourselves up and so the label as the straight choice stuck.”

But surely this label as the ‘straight choice’ hurt Peter Tatchell?

“Sure, at the time, I said in public that the Daily Mail’s campaign against Peter Tatchell was unfair. Peter hadn’t come out at all during the campaign. I apologised to him during the campaign to his face and told him that I regretted what was happening. Of course, I have remained his MP and we do meet periodically and do conferences and other stuff together. In his book, ‘The Battle for Bermondsey’, he has a go at the Labour party and the press in equal measure and he only briefly mentions my campaign.

“But I’m not washing my hands about it. It’s one of things that has motivated me all my time as an MP to try and make sure that politics is much less personalised and much fairer to people and that we never get into that again. It’s all part of the same commitment to try and make sure that everybody who is involved in politics is valued for who they are and judged on their policies and not on their private characteristics.”

In January 2006, Simon Hughes came out following an interview with the Sun, where he was portrayed as a “limp dem” and in which he was reported as being “gay.” Why did he decide to “come out” to a tabloid newspaper?

“I didn’t want a leadership election this year, I wanted Charles Kennedy to continue. The election came about as a result of Charles drinking and the impact of his private life. The backdrop for the campaign was therefore the conflict between public and private lives, although in his case in the context of drink. There was therefore, the risk that my sexuality might become an issue if I stood, but I’d stood once for leader before, as party president, as Mayor of London, I’d stood for the GLC, council and seven times for Parliament and it had never really surfaced as an issue. Although the media are much more sensationalist now than ever before.

“But then fellow leadership contender Mark Oaten was alleged by the ‘News of the World’ as having had an affair with a rent boy for a considerable period of time just after he had withdrawn from the contest. Laughing, he says: “It made ‘lets look at Hughes’ even more inevitable. We had three of the next four days with websites and blogs running stuff.”

“On the Sunday there were three or four things by the newspapers, they weren’t just about my gay past, they were about married women and a whole set of other stuff. It quietened down again on the Monday. On the Tuesday, my press officer spent half of the day trying to fend off another newspaper on a married woman story.” Bolting upright, he adds:

“We were trying to run a campaign!”

“Then on the Wednesday, the ‘Sun’ came up with four allegations they were going to put to me, one of which one had some truth in it. So I took a cool, uncomplicated view of the whole thing, something I’m quite pleased with myself with. It was an unmanageable and unsustainable position. In the end, I called in Trevor Kavanagh – who wanted to talk to me – so that I could make a statement to him. We had a very short interview as I was due to be on BBC’s Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ that evening live from Richmond and I had just had a really heavy party meeting, so I only had a little window of time. I just decided it was easier to make as uncomplicated statement as I could.”

But how did it feel to be labelled a “limp dem” and being referred to as being gay?

“Well I was a bit cross. The deal was that I would speak to Trevor, then give them a photo if required and then that my solicitor would be able to read through a draft of the article; that in the end never happened. It may have been an accident, but by the time my solicitor reached the night news editor, the first edition had been published.

“Quite unusually, we made some vocal protests about that and it was slightly altered for the second edition. I took the view that once it was a story they were going to run it in their own way, you just have to live with the fact that they’d deal with it in their own way. I realised that we’d potentially have a rough time from then until the weekend, because the Sunday papers would be likely to want their bite at the cherry.”

“But I got some fantastic emails and text messages, some from parliamentary colleagues, even at 1.30 in the morning. It tempered the ‘Sun’ and the ‘Evening Standard’s’ unfavourable headlines.”

As he smiles, I ask if he’s happier now that it’s all out in the open.

“Yes, I’m happier!” he laughs, “it’s a burden lifted.”

“I didn’t worry about it that much because it’s not something to be ashamed of. I tried always to say ‘These things aren’t secret, but they’re private’; it’s no big issue. Not just for me. There are many other people out there who can handle these issues less well than I can. I always tried, and up until the interview with the ‘Independent’, which I’m cross with myself a bit for, I did not answer the questions about sexuality, saying ‘It’s none of your business’ or saying simply ‘If I was gay would it make any difference?'”

“But you were labelled as a liar by some quarters of the press,” I ask, “did that hurt?”

“It’s the only thing that did make me angry that some of the press and the commentary said that Simon Hughes lied about his sexuality. Whereas I’d always tried not to suddenly make an announcement but not to have been untruthful. But the press don’t quite manage subtlety”

So therefore, does he consider himself to be bisexual, something that unlike the rest of the press reported at the time?

“Yes. But I always wanted to avoid labels. I wanted to be known for my politics not for being bisexual. I think it’s a shame that in the case of Chris Smith he’s primarily remembered as the first openly gay MP.

And whatever else he did, what ever good he achieved, culture, environmentalism, constituency work, that gets put further down the list. The more that things became important in my career, the less I wanted a label, because I hoped that I campaigned for unqualified equality and against discrimination across the board not just sexuality.”

“It’s true I asked women to marry me. That’s why I got frustrated by the ‘Standard’, saying ‘Hughes said he’s gay.’ There were several people who communicated with me afterwards saying look, ‘I’m bisexual, we’re bisexual, people just don’t understand.’ People aren’t as simplistically defined as this. Sexuality is a spectrum and people move along it in different stages of their life. I was a bit disappointed that some of the upmarket press were not more understanding and that there is still more work to be done, which is why I’m happy to be talking to you.”

“The difficulty for me was that I was in the middle of an election campaign and there was neither time nor would it have been right to stop the campaign for Simon Hughes to start doing autobiographies, that would have not been in the party’s interest. So my view was, I’m trying to concentrate on the campaign. Immediately that the campaign was over we had our conference and we’re now into our local elections campaign that I’m leading as president. So I haven’t until today done any reflection on that episode at all, or any work to educate the great British public and the press in particular.”

The following Sunday, as Hughes rightly predicted, there was a story of a past one night stand that appeared in the ‘Sunday Mirror’. “It wasn’t hard for me to deal with personally, but I was concerned for members of my family.

“I thought something will appear. The funny thing was that on the Saturday my press officer met me on the way to a hustings and said:’I’ve got to ask you about something’ and he related the story later described in the ‘Sunday Mirror’. It meant nothing to me. I have no recollection of those facts! I agreed that this was a personal matter and nothing more should be said. It came, some people read it, some people didn’t but if it was going to happen, it would have happened then. I would have rather it didn’t, but there you go. We had a one minute discussion about legal action but we took the sensible view that the last thing anyone should do in these circumstances is take legal action as it prolongs the whole saga, costs money and given what I’d said to the ‘Sun’ on Wednesday, what was the defamation or libel even if it was completely untrue? I think that it did have some effect on the voters in the Liberal Democrats.”

So does he blame homophobia for his defeat at the leadership election?

“I hope not but I don’t pretend that there might not be some homophobes in our great party. But I guess, that for some, they just didn’t want any more personal drama. The paradox is that these same people would have probably considered me a too radical choice anyway. You can never win if you don’t stand but, if you do stand, you can’t guarantee that you will win.”

Like Simon, I am of a faith background and religion played on my mind when coming out. I ask him if it was an issue for him too. “The Church like all major faiths is struggling with homosexuality. It cannot be that gay or bisexual or transsexual people are any less valuable in the eyes of the creator. The Church rightly in my view preaches the particular value of marriage and secondly the value of secure, stable and loving relationships. I subscribe to both and it does need further debate.

“Obviously the traditional evangelical view would say that there are only two options, marriage or celibacy, but my statement to the ‘Sun’ wasn’t supposed to be a theological statement in relation to my lifestyle.

“There was no public condemnation from anyone in the church even though the more evangelical wing clearly found it difficult and I have still to have a frank conversation with them. I’m happy to ‘do God’, but it must be at the right time and place.”

As we draw to a close I ask Simon if he is proud of his achievements for gay rights over the past twenty three years. “The good news is that in the time I’ve been an MP, so much has been achieved. I’m not suggesting that I’m personally responsible for all or any of it. There’s been the battle against section 28, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law and the equalisation in the age of consent which took until the late 1990s and finally the battle to introduce civil partnerships, something that I’ve subscribed to all my adult life. Now we’ve got the Equality Act to be implemented as well. So the big institutional changes have been delivered but there is still much to do.

“We need to make sure that gay people, so long as they do not outrage public morality in a ridiculous sense, can walk the streets without the risk of attack. For me, we will not be living in a truly civilised society until this happens. In the field of education, pupils must be encouraged to respect difference. We need a culture where bullying no longer happens.”

I”nternationally, much more needs to be done. We must get the message across that sexual orientation is a human rights matter. As a human rights lawyer and activist, I think that the British government has been more timid that it should have been on these issues.

“This applies in addition to the Home Office’s views on gay people. I’m friends with a gay couple where one guy is British and the other is from rural Turkey. They are still fighting for the Turkish partner to be allowed to remain in Britain. Turkey hopes to join the European Union but its record on the human rights of gay people, particularly within rural areas, is still unacceptable.

As I pack myself up, I ask him about the Conservative party’s recent conversion to the gay rights agenda, and he is a little more welcoming that colleagues in his own party or in the Labour benches. “I welcome the change. A more enlightened view is welcome whichever side of the political spectrum it comes from. However, the jury is still out on David Cameron’s leadership. He’s only four months into the job.”

Reflecting on the difficulty that the Liberal Democrat leadership has in gaining support for policies from its members, he adds: “They’re lucky in a sense that David Cameron can simply decree a policy without having to justify it to the membership and seeking approval through conference like we do. It is however questionable whether it’s just Cameron and his chairman Francis Maude that are really signed up to the gay rights agenda and time will tell if they can carry their party with them.”

As I go outside to meet my boyfriend who has walked down from his office in Whitehall to catch a lift home, I reflect on our meeting. Politicians, I’m always told, try and charm you with false niceties, but I truly feel that this is not the case with Simon Hughes, he is genuinely charming. Whatever you think of his belated coming out, he really is a true friend of the LGBT community. After all, it is hardly easy to come out as bisexual in the glare of the nation’s media scrutiny.

This interview first appeared in The Pink News