As inexorably as night follows day and push comes to shove, so the words ‘Tory’ and ‘scandal’ seem destined to conjoin with ‘Brazilian’ and ‘rent-boy’. Yet the main response to the allegations about Mark Menzies MP last weekend was neither laughter or condemnation, but pity. The tone was similar to that recently adopted by Jeremy Paxman when interviewing the disgraced former Co-op chairman Paul Flowers. How sad, it seemed to sigh, in this day and age. Is there anything we can do?
Well yes, in fact: it has just been done — and among other things it is likely to prove this sighing a phase. Because although there certainly was a time when gay people could be the objects of pity, viewed as tragic individuals weighed down by society’s unjust attitudes, all this has changed. The most recent change is that since last weekend gay men and women are now allowed the right to full and equal civil marriage in Britain.
I was one of those who argued for this and I did so, among other things, because it seems to me not just wrong but actively cruel to condemn people for behaviour for which you deny them the solution. When being gay was illegal, many gay couples did form long and lasting relationships. But society was stacked against them. It was not just that the encouragement and support that public vows and commitment provide was not available. Even the most basic financial and civil rights were refused. Partially as a result, for many years gay relationships were characterised by their brevity and gays condemned for the resulting promiscuity.
Unlikely to be introduced to suitable partners by friends, let alone family, people sought love in what the pop star Rihanna would describe as hopeless places. As many straight people have also discovered, bars, nightclubs and the like are not the best places to find long-term commitment. But recognition of this historical fact means that in high-profile gay scandals, a different moral standard now emerges. It manifests itself in an uncertainty about criticising any gay behaviour. For instance, first the Co-op and then the media were unsure of how to deal with Flowers’s conviction for gross indecency in a public toilet 30 years ago. This moral uncertainty is an uncertainty many gays are also finding their way through.
In time, gay marriage will fundamentally change this, allowing young gay people to aspire to a more stable, accepted and, yes, conservative future. Down the road they will find themselves judged by the same norms as everyone else.
But this fact is more contentious than many people know, and a divide over it exists even among gay people. It is a divide I would characterise as between those who are ‘gay’ and those who are (and I put no negative connotation on the word) ‘queer’. Perhaps it is simply a manifestation of the left-right divide. Those of us who are gay believe that being gay is simply something some people are: there are no further items on the agenda. Queers, on the other hand — and I count many among my idols — hold a different view. They believe that being born gay is a sign — that, as the superb Julie Bindel wrote here last year, ‘being gay is a fabulous alternative to heterosexuality’. This view regards marriage as part of the straight, normative, patriarchal hierarchy, part of a system to be resisted and even pulled down.
One of the many things I dislike about this is the way in which the argument mirrors and embeds the opinions of certain homophobes who claim that gays are dangerous precisely because they are somehow going to ‘gay up’ wider society.
To which queers say, ‘Too right we are.’ They view heterosexual weddings as part of a loathsome norm and believe being naturally attracted to their own sex is merely the starting block to oppose this as well as engage in a wider agenda ordinarily including green, far-left politics and opposition to the ‘bedroom tax’.
I am sure that queers will continue — and good luck to some. But for the rest of us, being gay is not a political statement, or if it is, is a very different one. Rather than making ordinary society ‘gay’, it makes gays part of ordinary society, free to enjoy the same security, frustrations and blessing that marriage already grants to millions of our fellow citizens.
But there must be a flipside to such rights. In these pages Charles Moore was one of the very few to notice something that the gay marriage bill unwisely avoided. For it tellingly failed to include a clause allowing for divorce on the grounds of adultery. This is strange. Charles Moore wrote that this was possibly to do with an interesting legal wrangle over what constitutes adultery in a lesbian marriage. But I have long felt that it was to do with something else.
Because there are those — and I suspect they got the ear of government — who continue to say that there is something different about (mainly male) gay relationships. Most likely caused by two helpings of testosterone, the argument goes that men are somehow predisposed to greater promiscuity, that two men are even more so inclined and that promoting monogamy in gay relationships is therefore a restrictive step.
For my part, I am sorry that the government did not put in the adultery clause. I hope they still do. Because it seems to me that if you are to have equality it must be the whole shebang — good and bad, for better and worse. It may well not be for everybody — just as straight marriage seems not to be for everybody. It may be an aspiration that some gay marriages fall short of — just as many straight marriages do. But monogamy should be from the outset the undeniable aspiration on which gay marriage — like all others — is based.
Which brings me back to the issue of judgmentalism. Gay marriage is the answer to a gay dilemma. But if you do not wish to be prejudiced against, then you should have no prejudice in your favour. If you do not want to be condemned unduly heavily, then nor should you be let off lightly for things which others would be condemned for heavily. So come on gays, we’ve got gay rights. Now I’m afraid we’re going to have to accept gay responsibilities.