Bisexual Democrats?

BCN Cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 78, April 2006

The Liberal Democrats. Not generally the bunch of people you’d normally associate with sleazy scandals, fluid sexuality and interesting sexual practices, but that’s exactly what we got last month during the Lib Dem leadership contest. Whoever said that politics was boring?

On the 21st January, new broke that leadership candidate, Home Affairs spokesman, and married family man Mark Oaten had, over the previous six months, been having regular sessions with a male sex worker, with a particular emphasis on football strips, no less (worthy of Tory cabinet ministers at their finest). This had been utterly unexpected, seemingly even amongst those closest to Oaten, and only reached the public domain when the worker in question (eventually) recognised him. Oaten had already dropped out of the leadership campaign and on this news he resigned from the LD front bench.

Whilst this news was being digested by the media, much of whom regarded it as being as shameful as Oaten himself seemed to, party president Simon Hughes was busily preparing to launch his campaign for the leadership by doing a series of interviews, during which he was repeatedly asked (due to longstanding rumour and recent events) about his sexuality. Asked directly by the Independent whether he was gay, he replied: “No, I’m not. But it absolutely should not matter if I was.”, and discussed his desire to marry one day.

The following week, (26th Jan), the Sun broke the news, via their exclusive interview with Hughes that (according to their headline) “I’M GAY TOO” “LIMP-DEM CONFESSES” and the delightful in-depth piece, “ANOTHER ONE BITES THE PILLOW”. The Sun had obtained evidence that Hughes had been phoning a gay chatline, and when confronted with this, Hughes agreed to give them an interview in which he ‘fessed up: “I am perfectly willing to say that I have had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the past.” (Sun, 26th Jan) Much of the media reported the story along as ‘Hughes comes out as gay’, and many commentators reacted by asking, ‘why has he lied?’: investigating the implications for his trustworthiness and therefore suitability for the leadership. As a close examination of the above quote shows, Hughes had not actually lied: he initially denied that he was gay, and subsequently stated that he had had relationships with men AND with women in the past. This, as the readers of BCN know well, is generally considered to be “bisexuality”.

However, the media in general was largely unaware of the concept, and the fact that Hughes’ press officers were equally clueless, at least at first, meant that confusion ensued. After a bit of digging, the website got a confirmation that Hughes was indeed bisexual. Many pissed off bis and other sensible folk contacted the BBC and wrote letters (of complaint and for publication) to newspapers pointing out this error, and from the 27th Jan, ‘bisexual’ began to appear in coverage about Simon Hughes. The Bimedia group played a role in this, by circulating news stories as they appeared, as well as the contact details for media organisations. Despite this, some media continued with the ‘bi=gay’ equation, with very little sympathy expressed for why an unmarried man should have any reluctance about being open about his sexuality. In particular, some out gay commentators inferred this as internalised homophobia and interpreted that as a further slur on Hughes’ character.

All of this left some of us equally frustrated with the media’s ignorance and biphobia as with Hughes’ Clinton-esque ‘technical truth’, word games, and inability to be clear about his situation. Rather than explaining exactly why his earlier answers were not lies, he instead apologised abjectly while still being vague, neatly underlining the stereotypes of bisexuals as both shifty liars and as ‘confused’. In a final interview on the 28th (again with the Independent), Simon Hughes argued that, “I don’t want to be labelled gay or bisexual. Just as a human rights activist.” While his wish to avoid the strictures of an identity label should be respected, and could indeed be seen as inspirational, the way in which the media was initially taken in, and their subsequent negative reaction, tells us a great deal about the utility of labels in some situations, particularly when you are trying to get a message across quickly.

Finally, it has to be said that the whole episode highlights well quite how difficult it can still be to have same sex desires / relationships, even in this enlightened new age of civil partnerships and equality legislation. This is particularly true if you happen to live outside of the urban gay (media?) bubbles, are of an earlier generation and / or have opposite sex relationships too. While bisexual women seem at the moment to have some (albeit very stereotyped) public recognition and acceptance, a brief glance at some of the negative media stereotypes about bi men shows us quite how far we have to go. Likewise, the widespread success of Brokeback Mountain may tell us not only about increasing mainstream ‘tolerance’ of male-male relationships, but also how many people’s experiences the film speaks to.

Useful sites: is the bi media network where news stories (good or bad) touching on bisexuality are shared.

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