Why The Closet Must End In Public Life

By all accounts, David Laws is a decent, brilliant, capable and humane public servant, and had been given a critical role in the new coalition government in Britain: cutting spending. Laws is of my generation, but has been caught, as others have been, by the riptides of social change and the pace of his own personal journey. He came out only recently and struggled with being gay and wanting to be in elective politics for a long while. One of many reasons he is a Liberal Democrat and not a Tory is his sexual orientation. And so the new government in Britain was Laws' moment. And yet it was also his undoing.

He has just been forced to resign over an expenses scandal. There is an allowance for members of parliament to get accommodation in London while they live in their constituencies. This allowance went to his partner, for their shared apartment in London. Because of the closet, Laws concealed this relationship and fell foul of the rules. He didn't personally benefit from the money - his partner did - but the rules were indeed broken. And so an extremely promising career has been temporarily derailed.

With any luck, Laws will return to government at some point. Britain needs him. For me, this is just an example of how the closet distorts the ethics of good people, and leaves them open to abuse, blackmail, or simple, forgivable conflicts of interest - because lies about the deepest aspects of ourselves rarely stop there. They require other lies and fibs and white lies ... which in time, degrade someone's integrity, and often leads into traps, like the one into which David Laws just fell.

A spouse, for example, who is not publicly a spouse means that the usual full disclosure of conflicts of interest is impossible. And so Law's nine-year relationship - effectively a marriage - made sense in one setting and broke the rules in another.

The way forward, it seems to me, is to ensure that when we are dealing with high level public figures - Treasury ministers, Supreme Court Justices, Cabinet members, et al - the gay question be no longer shrouded in discretion and ambiguity and taboo. As our society evolves, the closet will always remain an option for those too afraid or too conflicted or too uncomfortable to be open. But in public life, especially at its highest reaches, it has to end. And the press must stop enabling it, and start tackling it. Not out of personal vindictiveness and not out of cruelty. But because emotional and sexual orientation is a fact about people. In my view, public figures in national capacities need to be open about this or not seek high office. And if they do seek high office, they need to expect to be asked and to tell. Honestly.

Because lies, even white lies, even understandable lies, cannot last in today's culture and today's media.

Update: Iain Dale has an excellent set of reflections on this here.