As David Mundell becomes the latest MP to come out as gay, Lee Williscroft-Ferris takes a look at reactions to the announcement and what they tell us about the process of coming out.
When Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, came out as gay last week, many people sat back and awaited the inevitable. From “Isn’t he brave?” to “This shows how far we have come!”, the subsequent reactions were entirely predictable.
Increasingly common in such situations is the widespread appropriation of a person’s coming out for a variety of mostly selfish purposes. Most worrying is a growing tendency to interpret it as irrefutable proof that the battle for ‘gay equality’ has been won. This assertion is as erroneous as it is dangerous. It negates the ongoing intersectional struggle for full LGBTQ+ equality and it depersonalises the highly individual process of coming out.
When the act of coming out is portrayed as an act of bravery, the implied inverse is cowardice. It dictates the terms of a person’s unique journey and displaces them as the sole helmsperson of what can be an extremely stormy voyage. What’s more, it is an implicit acknowledgement that the outcome of publicly confirming your sexuality is uncertain. If all were as it should be, surely coming out would be a non-event.
Most worrying is a growing tendency to interpret a person’s coming out as irrefutable proof that the battle for ‘gay equality’ has been won.
According to some, that’s exactly what it should be. Hot on the heels of Mundell’s announcement came a slew of comments and articles questioning the necessity of coming out. ‘Surely it’s not a big deal now’? ‘Who cares?’ ‘If straight people don’t care, why are gay people making a big deal of their sexuality?’ Even the BBC joined in the debate, with the headline ‘Do people still need to ‘come out’?’ segueing to an opening paragraph containing this telling sentence: ‘In an ideal world, would anyone have to come out at all?’ The unfortunate fact of the matter is that we do not live in a ideal world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. The BBC’s hypothetical point is moot.
The notion that socio-legal progress has rendered coming out unnecessary or even self-indulgent (‘Gay people are the only ones making a fuss’) is wilfully ignorant of the realities. In 2014-15, there was a 20% increase in homophobic hate crime in England and Wales. LGBTQ+ young people remain disproportionately affected by homelessness, poverty, bullying, mental health difficulties and suicide. The facts are well rehearsed; why, then, are many people so quick to dismiss the coming out process as a relic of an unequal past?
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that we do not live in a ideal world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights.
This argument also falsely homogenises the LGBTQ+ community, specifically their disparate staging points on the road to full equality. While same-sex couples bask in the glory of marriage equality, our trans brethren continue to battle against the spousal veto. The rampant erasure of bisexual identity across all strata of society is an ongoing, deeply entrenched, often overlooked prejudice. Trans people are routinely subjected to the most hideous discrimination in almost all areas of life. BME LGBTQ+ people have their own unique experiences, both within and without the community. Coming out remains a challenge of David and Goliath proportions to a great many LGBTQ+ people. To seek to underestimate the scale of that challenge is to deny the myriad issues at large and flies in the face of intersectional analysis.
According to one particular US study, the UK parliament now has the highest proportion of ‘out’ MPs in the world at around 5.1% of the total number. While this is broadly in line with average estimates of the broader LGBTQ+ population (a figure almost certainly highly conservative), it shouldn’t have us breaking out the party poppers just yet. We are yet to elect a trans MP and Conservative Daniel Kawczynski is currently the House of Commons’ only openly bi representative. This is before we tackle the woeful lack of BME LGBTQ+ members. On a wider point, our parliament remains stubbornly male-dominated and largely unrepresentative of the socio-economic background of the vast majority of the population. Even the most shallow intersectional dissection exposes the indisputable inequality at the heart of our politics.
Coming out remains a challenge of David and Goliath proportions to a great many LGBTQ+ people. To seek to underestimate the scale of that challenge is to deny the myriad issues at large and flies in the face of intersectional analysis.
We should ensure that David Mundell receives the support he will undoubtedly need in the aftermath of his very personal announcement. Is it a positive sign that a Conservative cabinet member has taken this step? Yes. But to appropriate Mundell’s decision to reflect a distorted image of ‘where we are at’ is helpful to no one. Ultimately, it is not for cishet commentators to categorise the ‘out’ as ‘brave’; this could – and does – increase the pressure on others to follow suit, potentially prematurely. What’s more, it essentially implies that the journey to self-acceptance is not complete until the closet door is firmly closed. The concomitant expectation that those who do choose to divulge their gender or sexual identity will become ‘ambassadors’ of honesty and integrity is both condescending and selfish.
‘In’ or ‘out’, considerable hurdles remain to be overcome in the battle for truly comprehensive LGBTQ+ equality. Put the champagne on ice.
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