Is coming out as a Tory comparable to coming out as queer? Short answer: no. Louise McCudden explores why.
18-year-old Megan McGowan was recently quoted, in a clickbait style headline from the BBC, as saying that she found it “harder to come out as Tory than as bisexual”. The headline worked; it attracted a fair amount of attention online. It also stirred up a lot of familiar complaints about how people get “judged for their political views” nowadays – especially right-wing people.
Megan is not the first and will not be the last person to conflate the dangers of coming out as queer with the discomfort of hearing people judge your deeply-held opinions. Far older and more experienced queer Tories than Megan are constantly lamenting the apparently ironic double standard that judging someone for who they love or shag is, funnily enough, considered somewhat more unreasonable than judging someone for how they feel other human beings should be treated by the state.
When people conflate sexual orientation with moral choices, it is very revealing. When people joke about not caring if you’re queer, “as long as you’re not a Tory or an axe-murderer,” as Megan’s parents did, it’s clearly meant to be helpful, but it’s still, arguably, rooted in quite problematic reasoning. For a start, the whole joke is still based on the implication that most people would reasonably expect their parents to not be okay with their queerness. Perpetuating the idea that it’s normal for parents to object to the queerness of their own kids is enormously damaging, even if you’re doing it for what feels like a good reason – in this instance, to make it clear that you’re not one of those parents. Secondly, the joke is still placing queerness on an axis of morality. Queerness is morally neutral. Would you compare eating a piece of cucumber to being an axe-murderer? Would you compare breathing or sleeping to voting for the Labour party?
It’s understandable that a lot of people wouldn’t immediately see an issue with this reasoning, or, indeed, agree with my reasons for taking issue with it. We are always allowing the queer rights conversation be dominated by questions like whether or not we can help it, and reassuring straight people that queerness is never a choice. That’s why we end up with strange moral equivalencies being thrown at us. So much for the tolerant left, they yell, if we object to things that actually harm people. We need to start asserting much more loudly that whether or not it is a choice for some is irrelevant, because who you love and shag isn’t a choice with moral connotations.
How you decide other people should be treated by the state, on the other hand, is a choice with moral connotations. The conflation of these two things isn’t just a problem because it paints queerness as a moral choice. It also paints your politics as an amoral choice. But political decisions have consequences, and not wanting to be “judged for your political views” is another way of saying you don’t believe you are morally responsible for your own words, views or actions.
The idea that you’re not morally responsible for your own political choices isn’t an exclusively right-wing thing, but statistically it is a fact that members of and donors to the Tory party are more likely to be insulated from the harsh impact of public policy choices than Labour members and donors. It makes complete sense that these voters would be more inclined to see political choices as abstract ones; comparable to something morally neutral like being queer.
Just listen to senior Tories admitting that they lost their parliamentary majority because there was too much focus on their actual policies, or Theresa May apologising to the Tory MPs who lost their seats and “didn’t deserve to do so.” If people don’t like your policies and choose to vote for somebody else, you deserve to lose your seat. The idea that you’re entitled to a seat in parliament even if people believe your policies will harm their community is exactly the kind of entitlement that comes when you detach political choices from any moral questions – or from any expectation of consequences.
The conflation of these two things isn’t just a problem because it paints queerness as a moral choice. It also paints your politics as an amoral choice. But political decisions have consequences, and not wanting to be “judged for your political views” is another way of saying you don’t believe you are morally responsible for your own words, views, or actions.
Of course, it’s not only the Tories. We have now seen Tim Farron resign as leader of the Liberal Democrats because he says he can’t reconcile his Christian faith with his position in public life, after being asked repeatedly by journalists whether he thinks “gay sex” is a sin. Farron has been greeted with wave upon wave of sympathy from talking heads who are falling over themselves to argue that your value system and how you shape your morals should have no place in how voters assess your fitness to lead a party or set public policy. Would they say this if he was a Muslim, wonder conservative and liberal journalists alike, who had presumably all been asleep throughout Zac Goldsmith’s constant personal, irrational attacks on Sadiq Khan during the London Mayoral election. That’s what being a liberal is all about, they cry; having a leader you disagree with, who thinks you’re a sinner. We mustn’t censor people. We must allow all views to be expressed. Well, not all views, obviously. But homophobic ones should definitely be allowed.
We are always allowing the queer rights conversation be dominated by questions like whether or not we can help it, and reassuring straight people that queerness is never a choice. That’s why we end up with strange moral equivalencies being thrown at us. So much for the tolerant left, they yell, if we object to things that actually harm people. We need to start asserting much more loudly that whether or not it is a choice for some is irrelevant, because who you love and shag isn’t a choice with moral connotations.
This insidious notion that right-wing people are “closeted” and must “come out” as Tory voters, the belief that conservative-minded folk have to censor themselves because of the aggressive pro-queer militia or whatever they think we are now is inseparable from the simplistic ‘shy Tory’ myth. The ‘shy Tory’ myth is used to explain why polling models often overestimate the Labour party’s chances and underestimate the Tories. It is also repeated ad nauseam, especially during elections, and used as basically the equivalent of complaining about “political correctness gone mad!” for people who consider themselves far too well-educated to ever say such a thing.
It’s true that Tories get under-sampled in a lot of polling models, and that media predictions can sometimes end up too weighted towards Labour – although this plainly didn’t happen in the most recent election. In fact, if anything, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a ‘shy Corbynite.’ No-one wants to be labelled a terrorist-sympathising communist. But a lot of people would quite like their public services to be funded a bit better.
And yes, it’s true that some Tory voters lie about their voting inclinations, and yes, some of them are very sensitive people who do take it deeply to heart if a friend or colleague thinks less of them because of how they plan to vote. It is never enjoyable when somebody makes assumptions about you that sit so firmly outside your own idea of who you are. How dare you have a preconceived idea about me as a Tory, they howl. I’m an individual. You don’t know me. I’m not like the others. I’m one of the good ones.
For other people, marginalised people, the frustration of conversations like this is a regular part of life. And marginalised people have to be ‘shy’ about expressing political views too. For every ‘shy Tory’ who worries about getting called a Tory wanker at a dinner party, there are goodness knows how many marginalised people who, I can guarantee, are biting tongues and swallowing anger and forcing back things they would like to say right now, because they fear for their jobs, their welfare rights, their immigration status, or even their personal safety if they express how they feel. While ‘shy Tories’ ponder how sad it is that their political leanings are taken so seriously, there are marginalised people who feel unable to express casual opinions on books, songs, work projects, even the weather, because casual comments can be treated as political – perhaps aggressive, perhaps a threat, perhaps even radical – whether they meant it as such or not. The myth of virtue-signalling and the idea that it’s safe, or that it makes you popular to express left-wing political views is astonishing. It may be true if you are in a comfortable job, and if you are part of the dominant societal demographics. But the more marginalised you are, the more any expression of a desire for social justice gets taken evidence of immaturity, stupidity, mental instability, or aggression. Recently it was reported that some workers have been threatened “as a joke” with redundancy if they voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
How dare you have a preconceived idea about me as a Tory, they howl. I’m an individual. You don’t know me. I’m not what you think. I’m not like the others. I’m one of the good ones. For other people, of course, the frustration of conversations like this is a regular part of life.
And, as my girlfriend pointed out after Donald Trump’s election: they still win anyway. They still have power. So what does it matter? Who cares if you’re unable to ramble on at a party without interruption about why you’re voting Conservative, if you still end up with your taxes cut and low inflation prioritised over reducing unemployment and all the other things you wanted? This is the crux of it in the end. Perhaps, ‘closeted Tories’, perhaps people aren’t only judging you for your political views and the perception that those views are actually harmful; perhaps people are also exasperated with you more broadly, for the casual disregard you show for the consequences your moral choices have on other people’s lives – and for the entitled belief that everyone else ought to view politics in the same shallow, removed, and abstract way that you do.