When she addressed the question of why a member of her staff had outed a gay whistleblower, Prime Minister Theresa May clearly picked her words very carefully as she danced around the point with great trepidation. What her response showed, though, was just how out of touch she was with both the situation and the issue of being an open or closeted member of the LGBT+ community.
“Can I ask the Prime Minister,” Labour MP for Exeter Ben Bradshaw began, “how is it remotely acceptable that when a young whistleblower exposes compelling evidence by the Leave campaign implicating staff at Number 10, that one of those named, instead of addressing the allegations made, issues an officially sanctioned statement outing the whistleblower as gay and thereby putting his family in Pakistan in danger?”
He added: “It’s a disgrace, Prime Minister. You need to do something about it.”
Mrs May stuttered and stalled her way through her answer, clearly concerned that she was being forced to talk on a matter that is very sensitive. She replied: “Can I say to the right honourable gentleman that any statements issued were personal statements that were issued.
“I, of course, recognise the importance of ensuring that we do recognise that for some being outed as gay is difficult because of their family and circumstances,” she continued. “What I want to see is a world where everybody is able to be confident in their sexuality and doesn’t have to worry about such things.”
There is so much to digest in those 15-or-so seconds it’s difficult to know where to begin, but what that answer screamed was that Mrs May does not understand the implications of outing a member of the LGBT+ community against their will.
It’s an utterly horrid thing to do and something that the pithy response of wanting “a world where everybody is able to be confident in their sexuality” doesn’t go anywhere near to addressing. And that’s ignoring that the Prime Minister just threw the LGBT+ community under the bus - she’s effectively saying that the problem is that people are afraid to come out, as if nobody has ever had a bad experience doing it.
There’s some irony that it came on the same day as The Sun ran a transphobic headline on its front page.
This issue has nothing to do with people being “confident in their sexuality”. It has a lot more to do with people’s privacy not being ruthlessly disregarded and then glossed over with all the grace and delicacy of a china shop bull.
What Mrs May did do, though, is demonstrate how it’s nigh on impossible for anybody who isn’t LGBT+ to properly understand what it feels like to live with that fear. She can’t empathise because she’s never had to feel the terror of potentially losing everything if somebody finds out that, through no fault of your own and down to something that you can not control or change, you’re different.
We may live in a time where it’s never been better for LGBT people, but that doesn’t mean things are perfect and all problems with discrimination, abuse, harassment have been solved. This is the reason why people don’t come out and why it is entirely their choice when, where and how to do it - nobody has the right to take that away from someone else.
Regardless of whether or not there are any consequences - in this case, for the whistleblower’s family in Pakistan, there could be serious repercussions. But even it there hadn’t been, it is still so far beyond the line of what’s acceptable that Mrs May should be doing more than brushing it off in parliament.
People come out when they are ready to. They may understand their sexuality from an early age but it in no way means they’re ready for others to know. LGBT+ people will often tell you they knew from being very young that they were different - but they all come out at their own pace.
The fear of exposing your inner feelings and self to friends and family and having them cut you off is excruciating. What if you make yourself a target? What if you lose everything and have to start all over again? What if the people you love most in the world suddenly don’t love who you are and don’t love you back? That’s the sort of thing that races through the mind of every single LGBT+ person while they remain in the closet.
Now imagine that they suddenly have no choice about who knows and how they know.
It’s never crossed the mind of a heterosexual person because they have never faced that situation. It’s impossible for someone who isn’t LGBT+ to understand what that terror feels like, so to dismiss that fear as something that shouldn’t exist because the world should be lovely and filled with flowers and sunshine and rainbows is insensitive beyond belief. It exists and it’s real.
For Mrs May to claim that this is an issue that only impacts on “some” of the LGBT+ community is equally as misguided and ill thought out. It’s terrifying for ALL people who are outed without their permission because they are being exposed when they aren’t ready for others to know.
Outing someone against their wishes is cruel.