“New Year, New start”; so began an online post yesterday afternoon of Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, announcing his coming out as gay.
I have already set out my political priorities for the year and now I am setting out my personal one. Having taken one of the most important decisions of my life and resolved to come out publicly as gay in 2016, I just want to get on with it, and now, just like that, I have said it.
The 53-year old MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, now alleged to be the first openly gay Tory Cabinet minister, is father to three children. This received a wide range of coverage from the press, largely to be met with praises and well wishing, thankfully. And yet, it is when we overlook these responses and look towards social media that we find perhaps one of the laziest, ill thought-out platitudes that can ever be uttered: “Why is this news?”, “Why do I need to know”, or perhaps more caustically “I don’t care”.
Aside from commonly being a rather expedient excuse for low-level homophobia, this response excuses society of all the blame it may play in making coming out an incredibly difficult experience for people. Instead, it points the finger of blame at the media, an institution that largely has been more in step with contemporary LGBT rights than many of its readership.
But there is a wider and more salient problem with this kind of reaction. We live in a society where heterosexuality is largely ‘the norm’, where homosexual individuals are a minority, often treated by level-headed individuals as entirely equal, yet nevertheless almost ‘exotic’. Although liberal views about LGBT rights seem to dominate public discourse this is not a point that can simply be ignored. The press chose to cover David Mundell’s announcement as it largely flew in the face of what is socially, ‘the norm’. This renders the story not only ‘newsworthy’ but also, makes it publication beneficial to LGBT rights. Mundell’s Twitter account was flooded with high-profile politicians commending him on his courage and acknowledging, as he himself did, that it can often be the hardest thing to simply say who you are. The story’s sheer coverage publicises the fact that coming out is an act that will be met with understanding, praise, and tolerance.
Prior to the late 20th century, the fact that coming out wasn’t covered by the press didn’t make it any easier for gay men and women to accept who they were. Instead, it consigned the issue of homosexuality to a sinister area of public life, to be viewed as some sort of sordid, illicit behaviour, not worth the ink on the page. Reporting such instances only publicises how acceptable being gay is to the majority of the public and ridicules those who think otherwise, dragging the homophobes out from their shadows and subjecting them to the cold daylight of public scrutiny and debate.
What also ought to be highlighted is the sheer fact that Mundell chose to make this announcement public. It was not as if, when we cast our minds back to the Leveson inquiry, he had intended the announcement to be a private affair and the press had invaded his private life. As a member of both the Scottish Parliament and House of Commons for 17 years, Mundell would have known the amount of coverage his announcement would have invited, and perhaps, for points I have mentioned above, this is exactly what he would have intended. With this in mind, we must not only defend the press’s right to report this story but also, praise it for doing so.
I understand that many of the people who say Mundell’s story “isn’t proper news” are perfectly liberal people. However, the society we live in is a long way from when this assertion may actually hold true. Perhaps one day there will exist no assumptions surrounding sexuality, but this is not the society we live in now. If we stop reporting such stories as David Mundell’s, we will simply be pandering to people’s belief that coming out isn’t worth any credit or any attention – a belief that is both misguided, in light of modern circumstances, and becomes a convenient way to conceal the bigoted mantra, “we don’t want homosexuality rubbed in our faces”.
This debate is very much embroiled in a sea of misunderstanding and false arguments. We have to make it very clear to people that saying you don’t care about someone’s sexuality is completely different to saying you don’t care about them coming out. In other words, saying you don’t let someone’s sexuality affect your view of them is entirely different to the suggestion that you don’t care about someone choosing to come out, and that, in the case of a high-profile individual, the media ought not to have the audacity to report such an issue. We need to get real on this issue; it will prove only to the detriment of the LGBT movement if we don’t.
Photograph: Scotland Office via Wikimedia Commons