I want us to talk about the pain of mental sorrow and self-doubt that gay men like me and other LGBTQ+ people in politics feel.
Being a gay man in politics consists of self-doubt mixed with bouts of confidence to the outside world — quite literally faking it, hoping we’ll make it. Speaking and hearing from other LGBTQ+ politicians, mostly young and fledgeling hacks like me — I know these feelings are shared but often not said. There is a danger of LGBTQ+ people in the current generation and the one after me growing up in a world of uncaring social media that does not forgive mistakes or allow for personal growth — not only is this damaging personally, but it also poisons our politics and democratic functions. We’re asked to conform but challenged by our peers and those who aren’t our peers when we do. Further challenged by our minds — screaming at us for daring to turn our backs on our community for daring to do what others want us to do. We tell ourselves that we should make politics change for us, not change for politics. That politics should conform to accommodate us — we try to be our authentic selves like we’re taught to be by LGBTQ+ role models — but doesn’t anyone ever get tired of trying so hard?
Entering any political arena can feel exciting, it fills you with confidence and a deep sense of worth — like you’re saving the world or something. You’re most likely doing something good for other people; why shouldn’t you feel proud and confident? You’re campaigning to make the community you live in, your village, town or city and the country a better place — you should feel proud for being bold enough to stand up and make your voice heard on an array of issues. You allow politics to consume you. Those same positive feelings come and go as you enter further into the belly of the political beast. Perhaps you stand for election? You maybe become involved in your local party and take on administrative and campaign organising roles — you’re in the middle of changing the world and the little things you say locally, online, or in any arena can impact your local area or the country you live in. It’s exciting, but human fragility is precisely that — fragile.
Joining a political party aged 16 started as a positive outlet for deep-seated passions and views on the world that I had. It’s turned into something I don’t think I can ever leave behind — it’s a cliché, but I care too much. I want people to live better lives and for the adverse experiences of growing up poor in an unjust and unequal society to be felt by less. It’s only in the past year or two that I’ve realised that being a gay man in politics has impacted me differently. Still, on reflection, I know and can see where it has affected me before. Don’t get me wrong — I’m sure other people (including those who aren’t LGBTQ+) feel the way I do outside of politics, but politics has increased the viciousness of the issues that as a gay man, are too difficult to ignore.
The focus on appearance, presentation, and messaging doesn’t just centre around political leaflets and literature. I’ve come across articles and opinion pieces in the past that tell us ‘attractive’ politicians are more likely to be successful — that has stuck with me ever since I first saw such a headline. I often joke that I’ve been dieting since 1998 (the year I was born), but the reality is, I’ve been dieting since I entered politics. Over the past few years, I’ve been my heaviest and my lightest ever. It’s only isolation and lockdown that has helped me to form a healthier attitude towards eating well and exercise — but it doesn’t stop the fears of not looking good enough to be successful in politics whilst at the same time battling the voice that tells you to be the strong, confident gay man that some people believe you are. Gay men are held to higher standards of body image by those inside and outside of our community. Truly inescapable.
We worry that we won’t be taken seriously by our peers in politics because of how we look, act, and sound. Knowing I appear to fit the stereotype of a gay man should perhaps fill me with a sense of pride or duty — but I know that someone just spoke to me in a meeting in a way that they would not have spoken to a straight man. Still, it wasn’t overtly rude or offensive, so you can’t challenge it. You’ve been knocked down a peg and then thrown down a flight of stairs. How you’re overlooked or treated differently causes a bubbling frustration because you can’t call it out. No one will understand the subtle pain caused by something seemingly small and unnoticeable without a ‘queer eye’. I heard what you said, and I listened to the condescending, patronising tone you used to tell me that you don’t think I’m worth listening to, that you find the camp, perhaps slightly dramatic gay man in front of you too gay to be here. I know you don’t take seriously what I say — because a straight man said the very same thing. You agreed with him but thought me to be too eccentric. I hear, and I see you — and it hurts.
Because of all this, the feeling that you’re not and never will be good enough to be in politics is forever present. Don’t get me wrong. I have much less to complain about in the 21st century than my predecessors — at least they let people like me in the door now. It still hurts.
There are good allies in the world who do their best to support LGBTQ+ people like me. There are even better allies who understand the self-conscious feelings of self-doubt, failure, and fear. They know the overwhelming pain you feel from not being taken seriously. A friend and good LGBTQ+ ally recently reminded me that representation does indeed matter. I lamented in a panic about feeling that I wasn’t good enough to be in politics and that I felt this way because of the way I speak and act. I told him that I knew people didn’t take me seriously or treat me how they might treat straight colleagues; I rarely voice these feelings — I should. I know other LGBTQ+ politicians think this way, they know that it’s nice to be seen, understood, heard, and elevated. I know others worry that they ‘sound or look too gay’ or they acknowledge that they fit the stereotype and worry they will never feel truly comfortable. We’re not supposed to think that way or even voice these feelings, but they’ll never go away unless we front how LGBTQ+ people like me feel.
When I stood for local election in 2019, out of 35 Labour candidates in North Warwickshire, at least 4 of us were LGBTQ+. I doubt any of us appreciated that at the time. Still, when I was the only one to be elected, I soon reflected on how lonely it felt to be the only gay to be elected from my party on my council. We would do better as the LGBTQ+ community to voice these feelings that are felt by many. It’s scary and hard work to be us in politics, and it can feel incredibly lonely at times. I know that outside of politics, our community is not alien to these feelings, but it’s the political culture within the UK that delivered these feelings of extreme, overwhelming pressure. LGBTQ+ people fought hard to be allowed to be in politics, that fight is still going on. The next fight needs to be not only for allowance or permittance, but acceptance.