English women marry gay men because they are not threatening as husbands and are great as friends

Why do English women marry gay men? For love, for friendship and, of course, forewarned. As Liz Spencer explained, she had known her husband Tom was bisexual since they met 26 years ago. His extramarital sex did not bother her. His male lovers, "nice blokes", often dropped in for lunch at the family home.

In any standard-issue political sex scandal, Tom Spencer would be the butt of newspaper revulsion, damned on the evidence provided. A suitcase containing pornographic magazines and drugs; a gay "superstud" friend who is HIV-positive; a loving wife and three daughters.

Instead Spencer emerged as a bluff, Falstaffian figure and a genial paterfamilias who nobly relinquished his Conservative MEP candidature without any Hoddleish hanging about. For this image he must thank his wife - staunch in her assertion that there was nothing bizarre about her marriage.

Other gay politicians favour marriage. Ron Davies did it twice. Michael Brown, the Tory MP, hinted in 1994 that unnamed colleagues were passing themselves off as heterosexuals. In more stigmatised times, the benefits were obvious for men: a mugshot for the election pamphlet, a tableau of family values for shockable voters. The allure for women was presumably the framework of marriage - friendship, children, hearth, home - stripped of excess sexual and emotional clutter.

The English, through repression, realism or a dearth of romanticism, are good at making such compromises work. Others are not. David Ashby - the MP who said that, in the interests of frugality, he had shared a bed with a male friend in France - saw a subsequent libel case collapse after damaging evidence by his Italian wife, Silvana. Flexisex, as it is now gruesomely known, is not a purely British preserve. Oscar Wilde put in a brief stint as a husband. Renate Blauel married Elton John and Tchaikovsky a student. Tears all round.

Only the English, it seems, have the knack of making such partnerships endure. The pragmatism required flows partly from a general lack of national fussiness: evident among a Bridget Jones generation bewailing the fact that suitable partners are as rare as wide-mouthed tree frogs and, alas, less gorgeous.

It also stems from a class-based mating system traditionally focusing less on Mr Right than on Mr Right Specification. Princess Marina of Greece married the former Duke of Kent; on paper the perfect spouse and in reality a man with whom, according to one acquaintance, "no one, of either sex, was safe in the back of a taxi". The relationship was successful. Long after the duke died, his wife retained - as the centrepiece of her salon - his former gay associates, such as Noel Coward. English women like gay men. As friends, they are engaging. As husbands, they are unthreatening; unlikely ever to betray one with another woman.

The gay spouse is a virtual partner - in Tom Spencer's case, a contributor to the household bills and a loving father enjoying a freewheeling existence that, but for the intervention of HM Customs, he would be leading still. And yet . . . His name has been linked with a porn star, his teenage daughters were not told that he was gay. The facts bespoke a life of murk and secrets, except in the translation of his wife. Liz Spencer, a compelling advocate for marriage to a bisexual husband, made the ostensibly hellish sound almost alluring.

At the same time, heterosexual couples made the hellish sound even more hellish. Anne Diamond's estranged husband put the bitter remains of their marriage on public display. Greg and Carla, the pair who won one another in a radio competition, regaled the News of the World with honeymoon secrets. Given such accounts, who dares knock the contentment of subscribers to Gay Men 'R' Us?

Not many. In an age of fractured and rancorous marriages, the Spencer union has been held up, at least by some, as the holy grail of new-look family values: honest, open and untainted, even in tough times, by vitriol.

No squeaks of betrayal here. No tales of comatose partners awash with brandy and prostrate on the dining-room floor. No raw emotion, beyond cosy protestations of love and friendship. No discourse that would sit uneasily in an episode of The Archers or a Georgette Heyer novel.

No wonder some English women pick gay men.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again