Simon and me

Compared to the upfront coming out of other gay MPs such as Alan Duncan and Angela Eagle, the manner of Simon Hughes's self-outing was decidedly less dignified and more equivocal. Sadly, his statements struck me as rather slippery and evasive.

Simon did not say that he was gay, only that he has had "both homosexual and heterosexual relationships". If that is true, fair enough. He then said that these relationships were "in the past", the implication being that his same-sex affairs happened some time ago and there would be no more of them. Maybe.

Only two weeks earlier he had denied being gay to the Independent and the Telegraph. Yet on 25 January, instead of admitting he had not told the truth and offering an apology, which would have satisfied most reasonable people, he was prepared only to admit that he had been "overly defensive".

Last weekend in the Independent he made matters worse, stating that his denial "was not intended to mislead . . . It is not dishonest to protect your privacy. What I said wasn't morally wrong. It was not factually wrong."

I feel for the man, but these attempts to justify his previous denials are starting to grate. Simon, you are in a hole. Please stop digging.

Don't get me wrong. I empathise with him. It is truly traumatic being grilled about your private life by the tabloids. They demand answers to intimate personal questions that should not be asked unless there is evidence of criminality or hypocrisy. As there was no such evidence in Simon's case, he should have refused to answer the prurient probing about his sexuality. Instead, he gave an untrue answer, twice. Big mistake. Now the best way to draw a line under this episode is for him to own up and say sorry. Then we can move on.

Though I am disappointed by Simon's misleading statements about his sexuality, I don't think they rank as major political failings. He did not take the country to war under false pretences or hand out honours to his cronies and benefactors. Nor did he publicly condemn homosexuality while having private gay affairs.

Simon is not the only gay in the village. There are probably scores more homosexual MPs. A recent MORI poll found that 15 per cent of the population report having had a same-sex experience. Translate that statistic to the House of Commons and it is likely that nearly a hundred MPs have had gay sex. Only a handful of them are open and honest about their sexuality. Perhaps as many as 90 MPs are in the closet. That they don't feel able to come out says a lot about the fragile acceptance of gay people in public life. Or does it? The idea that coming out will adversely affect an MP's political career is grossly exaggerated.

Nearly a dozen MPs have declared their homosexuality in the past decade. None has experienced a setback because of it. Apart from a small minority of homophobes, the electorate prefers to judge MPs by their policies, not their private lives. Voters seem to admire the honesty and courage of those who have been truthful about their sexuality.

Nor is being gay a bar to high office. Chris Smith was the pioneer. He came out in 1984 and saw his vote in Islington South increase at successive elections after that. Indeed, he went on to become an openly gay and much-praised cabinet minister. I am convinced that nowadays most voters would be perfectly happy with a gay prime minister.

We have come a long way from the vitriolic homophobia of the Bermondsey by-election of 1983, when Simon Hughes and I stood for election. That contest was described by many commentators as the dirtiest, most violent election in Britain for a hundred years. The constituency was covered in two-foot-high hate graffiti, including "Tatchell is a communist poof" and "Tatchell is a nigger-lover". I was assaulted dozens of times on the doorsteps, there were repeated attacks on my home and I even got a bullet through my letter box.

Simon's party, the Liberals, fought a scurrilous campaign. They weren't the only villains. There was also the bigoted "Real Labour" would-be MP John O'Grady, four right-wing extremist candidates, and the almost daily smears and innuendoes in the tabloid press. While it would be unfair to put all the blame on the Liberals, they certainly fuelled the hate and violence with their homophobic, xenophobic tactics.

Echoing the anti-foreigner rhetoric of the National Front, they made an issue of my Australian background and played up the claim that Simon Hughes was a "local man". In fact, he moved into the constituency only a few weeks before the by-election, whereas I had lived there more than four years. Unlike Simon, I had long been active in community campaigns to save the local hospital, St Olave's, and to stop developers building luxury flats and forcing out local families.

The Liberals also drew attention to my homosexuality and support for gay human rights, in an attempt to win the homophobic vote. Some of their male canvassers went around the constituency wearing lapel stickers emblazoned with the words "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell". On the doorsteps they spread the rumour that I was chair of the local gay society. No such society existed.

A Liberal activist who was involved in the 1983 campaign recently confessed to me that his party had been behind the notorious campaign leaflet Which Queen Will You Vote For?. This ridiculed my sexuality, displaying a retouched image of me wearing lipstick and with pencilled eyebrows, and helpfully gave my home address and phone number - an open invitation to homophobic action. I was deluged with hate mail, obscene late-night phone calls, death threats and bricks through my windows. I had to board up my flat. Following fire-bomb threats I installed fire extinguishers and a rope ladder to give me an escape route out the bedroom window. I feared I might be killed. The police refused to provide protection, claiming they were "too busy".

The Which Queen . . . leaflet was anonymous, with no "printed and published by . . .", which is a criminal offence under electoral law. If the person responsible had been identified at the time he would have faced serious charges. The activist who confirmed to me that his party produced the leaflet told me recently who was behind it; that person is now a senior Lib Dem figure.

During that by-election I received a tip-off that Simon was also gay. I could have retaliated then and there against the attacks on me by exposing his homosexuality. But I chose not to. That is not my style. Personal attacks and dirty tricks undermine democracy. I fought a principled campaign and I have no regrets.

Even if Simon did not personally authorise the anti-Tatchell slurs, he was the beneficiary of them. It was as a result of that ugly, bigoted campaign that he became an MP.

Simon never condemned the homophobic tactics against me until after he won the election. Even then, he offered only a vague, one-line condemnation that did not acknowledge the role his own party had played in stirring the homophobic pot. It was not until two weeks ago, on Newsnight, that he made an explicit public apology - 23 years after the Bermondsey by-election.

I knew an injustice had been done to me, but bitterness is a pointless, destructive emotion. Holding grudges gets you nowhere. By the end of 1983 I was over the traumatic homophobia and violence of the election campaign. I took the decision to forgive and move on.

In 1988 I invited Simon to join the speaker line-up at the world's first Aids and human-rights conference. He accepted graciously and spoke with passion. Then, and on the other platforms we have shared over the years, he paid tribute to my human-rights work, but he never apologised for Bermondsey. I did not expect him to.

My view then and now is that Simon should be judged by his record as an MP, not by what his party did in the distant past. I believe in redemption. If someone makes a mistake and ex-presses remorse, as Simon has now done, they deserve appreciation and acceptance.

Since becoming an MP Simon has always voted for gay equal-ity. I respect and thank him for taking a stand against homo- phobic discrimination.

He has moved on, and so have I. After 22 years as a member, I resigned from Labour in 2000 in protest at the party's rightward drift under Tony Blair. I joined the Greens. They, not the Lib Dems, are the progressive alternative to Labour.

Simon lacks the radical vision of the Green Party, but compared to the other Lib Dem leadership candidates, he has the best record on the issues that matter to me: democracy, human rights, the Iraq war, social justice and environmental protection. He is the contender most likely to move the Liberal Democrats in a left-of-centre direction, which would be good for British politics and for the British people. If I were a Lib Dem member, Simon would get my vote. I hope he wins.