I know what Laws has been through

Coming out as gay in 2002 wasn’t easy for Alan Duncan but he hopes it helped create a new atmosphere

When looking for a seat in parliament over 20 years ago, I was invited for interview in a Midlands constituency and looked like the clear front-runner. Thirty members of the local Conservative Association, sitting around a large table, quizzed me for a good hour, and all the questions and answers were rollicking along amid smiles and approving nods.

Then came the one they always leave to the end. "Well, Mr Duncan, is there anything else you want to tell us?" No. "Well, Mr Duncan, you are a very successful bachelor?" Yes. "Well, Mr Duncan, you are not married: is there anything you'd like to tell us?"

With a broad, calm grin, but exploding inside with indignation, I gave the flippant riposte: "Put it this way - if you choose me you won't have to worry about the sheep."

Only half of them laughed, but the exchange was heavily loaded and exemplified the subliminal yet high hurdle any prospective MP then had to overcome if he was unmarried, let alone openly gay. Perhaps fortunately for both sides, I was not the one for them. Even when chosen a couple of months later by the much more enlightened Rutland and Melton, I was pressed into lunch with the regional agent for a further inquisition in the same roundabout way. "Is there anything in your past that might prove embarrassing to the party?"

I had to conceal my fury. Why should I have to admit something I was wrestling with? Why should my personal emotions and disposition be judged by others and thought to be a disqualifying characteristic?

No camping

Had I been open then, I would have been toast. Two decades ago, any Tory hopeful who had openly admitted their sexuality would have fallen at the first fence. A polite rejection would have been couched in deceptive terms - "We really liked you, but were looking for someone a little older" or "We were hoping for someone who knew a little more about farming".

At the time I came into politics, honesty about this issue was not the best policy. It needed guile. As soon as I was elected in 1992, I knew that tongues were wagging. I've always liked to think that there are no tell-tale signs to give the game away. "Straight-acting" is the accurate description, I hope. No camping it up for me. But a young, successful bachelor also attracted jealousy, and in the first flush of competition among the newly elected colts, the easiest weapon was gossip.

I was told years later that I was kept out of the whips' office because I was thought to be "too high risk".

I think I know what David Laws has been through. He and I have many traits in common. Apart from being a little on the short side, we have both had high-rolling commercial careers before politics, and are fairly strait-laced and conventional. The outward confidence conceals intense emotions and, when young and ambitious, being outwardly gay would have added a needless complication. What's it to do with anyone else, anyway? What business is it of theirs?

I chose my own course, and nobody deserves to be condemned for choosing a different one. I knew that one day I would have to come
clean. The world was changing, eventually for the better, but initially it was propelling many through the sound barrier of "outing" and press scrutiny. Then (and sadly even now) the media would delight in adding snide adjectives to an MP's name, such as "bouffant-haired" or "over-neat". Someone's partner was splashed as a "gay lover". Gay people were described in a mocking tone that smacked of perpetual scandal and derision.

I don't know what sparked me to be "the first openly gay Tory", except that after years of mulling it over and working out how to go about it, something one day just clicked, and over a weekend in 2002 I just went for it. I didn't want to be known just for being "that gay MP"; I was determined to be "that MP who happens to be gay". It required sufficient seniority and established recognition before making the step.

What looked like a huge leap then prompts increasing bemusement today among a generation that wonders what all the fuss was about. It is much easier these days for someone to declare their sexuality. At least, it is if you are young and growing up among your friends, and muchcredit for the change must go to Tony Blair. His social agenda lowered the gay age of consent to 16, and brought in civil partnerships and gay adoption. Public attitudes have changed for the better.

Next generation

I hope I helped break the mould, and in doing so have helped others. The steady trickle of thank-you letters from people who say that their life has been made easier by having a Conservative exemplar is heartening. Even more so is the complete change in the Conservative Party itself. David Cameron is of a generation that is so totally matter-of-fact about anyone's sexuality that Conservatives' positive embrace for so many gay candidates, and equality more generally, is entirely honest.

It has been an important element in our transformation. Cameron and Nick Clegg do not hold an iota of doubt about the need for gay recognition and equality, and exemplify why issues about gay people need no longer play any part in party politics.

Unfortunately, David Laws was just on the cusp of that new generation for which life is freer. He is talented, genuine and likeable. He has had a bumpy moment, but he will bounce back, and will do so stronger, better known and with a reservoir of respect. I hope he does, and I for one will be rooting for him.

Alan Duncan is minister of state for international development.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela