British prime minister Theresa May faces widespread criticism this week, after she chose not to discipline her aide for publicly outing a gay man without his consent and rightfully so.
The 24-year-old whistleblower Shahmir Sanni made serious allegations about Vote Leave’s illegal use of campaign funds during the 2016 EU Referendum; the prime minister’s political secretary Stephen Parkinson (who held a senior role in the Vote Leave campaign) responded to these allegations by revealing to the press that he and Sanni previously had a romantic relationship.
According to Sanni, Parkinson knew that he wasn’t out to his family, and that disclosing his sexuality in such a way could have potentially catastrophic consequences.
“It’s sad that Stephen feels he can’t tell the truth about cheating in the referendum,” he said in a recent statement. “I think he understands why I had to do the right thing and let people know what really happened. But I never imagined that he, with the help of No. 10, would choose to tell the world I am gay, in a last desperate attempt to scare me.”
Parkinson has since attempted to justify outing Sanni by claiming that the nature of their relationship is relevant to understanding the allegations. In his statement, he attempts to contextualise any conversations they might have had about the referendum as simple pillow talk.
“Shahmir became an occasional volunteer for Vote Leave and other leave campaigns, and we began a personal relationship,” it reads. “We subsequently dated for 18 months, splitting upI thought amicablyin September 2017. That is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups.”
Parkinson’s version of events also contains inconsistencies regarding how their relationship began. He asserts that he met Sanni at university, but emails have surfaced which corroborate Sanni’s claim that they were introduced by Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie in the lead-up to the referendum.
Sanni’s lawyer, Tamsin Allen, who also represents Wylie, originally believed that all references to Sanni’s sexuality had been “contained”; she requested that the information be removed from a blog post by former Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings, which included a draft of Parkinson’s statement. However, Parkinson’s full statement was then released by 10 Downing Street staff to the press, including the New York Times, under the belief that it was in the public domain.
What makes this all even messier is the fact that the statement was stamped “Official” when it left No. 10, giving the impression that Prime Minister Theresa May endorsed the outing of a gay man against his will.
“That email, to us, meant that he had effectively been outed in a statement from an official Downing Street email,” Allen told the Guardian.
May has since declared that “any statements issued were personal statements,” a rather weak disclaimer given the “Official” stamp.
“The prime minister is dancing on the head of a pin if she thinks her explanation will wash,” the Labour Party’s Angela Eagle recently told The Independent, who has been an openly gay member of parliament for over 20 years. “She has to sack her political secretary for his role in outing a whistleblower.”
Despite considerable pressure, May has refused to fire Parkinson, stating: “No, I’m sorry that is not what I should be doing. My political secretary does a very good job as my political secretary.”
It’s arguable that Parkinson isn’t doing that great a job considering the blowback he has caused for the Tories this week, but that’s besides the point. The ramifications of being outed are still unfolding for Sanni; shouldn’t Parkinson face consequences, too?
“I of course recognise the importance of ensuring that we do recognise that for some, being outed as gay is difficult because of their family circumstances,” May said in parliament on Monday, verging on an actual apology before retreating into bland platitudes. “What I want to see is a world where everybody is able to be confident in their sexuality and doesn’t have to worry about such things.”
That’s what we all want, of course. But these kinds of statements tend to gloss over the fact that we are not yet living in some Star Trek-esque utopian society where humanity has overcome its proclivity towards prejudice and oppression. It’s all well and good to imagine a rainbow-tinted future; after all, what is politics if not offering to lead people to one promised land or another?
But achieving such a feat takes real work, and despite May’s repeated claims that the Conservative Party cares about the LGBTQ community, she seems to fail to understand that we’re never going to make any real progress as long as the government has no qualms in throwing queer people under the bus.
Coming out is an important moment―or perhaps more accurately a series of important moments―in a queer person’s life. When you’ve been living with a secret, finally being able to speak it aloud can be incredibly liberatingbut it can also be dangerous, as May herself acknowledged. It can invite scrutiny, judgment, emotional and physical violence. Which is why the choice to come out must always entirely lie with that one person, and only when they are ready.
There have been criticisms of Sanni from pro-Tory commenters online who believe that because he was once photographed at a Pride event, he can’t say he was closeted. As if that strips him of any right to be angry.
Firstly, the prime minister was at that same event, so it’s not as if everyone there was proclaiming to be openly queer. And secondly, coming out is a decision we make over and over again throughout our lives; at work, at home, on the street. We are forever reading the room and compartmentalising our lives and identities accordingly.
Even if Sanni were out and proud with everyone in his life except for one single person, there would be no excuse for taking that right away from him.
Parkinson would have had at least some idea what he was doing when he made the choice to include details of his relationship with Sanni in his official-not-official statement. As a gay man, he must remember how it feels to be in the closet, unsure if you will be accepted by the people you love, afraid of what their reaction might be.
Whether motivated by malice or plain old pragmatism, he knew outing Sanni could be traumatic or even dangerous, and he went ahead anyway. What he did is a kind of emotional doxing.
All too often, the go-to response to somebody coming out or being outed is to say “sexuality shouldn’t/doesn’t matter,” which is shorthand for “I don’t want to think about what this person might be going through.” Saying you don’t care about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is exactly the same as saying you don’t care about homophobia or transphobia.
And I’m going to go ahead and guess that nobody who says “I don’t care what you do behind closed doors” has ever had to hide behind those same doors for fear of violence or even death.
Sanni was forced come out to his mother and family before he was ready. Precautions are being taken to protect his relatives from reprisals in Pakistan, where homosexuality is still a criminal offence and social taboo. And both the man responsible and the prime minister have washed their hands of any responsibility.
In this case, the personal could not be more political.