The controversial Tory MP, Alan Clark, wrote in The Spectator about the “growing body count” caused by media intrusion into private lives. He eerily prophesied in his article that eventually the media would cause the death of “HRH” (which the editor took to mean Princess Diana, but which Clark later denied). Among the others he named as fatal victims of newspaper harassment was the MP for Paisley South, Gordon McMaster, who was allegedly driven to suicide by rumours about his sexuality and his HIV status, allegedly spread by his Labour Party colleagues and later taken up by the press.
After an investigation of the events, the Labour Party’s chief whip, Nick Brown, concluded that Gordon McMaster’s suicide had been prompted by “a depressive illness” and not by the rumours. However, Mr McMaster, in a suicide note, had named neighbouring Labour MP Tommy Graham as his tormentor, along with Lord Dixon, the former MP for Jarrow. “I hope Don Dixon and Tommy Graham can live with themselves,” he wrote. “I would rather be dead with my conscience than alive with theirs. I expect to go to heaven, and I don’t expect to see them there. But if I do, I hope it’s in a dark alley. Even after I am dead they will keep badmouthing me.”
There is certainly evidence that Tommy Graham since suspended by the Labour Party — conspired with other members of the local party in Paisley to unseat Mr McMaster. They had tried to use the media as part of this plan.
The Times reported that Paul Mack — another Labour Party member, who had “plotted to oust McMaster” so that he could have the seat at Westminster — had told The Sunday Times last April that Mr McMaster “was HIV-positive and was believed to have been cohabiting with a Spanish waiter.” McMaster was also under fire from the Scottish National Party, one of whose councillors told a newspaper that “Mr McMaster was having a relationship with an under-age schoolboy, which the boy had denied.” The councillor was suspended from the SNP.
But was there any truth in the rumours about Gordon McMaster? And was it really the newspapers that drove him to gas himself?
Simon Edge, a well-known gay journalist, wrote in The New Statesman what the other papers had avoided saying: that the gay rumours were, indeed, true. Edge revealed that McMaster had been seen in “a rough North London pub with black windows and sex on the premises. And it was fetish night.” The portly MP had also been spotted at Blackpool’s Flamingo Club during the Labour Party conference. He allegedly “picked up gay newspapers before slinking away”.
Simon Edge wrote: “One can imagine him on both occasions returning to the false comfort of his whisky bottle, unhappier than ever. At any rate, I can. Like most gay people, I’ve been there. The misery of the closet intensifies as you watch your repressed youth slip into the past.”
So why couldn’t he just have been honest, as other Labour MPs have? Surely we are past the stage where it can be argued that being gay is a bar to a successful career in Parliament?
Peter Hillmore in The Observer demonstrated that all this is far from the case. He told of the difficulty he’d had persuading any gay Labour MP to write an article about “the mild tensions within the party between those who have ‘come out’ and those who remain within the closet”.
He said that the few openly gay MPs were worried “that their constituents wouldn’t like it or the party wouldn’t allow it; MPs who are privately known to be gay refused for the same reasons.” But he also cited the case of the late Allan Roberts, who was MP for Bootle (“where all the arguments about working class conservatism would apply”). ‘When Mr Roberts’ escapades in a Berlin gay leather bar hit the Sunday newspapers … there was shock and astonishment in cosmopolitan London. But in Bootle there was no reaction — for Mr Roberts had never made any secret of his predilections. He once addressed a meeting with one hand wedged firmly in a pocket, because he had lost the key to a pair of handcuffs round his wrist. So shocked were his constituents when he pulled his hand out to emphasise a point that he was re-elected with an increased majority.”
But Gordon McMaster could not take that step of honesty. Glasgow, it is argued, would not let him. And nor, it seems, would the press.
John Lyttle in The Independent explored this ambivalent attitude of the press towards honesty about homosexuality. He quotes Simon Callow, who has given more press interviews than most. Mr Callow reveals that during all those hundreds of conversations with journalists, he never made a secret of his orientation — or his boyfriend. But journalists wouldn’t print it. The reason? “The press’s sole interest in my homosexuality was in either denial, so my reputation could be heartily defended or, conversely, in gloating exposure. Either way, homosexuality had to look bad, an insult or a secret. The press had no interest otherwise.” In fact, I says John Lyttle, “once told, journalists could turn distinctly chilly, or worse. Hypocrisy was a given. Honesty, however, gummed up the works.” Lyttle says this is also the story of Gordon McMaster. The papers were happy to retail the “smears” about him but also anxious to report that they were untrue or, at least, “tasteless and irrelevant”.
So, Gordon McMaster couldn’t live any more with his depressive illness. But what part did reactions to, and exploitation of, his homosexuality play in the formation of this illness? We will probably never know, and everyone is anxious that his parents be caused no further pain by the telling of unpalatable truths.
This, of course, dismisses all those others who are walking the same tightrope that Gordon McMaster eventually fell from. How many others are inhabiting the booze-sodden closet that Gordon McMaster writhed in? How many others feel the speculation swirling round them, and feel at the mercy of rumour-merchants and smear artists?
How many other Gordon McMasters are there, looking at the exhaust pipes of their cars and — at last — seeing a way out of the closet that cripples and torments them?
“What does the Roman Catholic church do with gay clergy who insist on having active sex lives?” asked The Independent (August 27th). And answered its own question by commissioning an article from an anonymous gay priest who had been sent to a sinister corrective institution called Our Lady of Victory, in Stroud, Gloucestershire. “An open prison” he called it, “a boot camp” where paedophiles, alcoholics and homosexuals were banished, together with heterosexual clergy who had fathered children, to be shown the errors of their way. Apparently the phrase “being sent to Stroud” sends chills down the spines of Catholic priests up and down the country. And when you hear what goes on there, it isn’t really surprising. It has driven at least one priest to suicide.
The Independent’s unnamed priest, who had spent a week at Our Lady of Victory, likened its methods to those used in the novel A Clockwork Orange — the creation of morality by the use of the immoral methods. It is run by an order called The Servants of the Paraclete — the name alone of which is enough to send shivers up your spine. Their activities turn out to be as scary as their name.
The readers’ reaction to this priest’s experience was immediate. Mrs Jackie Hawkins wrote angrily to The Independent that the Catholic Church should be ashamed of itself for supporting such an institution as that at Stroud — “resembling more something from the era of the Soviet Union than from the lifetime and ministry of Christ.” She commented: “Hiding its weaknesses, as it defines them, is a besetting sin of the institutional Catholic Church. As all the other Christian traditions tussle with the issue of clergy who are actively gay, I wonder when the Catholic Church will admit that there is a flourishing gay culture among our own clergy — as any honest bishop will tell you.”
Paul Smith wrote that Stroud makes a distinction between “the drinkers and the men with an altar boy problem.” He says he suspects this is “born out of the homophobia which is still present in the attitudes of many in the church and which regards homosexuality and paedophilia as virtually synonymous. Gay men should not be sent to Stroud. Equally, if they have been blessed with a vocation and ordained, they should ideally acknowledge their homosexuality but also embrace celibacy.”
Ah yes, celibacy. That most unnatural state which the Pope insists cannot be avoided by those who choose to take up the cloth.
But there are dissenters, and one is a psychotherapist called Paul de Berker who wrote in the Catholic journal The Tablet that “Roman Catholic priests can be turned into paedophiles by the stress of celibacy.” This should seem obvious to most people, but it seems the Catholic Church is having to find out the hard way.
Dr de Berker says that when priests have “errant thoughts” of a sexual nature they should be given counselling help to sublimate and redirect them. What actually happens is that they are told to deny them, put them from their minds and distance themselves by spiritual exercises. Dr de Berker says this approach is of “doubtful use” and can actually be dangerous since “it can lead to distortions of the psyche and can be accompanied by great anxiety and depression.” Not to mention the kinds of child abuse scandals that have been making the headlines over the past few years.
In The Tablet article, Paul de Berker quotes St Jerome: “If only the human race could desist from the filthy act of copulation then God would let us all multiply in purity like the bees.” That was written in the 4th century, but little seems to have changed in Vatican thinking since then.
Indeed, The Times reported that the Catholic Church in Scotland had laid into the Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, the Right Revd Richard Holloway, for suggesting that homosexual clergy should be ordained and that gay marriages should be recognised. A spokesman for the Catholic Church is quoted as saying: “We feel that Bishop Holloway unfortunately succeeds in promoting the caricature that Christianity is only interested in sexuality.”
But the Anglican Church needn’t pat itself on the back for its liberality. The Daily Telegraph reported that Canon Philip Crowe — a former theological college principal — was leaving his parish in protest at the Church of England’s “dishonest” treatment of homosexuals. He said his departure was prompted by the Church’s “duplicitous behaviour” towards homosexuals and women priests. He was quoted as saying: “It is the sheer dishonesty of the Church of England which I can no longer bear. This is reflected in the treatment of gay people.”
Mr Crowe has made the right decision. Others should follow his example. At the same time I have limited sympathy for those who join a club, knowing the rules full well, and once admitted to membership start carping that it’s all so unfair. Why join in the first place? Can’t they find something more constructive to do with their lives?