Friday, May 11, 2007

I Have Never Agreed With Andrew Sullivan, But I Guess There Is A First Time For Everything

And rarely do I continue a topic, but the Lord Browne of British Petroleum fame, deserves more coverage, because for loving another guy, though really young, and getting caught, and denying it, all of this brought a very powerful business executive to his knees.

Here are our Andy's thoughts on the whole mess.

Trapped in a glass closet of his own making
Andrew Sullivan

"The rule of thumb with all gay scandals is a very simple one. Would the same thing be a scandal if the central figure were heterosexual? In Lord Browne’s case the answer is clearly yes. It would still have been a scandal – a little one, to be sure, but a scandal nonetheless.

If a leading executive of a large company had met his girlfriend through an escort service and had subsequently attempted to lie about that in court, then he would have been forced to resign early as well. Browne has not been subject to a double standard or penalised because he is gay. Perjury is perjury. Ask Bill Clinton. Or Jonathan Aitken.

The more interesting question, it seems to me, is a prior one: why was Browne subject to blackmail in the first place?

It does not appear that he abused his position at BP to help Jeff Chevalier, his former boyfriend. BP doesn’t claim any financial impropriety. In fact, apart from the perjury and before the break-up, Browne seems to have been a gentleman throughout. So what was he afraid of? Yes, he’d met his lover through an escort service. An embarrassing detail, but not exactly the kind of thing to force a big executive to launch a legal jihad against a newspaper.

His real fear, it appears, was of being “outed” in the mass media, of having the fact of his sexual orientation a public matter. This is why, in an act of Wildean rashness, he brought The Mail on Sunday injunction. This is why he threw mounds of money and hired the best lawyers to keep a petty nonstory out of the papers.

But the principle for Browne was a clear one. He explained it thus: “In my 41 years with BP I have kept my private life separate from my business life. I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private.”

And yet the facts do not entirely bear this interpretation out. Browne openly socialised with his young lover, introduced him to colleagues and many members of the British Establishment. No one seems to have taken exception.

Tony and Gordon and Peter are not likely to take offence at an adult man in a gay relationship, however young and however attractive the lover. In fact the long list of honours and privileges and testimonials to Browne’s character bespeaks a British elite completely comfortable with a powerful and accomplished gay man in their midst.

Browne rose about as far as one can in the business world and is by any rational standard ridiculously wealthy. He lives in a country where gay couples have equal standing in the law (although still denied the word “marriage”), where gay culture is completely mainstream and where gay sex has been legal – for the most part at least – for 40 years and is now legal everywhere at the age of 16.

The pity one instinctively feels for Browne at this moment is therefore not because he was a man undone by homophobia. It is because he was a man undone by its opposite – by a culture so comfortable and at ease with homosexuality that it had surpassed his own comfort level and rendered his own strict view of “privacy” completely moot.

Browne was clearly struggling to cope with this social change and was experimenting in the new world. But in such experiments he was inexperienced. And the inexperience led to misjudgment. It often does.

Try to think of it from his perspective. Think of the world that the 59-year-old Browne has inhabited in one lifetime. When he was a teenager, homosexuality was literally unspeakable in polite society. British authorities were injecting the great Alan Turing with hormones to “cure” him of his orientation just as Browne was leaving primary school.

For the first 19 years of his life Browne could have been imprisoned for a relationship with another man. During his formative years of adolescence, Browne learnt what every gay boy or girl had to learn at the time: if you do not keep this a terrible secret you will perish.
Even after being largely decriminalised in 1967 the culture remained a strong force sustaining the stigma that Browne internalised. In the 1960s and 1970s it was far from easy for an ambitious scientist and businessman to have a life – that is, a mature relationship with another man – while having a serious career.

The secrecy and fear that were soldered onto a gay man’s psyche were not as easily detached from the world as a piece of Victorian legislation. And as the gay rights movement first blossomed as a countercultural force, it did not easily include Browne and his ilk – Establishment, mannered, private men and women.

For that generation their “discretion” was, and is, a matter of honour and pride. That this pride was inevitably entangled with the remnants of shame did not make it any the less treasured. “I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private” is almost a credo for a man of Browne’s generation. Younger generations scoff at this but they never had to acquire the psychological armour that a gay man needed in that era.

Societies, moreover, change more quickly than individuals do. This is especially the case with gay culture. Gays are a unique minority because we are almost all brought up as if we were heterosexuals in heterosexual families. We learn what it is to be gay from the general culture we imbibe as children and teens. As it changes, gay kids change. And quickly.

The difference between a culture that can safely mock “the only gay in the village” as comedy and a culture that would have beaten that gay to a pulp five decades ago is a vast one. And yet we have forgotten it so easily. A gay man who has lived through each of those decades is not in such an easy position.

I meet young gay men today who take it for granted that they can get married to someone they fall in love with.

When I was their age – only two decades ago – an argument for gay marriage was about as radical as it gets. If I feel somewhat left behind I can only imagine the perplexity Browne is grappling with this weekend.

Sympathy has its limits of course. Browne is a wealthy and privileged man. His remarkable achievements will soon outlast his temporary embarrassment. Besides, he foolishly tried to have it both ways: to live a life as an openly gay man, but to insist on controlling the disclosure of every aspect of that identity. In a culture where gayness is now unexceptional you cannot get away with this. You cannot simply segment your emotional and sexual life into a hermetically sealed “private zone”. No heterosexual can.

With acceptance come the same rules of public and private that heterosexuals have to live with. Browne could not be private about being gay in some contexts and public in other ones. Even a man as rich and powerful as he is cannot control the culture with that degree of precision.
He lived in what is best described as a glass closet. It’s when a gay man wants to have an openly gay life but not a publicly disclosed one. He tries to manage the contours of his identity on his own terms and in the way he was accustomed to in decades past. But those days are gone. With new freedom comes a transparency that also demands a new responsibility.

These are not easy adjustments, they merit compassion and understanding. But they are necessary if gay equality is to mean something tangible. Others didn’t see his glass closet but Browne did. That was the asymmetry that eventually righted itself. And so the glass shattered and the shards wounded. But the wounds heal. For so many others they already have. "

So the moral to the story maybe, be picky and careful who you chose, if you want to remain in a glass closet. But like glass houses, you'll soon be exposed, no matter how hard you try to cover up matters. An openly gay life and a publicly disclosed one do go hand-in-hand. One leads to the other, no matter how one tries to keep them separate. So you got to live with it and its consequences. In the long run, it will always be the better decision.


psyther said...

Some valid points about his glass closet. Browne's biggest error was that he felt he could micro-manage his public life. He s/b glad he doesn't have the press following of say, Paris Hilton. He s/b also glad that his story did pass practically unnoticed...outside of the UK and the gay blogsphere it wasn't the water cooler talk. American Idol is still so much more important. Though, I think he's so embarassed by the situation because he hasn't wholly accepted his homosexuality. Yes, your love life s/b private and not front page news, but in a very sex-conscious society (Western culture really) when has that ever been true for someone with an ounce of celebrity or power?

Lewis said...

No hiding any more. Glass everywhere! Everyone can see everything. As cool as that is, it's nerve wracking too. We always take the good with the bad.