I never thought I would feel the slightest sympathy for Keith Vaz. The parliamentary watchdog twice found he had received money without declaring it; he was sacked over his relationship with the wealthy Hinduja brothers; he was suspended from parliament for making false allegations about a woman who had accused him of corruption; and he claimed tens of thousands in expenses for a Westminster flat when he lived 45 minutes away in Stanmore. If you want to know why so many people hold politicians in contempt, you have only to look at Vaz’s career.
But Vaz has fallen not over (alleged) corruption, but over sex with two East European escorts who also supplied poppers – “the sex-enhancing drug used by gay men” as the Guardian helpfully explains to its readers. Now, maybe we should think of this as the exposure of a cynical, hypocritical individual who pretended respectability. There’s a pleasure in possessing the moral high ground – I’ve already seen a friend of a friend on Facebook taking the view that she could never feel any sympathy for someone who bought sex.
However, I find myself – as I say, to my surprise – unable to celebrate Vaz’s fall. None of us knows anything about his personal life. But I want to suggest a possible alternative to the moralistic story about hypocrisy exposed, based on the one experience I share with Vaz, that of studying at Cambridge University in the late seventies (him) or early eighties (me). Sex between men was barely acceptable back then – on one spring morning in 1983 I was woken by the college staff knocking on the door of my room to demand that the man sharing my bed must leave. I did not have permission for an overnight guest, a rule never applied to my straight friends. Likewise, it was very doubtful then that an openly gay man could be a solicitor, the job Vaz got after university.
Of course, in lots of ways many working class LGBT people had things worse. But some people found the privilege you could access as an Oxbridge graduate was a reason for staying in the closet – I ran what was then called the gaysoc in 1981-2, and half the membership received the newsletter in plain brown envelopes in case of damage to their future careers. Now, as I say, we don’t know anything about Vaz’s personal life – whether he thinks of himself as a closeted gay men, a bi men or a straight man who has occasional flings. Quite possibly married men who have sex with rent boys don’t go in much for careful pondering of the precise category they fall into. But if you want to ask the question “why wasn’t Vaz more open about his sexuality?”, you need to remember what things were like, and to some extent still are now. An aspiring young solicitor needed a companion of the opposite sex to take to social engagements. It was to the benefit of a prospective MP to be married and have kids. Of course, some of us always refused to do anything like this, and others came to feel later in life that they should, and could, live differently. But it’s also possible to imagine a process where a person paints themselves into a corner, a story just as credible as the one about the cynical hypocrite.
The argument that in some ways members of the bourgeoisie face more restrictions on their personal lives than workers do is one that Engels makes in The Origin of the Family. He points out that nineteenth-century workers are able to have more equal and human relationships because those relationships don’t necessarily involve property. Both male and female workers did paid work, so if they no longer felt affection for each other, they could move on. Bourgeois marriage involved complex property arrangements, on top of which there simply were very few jobs for middle-class women. So middle-class couples were much more likely to be trapped in unloving relationships, even if their material comfort was greater than that of workers.
We’re in an area here which is full of ambiguities and contradictions as regards class, gender and sexuality. Vaz isn’t the first bourgeois married man who has paid impoverished young men for sex – it’s a category that also includes the far more sympathetic figure of Oscar Wilde. Wilde is in many ways an admirable figure, but the adventures with rent boys he found so exciting also became a disaster for his wife, once they became public knowledge in the court cases which sent him to prison. I have no problem with Wilde as a gay icon, but that can’t mean we turn a blind eye to how very badly he treated Constance. In any case, easy moralising – was Wilde a victim, a hero, a monster? – doesn’t help.
Instead, we need to appreciate how much everyone’s sexuality is more or less impaired by living in a capitalist society. How that happens is affected by class, gender, race and sexuality, and we need to take account of all those factors. Of course workers, women, black and/or LGBT people have it worse than the wealthy, men, white or straight folk. But the fact that LGBT members of the ruling class experience oppression differently doesn’t mean they aren’t oppressed at all. It may be that this is what we see in the case of Keith Vaz. And so, while Vaz absolutely deserved to fall, he did not deserve to fall over this.