Lord Browne, the Chief Executive of petroleum giant BP, and one of Britain’s most successful businessmen, has resigned after he was exposed as having lied about his private life.

He was expected to stand down shortly, following shareholder dissatisfaction with his performance. BP has been hit recently by a series of disasters: an oil spill in Alaska , and the tragic Texas refinery fire which resulted in 15 deaths and 150 injuries.

What prompted Lord Browne’s sudden resignation was the revelation that he lied in court about how he met his former male partner – a lie he has now acknowledged and for which he has apologised.

In marked contrast to the vicious homophobia directed against gay public figures in the 1980s, it was not Lord Browne’s same-sex relationship that forced him to step down, nor BP’s recent tarnished environmental and safety record. It was his dishonesty and his attempted cover-up that forced him out.

This saga of a mighty man bought down is more that just a personal tragedy for him. It embodies many of the on-going ethical dilemmas concerning coming out, the right to privacy, media intrusion, and the rights and wrongs of outing people in public life.

Lord Browne had sought an injunction to prevent publication by the Mail on Sunday of an interview with his former partner, Jeff Chevalier, revealing intimate details about his private and business life, including how they met each other.

In effect, among other things, Chevalier and the Mail on Sunday set out to ‘name and shame’ Lord Browne by revealing his homosexuality.

Lord Browne was, like most other top gay businessmen, closeted. Although his sexual orientation was known by close friends, he had not come out or ever given an interview revealing his sexuality. It is something that he had chosen to keep secret.

While Lord Browne wanted to keep his private life private, Chevalier and the Mail on Sunday did not.

Were they justified in wanting to out him?

Staying forever in the closet is not a morally clean decision. It disguises the real size and significance of the gay community, suggesting that we are a tiny, insignificant minority. This is often used by homophobes – and sometimes by politicians – to diminish the importance of gay human rights and to relegate the welfare of gay people to the back burner.

Not coming out also reinforces the idea that there is something shameful about being gay. It lets down the side; showing a singular lack of solidarity with those of us who have come out.

“I am not aware of any compelling reasons why it was difficult for Lord Browne to be fully open about his sexuality…”

We know that coming out helps break down ignorance and prejudice. Surveys show that heterosexuals who know gay people – family members, workmates and so on – are much more likely to be unprejudiced and to support gay equality.

So far as high achieving public figures are concerned: coming out creates positive, inspirational role models for young lesbians and gay men who are coming to terms with their sexuality.

For all these reasons, it would have been preferable if Lord Browne had long ago come out. No one expects him to reveal intimate details of his sex life or relationships – just an honest, upfront public acknowledgement of his gayness, like Michael Bishop of airline BMI and author Alan Bennett. It would have been a positive, commendable thing to do.

After all, the Lord Browne has benefited from living in a less homophobic society, thanks to the many other gays and lesbians who have come out and contributed to the visibility, understanding and acceptance of gay people. His contribution would have been a kindly gesture of reciprocal solidarity.

The moral imperative to be honest is strong. While all lesbians and gays should come out, how and when they come out is, of course, up to them. They ought to have the option of the moment and circumstance of their choosing. Some people, after all, may have legitimate reasons to delay their coming out, such as a seriously ill parent.

I am not aware of any compelling reasons why it was difficult for Lord Browne to be fully open about his sexuality. On the contrary, his immense wealth, powerful friends and privileged social status make it much easier for him to be open, compared with most gays and lesbians. Being part of the rich elite largely insulates him from a homophobic backlash (in the doubtful event that his coming out would provoke any significant negative reactions).

Having said all this, there was no demonstrable public interest grounds for the Mail on Sunday – or any other media – outing Lord Browne. He wasn’t being hypocritical or homophobic. If he was denouncing gay people or advocating anti-gay laws – or if he had authorised the hounding of BPs’ gay employees – that would be a justifiable reason to expose his double standards. I would have outed him myself. But I am not aware that Lord Browne was homophobic. He may have shown moral weakness by not coming out, but hiding in the closet – however lamentable – is not ethically of the same order as endorsing homophobic prejudice and discrimination.

There are two very obvious lessons from the demise of Lord Browne. First, don’t lie or cover-up. Second, it is best to be honest and open about one’s sexuality.

Having seen the fall of Lord Browne, will the many gay high-flyers in business heed this commonsense advice? Or will they too, one day, end up like him: down and out in the city?

By Peter Tatchell

Originally published in The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 1 May 2007

Peter Tatchell’s website

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