It was in New York in 1973 that I discovered the work of the Greek poet CP Cavafy. He was gay and in the closet. His only outlet of self-expression was his poetry. He wrote: “From all the things I did and all the things I said let no one try to find out who I was … Later, in a more perfect society, someone else made just like me is certain to appear and act freely.” I wanted to agree with that but never thought it would apply to me.
In 2007 I resigned as chief executive of BP because I had made an untrue statement as to how I had met a boyfriend with whom I had broken up after an extended affair. He had sold his embellished tale to the Mail on Sunday. I attempted to keep it from publication, and in doing so I told a fabricated story (that I had met him running in Battersea Park, rather than through an escort agency) because I felt threatened about coming out. It was the same fear that had prevented me from going out to meet men in the usual way at parties, clubs and so on.
My chief worry now is that history seems bound to repeat itself. The recent resignation of David Laws, the former chief secretary to the Treasury, suggests that public figures continue to feel they have no choice but to cover up their sexuality.
When I was “outed” on someone else’s terms it was an important and terrifying moment. But it also turned out to be a blessing. I was overwhelmed by the support and friendship of many people. Three years on, my life is much happier. I have a great partner and I feel much more relaxed about being open with people. I wish it could have been that way from the start.
But I was schooled in a different era of thought. When I was growing up, homosexual relationships were still illegal. Boys would leave school cloaked in whispers; men were sent to prison in disgrace. The law changed while I was at university, but the spectre of earlier intolerance cast a long shadow over my life.
The biggest problem with concealing your sexuality is walling yourself off from the people closest to you. Keeping secrets is not fair to anyone. It denies friends and family the chance to know who you really are. I realise now that being open about your sexuality is not about pleasing the public. It is about being honest with the people who know you best and love you the most. Looking back, I wish I could have been more truthful with those closest to me, especially to my mother.
I should have realised that leading a double life was also not practical. I thought I could protect my secret as long as I was careful about who I trusted and who I spoke to. But that was unrealistic. People guessed, people knew, and eventually it was only a matter of time before it all had to come out.
I expect David Laws knew all this on some level. Let’s be clear: if he was indeed concealing the fact that he was claiming money for a partner then he was doing something wrong. But it is a great shame that a public figure, a generation younger than me, still felt the need to hide his sexuality. Cavafy’s hope has yet to be realised.
Coming out should, in general, be getting easier. Enlightened legislation passed during the last decade has equalised the age of consent for gay couples and enabled many thousands to be officially recognised through civil partnerships. Last month I was honoured to attend a Pride reception hosted by David Cameron in Downing Street. That was unimaginable even 10 years ago.
But I suspect that the sad story of David Laws will not be the last. Despite the exemplary diversity policies in many companies, my sense is that the business world remains more intolerant of open homosexuality than other walks of life such as the professions, the media and the arts. And it is extraordinary how few openly gay sports stars there are. Even in today’s more tolerant age, there are many lonely people out there still afraid to reveal who they really are for fear of marginalisation and abuse. It can only be a matter of time before someone else finds themselves “outed” on the front page of a national newspaper.
Changing the way things are will take time. Our opinions tend to take root in childhood and take a generation to grow through society. Invidious homophobia is much rarer now, but fear of discrimination continues to hold gay people back. As a society that values merit, we should continue to be vigilant against all forms of discrimination – whether in the workplace, in public life or simply in the way we think of and speak to others.
Learning from my own experience I also believe it helps to see gay people in prominent public roles. Coming out is a tough decision, made harder if you are in the public eye. But if being out can give confidence to others to do the same then the positive impact of that decision is multiplied. I hope David Laws can take some comfort in this and discover a renewed sense of purpose as he seeks to adjust his life to a new reality.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010