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Meet the Sussex student who thinks it’s harder to come out as Tory than gay

He thinks this is only true in Brighton

Last week, The Tab published an article on how numerous people on Twitter were claiming that it's harder to come out as a Conservative in today's society than to come out as gay. The majority of students in the UK would probably disagree with this statement.

But Rhys Benjamin, a young gay Conservative studying Politics at the University of Sussex, does not. Rhys would argue that in Brighton, coming out as a Tory is actually much harder than coming out as gay. The Sussex Tab spoke to Rhys to understand why he thinks this is the case.

First off, Rhys, why do you think coming out as a Tory is harder than being gay?

My view on this is that it massively depends on where you are in the country and the demographics you associate with. It is very important I am not saying this is the case nationally, and we must not try and undermine the very real issues that LGBT+ people face in other, less fortunate parts of the UK.

Can you give me an example of how it's hard to be a Tory at Sussex?

I am virtually the only public voice against the University strikes on campus. In 2018, when these strikes happened I was abused and threatened after I went on BBC Radio 5 to talk about this. I have spoken to many societies this time around, and the results are the same – most of the students I have spoken to are against the strikes, including TorySoc, but don’t want to join the campaign publicly out of fear of death by association.

What are people’s first reaction when you say you’re a Tory/Conservative?

Normally, people try to end the conversation and never want to speak to me again, or they launch into a diatribe about politics. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes things can get worse than that, though. It’s ridiculous we’re at a stage where differences of opinion are no longer accepted, it seems.

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Rhys (far left) campaigning for the Conservatives

How do you think this compares to coming out as gay at Sussex?

Sussex Uni is in Brighton, which is known as the gay capital of the UK. I am not saying it’s the case across the country – that would be a ridiculous suggestion – but the levels of support available for LGBT+ people are very good here, and I haven’t had any major issues from being gay at University. I was amazed how much of a non-problem sexual orientation was on campus when I first came here, especially compared to my school days in North London.

Surely you realise that historically it has been much harder to come out as gay than Conservative – do you think that your view is a new phenomenon then?

I have actively championed LGBT+ issues for a number of years, and have always talked about how far there is still to go. I have never – and will never – try to speak for everybody in the country on this issue. I can only speak for myself and my open experience. I believe it depends where you are in the country and your social environment as to whether it is harder being gay or being a Tory. As someone who is both, on campus it’s much harder socially believing in low taxation than it is to fancy men. It’s obviously the other way round in less diverse parts of the country. You end up having to paint two versions of yourself – one as a Conservative, one as a gay man. The two hardly ever overlap.

Whilst it’s absolutely fantastic that we have such a diverse campus whereby there are very few incidents of homophobia, on the other hand, the fact that I am constantly ostracised by many on campus because of my political stances is surely not a good thing to open up debate and ideas.

I told the SU council that the consequences of the UCU strikes weren’t being thought through properly. I told the SU council that, just as it did last time, it would be hijacked and used as an excuse to occupy and deface buildings. And yet, because it was me, they didn’t listen. And I was right.

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Rhys, and Boris Johnson's girlfriend and dog campaigning for the Conservatives

Do you ever not speak openly about your politics to avoid negative reaction? What would you say to someone who reads this article and thinks “shut up you Tory”?

If I’m going to let you believe in your beliefs, then you should let me believe in mine. It’s a sad state of affairs that I often try to avoid questions on Brexit, the economy, our NHS, and so on, because of these negative reactions. I’m not rich, I don’t play polo at weekends, I’m just an ordinary gay bloke.

As far as I am aware, there is only one other openly gay Tory on campus, out of about 18,000 students. I’m sure there are more, but the fact there are only two publicly gay Tories including myself is not good.

The language given – including by the Students Union officers – towards neoliberals, libertarians, and class warfare, linking the rich to the Conservatives, is aggressive and doesn’t add to the debate in any meaningful way.

What would you say to a gay student at Sussex who disagreed?

It’s one thing to debate around the Conservatives’ (rapidly improving) record on LGBT+ issues, it’s another to ostracise other people for believing what they believe in politically. The Conservative Party isn’t the party of Norman Tebbit and Ann Widdecombe any more, it’s the party who legalised marriage equality and in 2015 won the LGBT+ vote for the first time ever. But you’ve only got to look at the student press to see wave upon wave of articles about how “evil” we are, “traitors” to LGBT+ people, and just how few young people want to admit they’re voting Conservative.