Why I've decided to come out at the age of 91

Jim Taylor
The Emma Barnett Show, BBC 5 Live

  • Published
Media caption,

‘I’m enjoying becoming a gay icon at 91’

"I really do enjoy the fact that at my age, I can be totally free with people. I think I'm a little bit in danger of becoming a gay icon!"

Barbara Hosking has come out at the age of 91, as she reflects on a remarkable life in the corridors of power.

As a senior civil servant she worked for two prime ministers, Edward Heath and Harold Wilson, as well as a television executive.

She battled sexism throughout her career, fighting for equal pay and even to be in the room during some meetings.

Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live's Emma Barnett Show she explained why she never told her family about her sexuality.

"My parents wouldn't have understood and they would have been shocked.

"They loved me very much, but my father was very old-fashioned and conventional. My mother would have probably thought it was a difficult, unhappy choice for me to make. Actually I've been very happy. I've had a full life."

Image source, Family photo

Ms Hosking has been in a relationship for 20 years, and chose to come out while writing her memoirs: Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant.

"Men had this great liberating moment when the law changed and they were no longer in danger of being imprisoned or, in earlier days, of being killed.

"Women have never had that, but it has been extremely difficult because you could be ostracised very easily."

Ms Hosking moved to London from Cornwall at the age of 21 to pursue a career in journalism.

Instead, she joined the Labour Party press office and went on to work for the civil service as a press officer to prime ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson.

May a 'good weather' PM

Despite her Labour background - she once considered running as an MP - Ms Hosking has some sympathy for Theresa May's current predicament.

"She would be a marvellous 'good weather' prime minister with a big majority, but she doesn't have the equipment to cope with what is happening now.

"It's a dreadful position for any prime minister to be in, with a divided cabinet and divided MPs behind her.

"It's sad because she's got lots of good qualities, but she lacks the killer instinct for doing something. It may be that she looks around and feels she can't."

She believes potential Conservative leadership rivals are "watching her suffer and watching her cope because they don't want to go in at this stage".

Image source, Family photo
Image caption,
Barbara Hosking at her 90th birthday party

As someone who once discovered that her deputy was being paid more than she was, Ms Hosking says she's dismayed that women are still battling for equal pay.

"I find it shocking. What's so difficult about equal pay? It's not happening in a lot of places. Don't tell me that it's accidental that in senior jobs in the BBC, the women are always getting less pay. Is this an accident? It can't be. And it can be solved."

She also fears that Labour's failure to elect a female leader is a symptom of a misogyny problem which the party "has never lost".

'The talk of Brussels'

Despite all this, Ms Hosking believes women "have more freedom to choose to be themselves than at any point in history".

She remembers women being invited to leave the room following a high-level dinner in Brussels.

"I said 'I'm very sorry I must go back. I'm with my minister, I'm his private secretary'. They said: 'You can't do that, the ladies retire so the men can discuss'. I said: 'He won't be able to get on without me, I've done all the work on this!' They said I would be the talk of Brussels the following day."

Image source, Unknown
Image caption,
Barbara also once ran a mine in Tanzania, where she encountered creatures like this spitting cobra

She's hopeful that the #metoo movement will be a turning point for how women are treated: "It may change the culture, but that's a very difficult thing to do.

"Usually in the past it's been something you put up with and you got on with it. You slapped them on the hand or gave them a good push. I suppose you could even knee them if it came to it!"

She talks too of her sadness over Brexit, having been with Edward Heath when he signed the Treaty of Rome: "I am a total Remainer. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. We have done worse than that.

"People wanted change. It was an easy whipping boy to blame immigration, or to blame Europe, as if we weren't part of Europe."

And Ms Hosking revealed the secret of her longevity - a daily dose of red wine. "I drink claret. Two glasses a day. My doctor knows it and says it's OK!"

You can hear the full interview with Barbara Hosking on the Emma Barnett Show on BBC 5 live at 12.30 on Wednesday 14 February.