Jared O’Mara has just addressed a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party when I meet him in his office in the Houses of Parliament. It was, undoubtedly, the most uncomfortable and unpleasant meeting of his four month long Parliamentary career. And he deserved it to be.
First elected in 2017, O’Mara’s Sheffield Hallam seat was one of the more unexpected victories for Labour in June’s general election, winning then Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s seat with a majority of 2,125 votes. It was a success that made quite a splash, although tonight O’Mara has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
“I’ve just been to the PLP meeting and made a full and unreserved apology for the things I said fifteen years ago,” the 36-year-old tells me, taking a seat on a sofa. “Overwhelmingly people accepted my apology, accepted my sincerity and remorse, they accepted I have been through a journey of education.”
“I’ve stood down from the Women and Equalities Select Committee too – I think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think I can continue on that committee when I feel so deeply ashamed of the man I was.”
The man, it transpires, O’Mara was 15 years ago seemed to be deeply prejudiced and filled with hate. Reports that surfaced on Pink News and Guido Fawkes on Monday afternoon found comments made online by the Labour MP in which he made deeply offensive homophobic and sexist comments. On a web forum he called gay people “fudge packers” and “poofters”. As part of a discussion about Morrissey’s sexuality, he wrote: “Just cos he writes about gayness and gay issues, doesn’t mean he drives up the Marmite motorway, or, for that matter, allows someone to drive up his.”
Elsewhere he joked about Jamie Cullum being “sodomised to death”, and called for members of Girls Aloud to have an orgy with him. It all makes deeply unpleasant reading.
O’Mara looks ashamed when I read him back the comments, not frustrated that they’d been uncovered but clearly pained that he’d ever uttered those words. “I was 20 or 21-years-old when I made the homophobic comments back in 2002,” he says, “the sexist ones were made in 2004, around the same time I was standing for election to the local council for Labour, I’ll freely admit. I’m not going to use my youth as an excuse.”
When I arranged to interview O’Mara just an hour or so earlier, he didn’t shy away from the prospect of speaking to me. An aide in fact said to me as I was being walked through the Palace of Westminster that he wanted to own up entirely to what he had done. To O’Mara’s credit, speaking with a gay journalist, someone who is outspoken about the homophobia which still permeates our society, isn’t the easy way out. And to be honest? I don’t know how to feel.
A part of me understands that we all go on a journey of understanding as we grow up – I’m sure I made my fair share of homophobic comments as a kid. But at the same time, O’Mara wasn’t a teenager when he went on his online tirades – he was an adult in his early 20s. Could an apology after being forced to confront his history by the press be enough to make me believe he’s really learnt a lesson?
“The culture I grew up in was very different,” sighs O’Mara, “it was lad culture and football and all that. I got swept up with it and it warped my mindset. It turned me into a bitter and spiteful person if I’m being honest.” He again adds the caveat that he isn’t making excuses. Schools are still rampant with homophobia in 2017, and Britain was a more homophobic place 15 years ago.
“It was a prevailing culture in school, with the people I was hanging out with at the football at that time in my early twenties. There was lots of bullying – the number of times I had the crap beaten out of me? It’s untrue.” O’Mara is open about being attacked himself, having homophobic slurs raised against him – despite being heterosexual – as he was physically attacked by those looking to hurt him. “I think that’s where a lot of the prejudice came from,” he adds.
“I saw it as an attack, as a slur, and I transferred that erroneously onto people who didn’t deserve it. Weak people like bullies try and hurt other people to feel better about themselves. That’s obviously the mindset I was in.”
The hate speech brought to light just hours earlier revealed deeply prejudiced views, views which all too often turn into action. I can’t help but think of the vicious homophobic murder of Jody Dobrowski in Clapham back in 2005, just months after some of O’Mara’s comments were posted. I confront him: did he ever assault or harass anyone with his homophobia?
“Absolutely not,” the MP replies, looking obviously upset at the suggestion. “It was just passive aggression on message boards and inappropriate language and jokes with friends. I wouldn’t and didn’t go around harassing people.”
I point out that it’s hard to understand why if he felt so strongly about his hatred of LGBTQ+ people that he’d sit posting under a cloak of anonymity online but never head to the streets for some gay-bashing.
“Naivety and cowardice that’s why,” he says bluntly, “and that same naivety and cowardice affects lots of young men. I was one of them.”
“I was still knocking about in the same circle of friends then since being a kid,” O’Mara continues. “I don’t think they’re bad people, but scared and prejudiced and angry young men, trying to act tough. That’s what I was, but underneath that anger and pseudo-toughness is great shame and lack of self-esteem.”
It’s an honest response, and I think I believe him.
The conversation turns to whether his grovelling apology is enough for him to put the past behind him. The reality is that, despite O’Mara’s seeming honesty about the past, he waited until the rightwing press came across his comments. He explains that he does remember making these comments now they’ve surfaced, but his memory was jogged by the incident. He tells me if he’d been able to recall writing them before today he’d have openly apologised on his own terms.
“It’s important to take ownership of the things you’ve done wrong,” he says. “That’s why I’m not hiding, I’m not going back to my hotel and switching my phone off. I’m dealing with this head on. There’s no room for the views I had as a young man in 2017 society, there was not room for those views back then either.”
What I find hardest to navigate is that I know deep down if Jared was a Tory MP right now I’d be demanding a resignation, not just from his position on the Select Committee but from Parliament.
“In terms of resigning as an MP? I think there’s a place for me,” he reflects, when I ask him why he shouldn’t resign. “I want to educate people and help people going through those prejudices grow out of them. I’ve gone on that journey and feel I can help. If a Conservative MP had made similar comments I’d say it depends on what journey they had been on since. If they’d honestly changed and believed in equality and egalitarianism then absolutely [they have a place in Parliament], but the very culture of conservatism doesn’t foster that equality.”
This is an important point, one that we should all remember: the Labour Party – which Jared is a proud member of – is now more deeply progressive in its outlook on equality than ever. Someone who accepts their mistakes and had changed direction must surely be allowed a place in progressive movements. There’s a distinct difference in what our two major parties stand for: being a member of Labour (and Momentum) under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership says a lot about someone’s position.
It’s also worth remembering that while Jared made his comments in the early 2000s as a young man, Theresa May just a few years earlier while an MP voted against repealing Section 28, deeply homophobic legislation. Her record on LGBTQ issues is dire. This week she addressed the annual Pink News Awards ceremony, claiming the government is now “determined to eradicate homophobic and transphobic bullying.”
As I reflect on what Jared says, his honesty about being homophobic as a young man, it seems only fair that someone with no political power while being prejudiced is given a chance – when with some power – to make amends. I’m inclined to be less forgiving of politicians who used their positions of authority to entrench prejudice.
O’Mara is part of a new generation of MPs whose early years are documented online, the mistakes, fuck ups and scandals of those just a few years senior leaving no trace like that left on the internet. In the early 2000s we had no idea, really, about how the web would work, about the footprints we leave or whether one day they’d be traceable. That’s not an excuse – far from it – but it’s worth noting nonetheless that we must make space for people to go on journeys, else what’s the point in changing minds? Now he uses language like CIS gendered and non-binary, which bigots don’t have a habit of utilising.
As we wrap up the interview long after 7pm, O’Mara looks drained and exhausted. I ask what he’s going to do tonight, he tells me he’s heading back to his hotel where he’ll probably have a cry, and I don’t doubt for a second he means it. “Words are words alone though if they don’t come with gestures,” he says, when I ask what’s going through his mind. “I’ve resigned from the committee, I apologise to all LGBTQ people, all women, all non-binary people, and I’ll continue working hard to fight for equality in the future.”
Throughout our interview Jared offers apology after apology, and as we set to part ways I ask what happens if people – his LGBTQ constituents in particular – don’t accept it.
“There’s nothing I can do about that and that’s their choice. All I can ask is that they find it in their hearts to one day forgive me. What better person to fight homophobia and champion your rights than someone who was homophobic and has turned 180 degrees.”
And what if they don’t believe he means it?
“I’d say two things. I’d forgive the kids who growing up beat me up for being disabled if they apologised now, and I hope that’s how people can see me after making my comments. But if you don’t think I’ve changed then come and find me in [Sheffield gay bar] Dempseys hanging out with my friends both from the LGBTQ community and straight CIS gendered people too. I’ll buy you a pint and apologise again and we can talk.”
I ask him outright what he’s done for LGBTQ+ people since entering Parliament, and aside from calling for better representation he admits he’s done very little. Early on in our chat he says he understands LGBTQ+ oppression better now after making links with his struggle as a disabled man, and I point out that it shouldn’t take relating his own situation to LGBTQ+ people to understand why homophobia is unacceptable.
It’s never comfortable to talk to a man who you know helped perpetuate the prejudice that still makes the lives of queer people harder, but O’Mara is right, it’s actions that matter. We’re used to apologies and nothing happening. O’Mara has held his hands up and accepted full responsibility for his comments, if the MP makes it through the storm he owes it to his LGBTQ+ constituents to do more than get a round in. And he knows it.
Michael Segalov is News Editor at Huck. Follow him on Twitter.