Two stories about gay people in the media have made the front pages of the national newspapers today – and demonstrate generational differences in writers’ (and editors’ and readers’) attitudes to out gay people.
The first revolved around BBC presenter Clare Balding, who via her Twitter account (@clarebalding1) has been documenting her correspondence with the Sunday Times over some particularly puerile comments by its television critic, AA Gill, and editor John Witherow’s condescending reply to her objections.
As first documented by Carrie Dunn over at the F Word blog, Balding responded with dignity to comments that demonstrate the sort of immaturity that only seems to re-emerge in middle age.
Balding’s response to Carrie (@carriesparkle) is quite true:
What, so it’s OK that he beat me up because he’s nice about me at the end? For God’s sake, would he seriously review Stephen Fry presenting QI as a faggot or Evan Davis on Dragons Den as a queer? And if he did, would the editor compare that to someone having a go at Jeremy Clarkson for his dress sense?
And her public response to Witherow is downright inspirational:
When the day comes that people stop resigning from high office, being disowned by their families, getting beaten up and in some instances committing suicide because of their sexuality, you may have a point.
This is not about me putting up with having the piss taken out of me, something I have been quite able to withstand, it is about you legitimising name calling. ‘Dyke’ is not shouted out in school playgrounds (or as I’ve had it at an airport) as a compliment, believe me.
It may be your job to defend your writer and your editorial team but if you really think that homophobia does not exist and was not demonstrated beyond being ‘the butt of a joke’ then we have a problem.
Clearly dissatisfied with Witherow’s response, Balding has now made a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, and the story has made several other papers, including downpage on the front of today’s Guardian (curiously and apropos of nothing in particular, apparently “gay rights” coverage on the Guardian’s website is a subcategory of “world news”).
On the red-tops, though, there’s another story on display: last year’s X Factor winner Joe McElderry has come out as gay.
McElderry’s statement, which in traditional form both the Sun and the Mirror seem to try and claim is exclusive to them, has been greeted with a complete lack of surprise by many people: searching on Twitter results in lots of posts about the Pope coming out as a Catholic. I even retweeted some of the better ones.That said, it’s worth remembering that for some people, coming out to oneself can be incredibly hard – almost as hard, if not harder, than coming out to friends and family. Doing so when you’re in the public eye and have the tabloids interested in every aspect of your personal life can only amplify things.
What connects the McElderry and Balding stories is that the way they have been written about reflects how the public has changed towards news of gay people in the public eye. Gill and Witherow come from, and to an extent write for, a generation where lesbians and gay men can be sniggered about, because they are seen as intrinsically inferior.
By contrast, McElderry’s generation are interested in his sexuality not to make fun of it, but because every little bit of a celebrity’s life is, these days, expected to be available for public consumption. The sort of people who both the Sun and the Mirror expect to buy extra copies by placing McElderry’s interviews on their front pages are not going to want a negative story on him.
Newspapers, more than ever in the current climate, place a great deal on providing their readers with content that chimes in with their views. If the tabloids thought that a pop star being outed would sell more copies than a singer coming out to a sympathetic interviewer, that’s the angle they would take.
Clearly, Witherow and Gill think that the sort of people who snigger behind their hands at unoriginal jokes about lesbians are the sort of people who are going to buy the Sunday Times or pay to go behind the paper’s website paywall. They may be right, but I think that relying on that sort of reaction is not a particularly effective approach for the longer term.
Incdentally, over on Twitter, @clarebalding1 offered some words of support to McElderry:
Of course, it may one day not be news that a person is gay. But I fear it will always be celebrity gossip – and as the front pages of the tabloid papers prove all year round, that means it’s likely to be a candidate for the front pages for some time to come.