If the roll call of role models has made life easier for gay folks in Britain and beyond, what’s it like being one of those high-visibility homos?
WHEN I WAS a wee boy growing up in a small town outside Edinburgh in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I know: in gay years, I’m dead – TV was the only window onto a wider world and representations of gay men were – how shall I put it? – a little lacking. In my early formative years, I had, to look up to:
Lieutenant Gruber from ‘Allo ‘Allo
Steven Carrington in Dynasty
(And the last two were, at least nominally, bisexual).
Eventually Brookside’s Gordon Collins and EastEnders’ Colin and Barry, telly’s first mainstream depictions of ordinary gay men in contemporary Britain, would come along and open the cultural floodgates – paradoxically just as section 28 attempted to institutionalise homophobia in schools and the spectre of Aids frightened the beejesus out of everyone. But as it stood circa 1984, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of visible gay folks in the public eye – even taking into account pop music’s gay standard-bearers like the brilliant Boy George. His first appearance on Top of the Pops caused much bemusement in our house, as in the rest of the UK, as we argued over whether he was a man or a woman. (Compare and contrast this with, some years later, the excruciating, though not entirely unpleasant, experience of watching Man 2 Man Meets Man Parrish’s Male Stripper on TOTP. Now that’s what I call awkward).
Anyway, trust me when I say that growing up in a world in which you rarely see any reflection of yourself – and the reflections you do see are Hall of Mirrors-distorted – can really do your head in. Clearly I cannot speak for lesbians but for what it’s worth, I don’t remember m/any, though, to be fair, I wasn’t really on the look-out. Given the comparative lack of lesbians on television today, somehow I doubt it that TV then was awash with (what would have anyway been inevitably dubious) representations.
At the time we’re talking about – 19-oatcake, as my mum would say – discovery of literary expressions were also some way off. In my life then, there was not yet Oscar Wilde nor Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, and certainly not Armistead Maupin or the eye-wateringly honest A Matter of Life and Sex by Oscar Moore. And it was still some time again before I discovered a passage in literature that continues to resonate. It comes from Janice Galloway’s novel Foreign Parts, which is about two friends on holiday. In it, the narrator Cassie says:
“I read a thing about Doris Day. That Doris Day’s first man used to batter the hell out of her and there was Doris making Pillow Talk and The Pyjama Game with Rock Hudson never asking why they didn’t make reference to wife-beating in the movies. She just assumed it was one of those things that happened but no-one talked about. Maintaining a fiction about real life was just what you did… Doris covering her bruises with make-up while Rock exchanged bodily fluids with the latest boyfriend before his studio call. Poor bloody Rock Hudson. Poor bloody Doris and poor bloody Rock Hudson. Madeupness. Like camping. A big lie about it being anything other that totally hellish.”
For my early childhood at least, me, and the rest of the country (which back then felt like the rest of the world), were stuck with the madeupness, maintaining the fiction about real life that gay people were few, far between and usually great big fairies.
Not to get too “drag” on you but plus ca change! Today – thanks to not just telly’s increased diversity but also The Internet and all the glories of social media, gay kids – and indeed gay grown-ups for that matter – have an altogether larger selection of reflections:
Sir Michael Bishop
Lord Waheed Ali
Stephen K Amos
Carol Ann Duffy
Radio1’s Aled Jones
EastEnders’ Johnny Partridge
Half of Hollyoaks (surely)
Chris Bryant MP
Margot James MP
That one from Westlife
Harry from TOWIE
Boy George (still)
Ellen De Generes
Ricky Martin (eventually!)
And – if we must – John Barrowman.
The list goes on and on and hopefully you get the picture. And it doesn’t include gay characters in films and on TV that are played by straight actors – from Coronation Street’s resident lesbian Sophie Webster (Brooke Vincent) to Adam Pally’s turn as Max Blum in Happy Endings, the American sitcom shown here on E4. (Pause for a moment to consider how totally radical this would have seemed 30 years ago – a gay lead character in a mainstream US comedy who is actually very fanciable and not a cringeworthy caricature. Flying cars would have seemed less outlandish).
Nor does it mention articulations of gay lives – from Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing, through the BBC2 adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, and Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk to The Kids Are All Right and Brokeback Mountain. Gay lives and characters are, if not everywhere, then certainly a lot of places. And the variety of visibilities is impressive, from the more conventional gay types – which is to say, camp telly entertainers such as Alan Carr – to former rugby player Gareth Thomas and businessman Sir Michael Bishop.
While we who live in a metropolitan bubble and who have come through the other side of homophobic bullying and don’t experience that much prejudice in our daily lives must be extraordinarily careful not to overestimate the distance that we have come in terms of acceptance, gay people – public figures and private individuals – are now entitled to be as regular, awful and even as boring as straight people. While this notion might have some clutching for their (imaginary) pearls in horror – in queer theory, the homonormativity debate rages and folks cleverer than I ponder why gay people would want to ape the heterosexual norm with mortgages, marriage, pet dogs and even children – it’s also an argument that will have to wait for another day.
When the likes of George Clooney deal with rumours about his sexuality by embracing the notion of being gay – and what could be more lovely that a Clooney embrace, apart from perhaps a Clooney wrestle, maybe on a sheepskin rug in front of a log fire? – what does it mean to be out in public today?
SPEAKING AT Stonewall’s Equality Dinner at London’s Dorchester Hotel in March, broadcaster Clare Balding made an impassioned speech about the importance of being equal, out and, as hoary as it sounds, proud. With especial reference to sporting figures, she noted “People’s performance is affected when they’re not comfortable in their own skin. It has to be. If you’re running full pelt and then suddenly have a nagging doubt that when you win that gold medal, you’ll be outed in the papers tomorrow, you may well run a stride slower. We’re better people and we’re a better community when we all genuinely feel equal. If we can convince coaches that the sporting world will be improved if people can be out and comfortable, that will translate across to performance. Each of us makes a little personal triumph every time we persuade someone that I can still do my job. I can still have fun and be everything you want me to be, and I’m gay. Not ‘but I’m gay’ but ‘and I’m gay’. Everyone should feel happy in their own skin.”
Writer and actor Mark Gatiss is gay – “famously so”, according to an interview with his friend David Tennant recently. But Gatiss himself says he’d like to be more visible because what surprises him the most is “that a lot of people don’t know that I’m gay. No matter how many interviews I do in which I mention that I’m gay, and that I have a partner, I’m confounded by people’s surprise when they find out. Maybe they’re not bothered.”
Gatiss is reluctant to confer role-model status on himself but he says “ I’m aware that, as a successful actor and writer, I have a certain visibility. For someone in that position to say ‘I’m a happy gay man’ would have made a huge difference to me as a kid because there wasn’t anyone. There was a series of comic grotesques and desexualised, tolerated personalities: in the Are You Being Served film, Mr Humphries is both a terribly predatory homosexual and totally neutered.”
Gatiss has written for and starred in Doctor Who, co-created Sherlock for BBC1, is one of The League of Gentlemen, and is currently making a follow-up to his wildly well-received BBC4 documentary series about the history of horror films. He’s also written novels, been on stage to rave reviews at the National Theatre and at the Donmar Warehouse. His Desert Island Discs was one of the most moving and funny of the last five years. Put simply, he’s ace. And if he won’t confer himself with role model status, let’s do it for him, shall we?
Gatiss says: “Compared to 20 years ago, this country is much more relaxed about everything from race to sexuality – but only in certain ways. This sounds ludicrously utopian but I was in a bus queue the other day and it was so incredibly multi-cultural, it made me think that I never grew up with a single black friend but for this generation, they are just each other’s mates. That will change attitudes, and I’d like to think that as well as for race, that will go for sexuality.” He pauses. “Of course, underneath, there may still a seething small-c conservatism and it’s always dangerous to assume that the battles have all been won. The ultimate triumph of Thatcherism may be to break up the idea of mass movements and any kind of solidarity. There isn’t a movement to out people who don’t want to be and people are making individual decisions about what works for them, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.”
In terms of work, being gay has never been an issue for Gatiss. “The sort of parts I play, my sexuality doesn’t make a difference and I’ve never been in a position where anyone has tried to mentor me not to be out. But maybe that’s because I was out before I was well-known or because if ever such a thing had happened, I would have laughed in the person’s face.”
But, Gatiss says, “If you’re a young actor with an eye on Hollywood, it’s something you have to think about. But then, you’re moving into an American sphere and what American agents might advise you to do. I’d be very interested to see what happens to [Star Trek’s] Zachary Quinto’s career now that he’s made that step of coming out.”
ALAN CUMMING HAS made the leap from British fame to international stardom, and he’s the first to admit that his career path is anything but ordinary. Cumming went from being one half of camp revue duo Victor and Barry and a writer and star of cabin crew sitcom The High Life to starring opposite Juliana Marguiles in The Good Wife, one of US television’s biggest dramas – via a Tony-winning performance in Sam Mendes’s Cabaret which, after a 1993 run in London, was revived in New York in 1998 as well as roles in Goldeneye and Eyes Wide Shut.
“When I came to America, it was becoming an issue of scurrilous gossip – I had been back and forth a bit with women and men – so I decided to speak to Out magazine as I thought they’d handle the shades of grey sensitively, and they did,” Cumming explains. “In a way, it wasn’t that big a deal because I was best known in America for Cabaret and I was so polysexual in that, and being British/European definitely made a difference. If I had been an American actor of my age and status, I probably wouldn’t have done.”
Nevertheless, to go from a saucy Emcee on Broadway to a primetime drama on CBS (in which he plays a brash – and straight – character) is quite the journey. “It shouldn’t really matter but I’m aware that it’s a really positive thing,” Cumming concedes. “I’m not alone though: Neil Patrick Harris plays a lothario in How I Met Your Mother and Ricky Martin is in Evita [playing Che on Broadway].”
Cumming doesn’t think that his career has been affected by his frankness about his sexuality “because people connect with honesty and they can sniff out subterfuge.” But this isn’t to say that he hasn’t seen subterfuge. “Sometimes with people I know, they’re playing the hunky action guy and there’s resistance to them coming out because it’s so connected to straight masculinity. There’s a plastic kind of movie star who has a very short shelf with very small kind of ambition. I see that but I still don’t agree with it. I was horrified when Richard Chamberlain and Rupert Everett said gay actors should stay in the closet. They were saying to people that they should live a lie and not be liberated, to be live in fear of being found out.”
Cumming says that “When equality happens, there’s inevitably a depoliticising – since gay marriage happened in New York, there’s been a surge towards transgender rights because they are way behind – but I was in Kansas the other week and to go somewhere where they voted for Rick Santorum was scary. I came back all galvanised because it’s vital not to be complacent. I like the term ‘queer’ because you don’t have to be gay to be queer, and that’s important because no civil rights struggle has ever been won just by the people who benefit from it. You have to enlist everyone.”
“Straight people probably can’t get their head around coming out as a rite of passage,” says Cain. “I was quite obviously gay from a young age and was savaged and bullied beyond belief from five to 15 for the way I was. I was the freak who no one understood, I liked dressing up and playing with dolls, and my brother was a ‘proper lad’ who was brilliant at football. For most of my childhood, I felt nothing other than shame.”
When he came out to his family – when he was 20 after a couple of false starts including telling his sister who almost fainted – Cain’s liberation was palpable, though even then it wasn’t exactly a cake-walk.
“We had teething problems – huge arguments and a certain member of my close family saying I had the same thing wrong in my head as a paedophile,” Cain says. “We are better now but I think that anything short of nurture is abuse and if you have a child you think might be gay, you have a responsibility to do your best to acquaint yourself with the facts.”
For the decade that he was behind-the-scenes in television, mostly as a director, producer and executive on The South Bank Show, Cain says that his difference was an asset. “The ultimate thing I had been ashamed of was celebrated, from when I went to Cambridge – a gay from the north who went to state school! – onwards.” But when he went onscreen, reaction to Cain’s demeanour proved more problematic and since he began broadcasting in 2010, he has regularly been the target of homophobic name-calling on Twitter. “Channel 4 News has been brilliant in supporting me but I can’t pretend it’s not upsetting sometimes. I could deepen my voice and walk in a certain way but what would be the point? I spent the first 16 years of my life hating myself for being gay so why would I go back to that?” Though he commends his current employer, he does maintain that “Being effeminate or camp or whatever you want to call it, you’re associated with light relief and I’d be surprised if any major broadcaster would have someone with my manner doing business or politics.”
Still, Cain is more content than he’s ever been. “Me and a close friend, who’s well-known but shall remain nameless, recently had a party called Better Out Than In to celebrate the fact that we had been out of the closet longer than we were in it. It was an unapologetic celebration of our identity as gay men and both sets of parents were there – along with some topless barmen. If part of my parents’ worry was me being unhappy, they don’t have to worry now.”
SO DESPITE THE abundance of gay men and, to a lesser extent, women in the public life, life still isn’t as straightforward as it should be for many gay people – and certainly not for those in the public eye. Russell Tovey’s recent theatrical exploit, Sex with A Stranger at the Trafalgar Studio, prompted what can only be described as revulsion on Twitter that here was a gay man playing straight. But then, it also provoked revulsion at the revulsion so perhaps that’s just Twitter for you.
Plenty of gay people, both famous and civilian, remain in the closet, for whatever reason. Some – actors and sportspeople, mostly – have made what Mark Gatiss calls “the trade between and ambition and happiness” in which ambition wins. For those who feel the need to make a declaration and achieve some level of emancipation, there isn’t enough money and fame and success in the world to make such a sacrifice. And there are those for whom there is.
It was surprisingly tricky to get out public figures to discuss being out for this piece, and one was candid enough to admit that he didn’t want to be “a poster-boy for the issue”. This is nothing new. As pondered in Nicholas de Jongh’s play Plague over England, John Gielgud became an accidental activist when, entrapped in a public lavatory, he was arrested for lewd behaviour in 1953. While he may have feared ignominy following the arrest, when he first appeared on-stage afterwards, he was greeted with a standing ovation. Nevertheless, you can’t imagine Gielgud was ever happy with providing gay liberation in the UK with an early emblem.
There are plenty emblems now, which takes the pressure off individual individuals, as it were. Though it can still be tough – because of geographical isolation, religious or familial intolerance or just because some fuckwits in your orbit are bigoted cunts – it is easier than it was than it was for people to come out. And according to a spokeswoman for the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – of which Mark Gatiss is a patron – the charity is receiving an increasing number of calls from older people seeking counsel. “We are hearing from more older people, people whose children have left home or whose marriage has broken down. We had a call the other day from a man in his 60s who had been caring for his elderly parents and after their death had decided to explore his situation and ask for advice.”
While we might dwell on the tragedy of living so much of a life in the closet, we might also celebrate an eventual liberation. Because liberation is what it is.
So what does it mean to be out in public? Fundamentally, it’s to give yourself a chance at happiness and to give hope to others. It’s about being brave and demonstrating that, while it may not always be easy, it gets better. Those who are visible and vocal about gay – which is to say, human – rights, we salute you. There is emancipation in declaration. As Ruby, the narrator of Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes at the Museum, proclaims on the very first page of the novel: “I exist!” And that’s how the best stories begin.