According to a report recently issued by the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the British public think that “celebrities and politicians who court fame have no right to privacy”, although “the private lives of ordinary people should be respected”.
At the same time, the Press Complaints Commission has received a complaint from a friend of Noel Sullivan, of the band Hear’Say, about a picture that was published in The News of the World showing him embracing the pop star. The Guardian reported that Rebekah Wade, the NoW’s shadowy editor (has anyone ever seen her?) “will have to explain why she allowed an ordinary person to be subjected to the glare of publicity in the pursuit of increasingly salacious stories about Sullivan.”
All of which once again opens up the debate about the outing – or the voluntary coming out – of gay celebrities. How big a hand should the media have in “assisting” those in the public eye out of the closet?
In repressive eras, closetry was understandable. In the tight-arsed fifties, for instance, you kept your sexuality under wraps if you wanted to work (and stay out of prison). So although it was clear to anyone with eyes to see that Noel Coward was gay and so was Dirk Bogarde and Michael Redgrave, there was never any public acknowledgement of it while they were alive. Everyone conspired in the cover up.
When the conspiracy of silence was broken in the sixties, it became more difficult to maintain the fiction. In the seventies and eighties it was harder still, as tabloid newspapers became the sole arbiters of which famous gays would be allowed to retain their secret and which would be outed. Self-hating gays like Russell Harty and Kenny Everett never really recovered from the lascivious revelations about their sex lives that were splattered all over the Sunday scandal sheets.
There was only one way to stop this cruel routine, and that was by pre-empting the Fleet Street outers and doing the job yourself. A new, braver breed of showbiz gays came along, people who weren’t at odds with their orientation. Ian McKellen, Simon Callow, Paul O’Grady and Graham Norton all took the initiative away from the tabloids and did the job themselves. Latest in this line is Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills, 27, who came out last month saying, “The target Radio 1 audience will, I hope, be fine about it.”
Others have tried and been less successful. Michael Barrymore and his Garland-like descent from the summit springs immediately to mind, as does Peter Mandelson and the lesson we can learn from him on trying to be half out and half in.
Generally, though, the mould has been broken. It is now possible to come out in the full glare of the media and not only survive, but thrive. Nearly all those who’ve been honest about their sexuality have gone on to ever greater heights. In fact, the Sunday Times reported that the BBC and ITV are in a multi-million pound bidding war to secure the services of Graham Norton – probably because he is gay.
But despite this climate change, there are still those who can’t quite bring themselves to do the deed.
Speaking to The Daily Express, Dale Winton refused to take the leap. “With an ever ready smile for the camera,” said his interviewer, “Dale has survived his seven years in the spotlight remarkably unscathed, give or take rumours about his sexuality (he consistently refuses to be drawn on whether he is gay)”. Danny La Rue has also come in for stick over his inability to make the leap. The same gossip column quotes a theatre historian, Laurence Senelick as saying: “Everyone in British show business is familiar with his [La Rue’s] sexual predilections… is this masquerade necessary lest he lose the affections of the British public or is his a deeply confused identity?”
It’s not as if he were Sir Alec Guiness, whose career flourished at a time when such revelations would have had a real impact.
Three new Guiness biographies are about to be published, and all reveal that he was arrested and fined 10 guineas for “gross indecency” in a public lavatory in 1946. The Sunday Times told us that the then up-and-coming thespian managed to avoid any publicity by telling the police he was ‘Herbert Pocket’, the name of a Dickensian character he was playing at the time. Guiness was married with a young son when he was fined and it is likely, because of this and his religious faith, that he would have been traumatised by any publicity. We are promised that there are other revelations to come about his life as a tortured bisexual.
The other noted theatrical knight, Sir John Gielgud – who is also the subject of a biography by Sheridan Morley, which was reported in The Guardian – was not so lucky. He failed to come up with a nom de plume when he was arrested and fined for importuning in 1953, and the case was reported on the front page of The Telegraph.
Although he managed to survive it, it was such a devastating event for him that he never mentioned it publicly again – or any other aspect of his private life.
Since he died, though, it has emerged that he lived with another man for 35 years and would make donations to Stonewall on the condition that they were not revealed.
All we need now for the set is for that other member of the great British acting triumvirate, Sir Ralph Richardson, to be revealed as a closet case. But he’s the exception. The Mail on Sunday reported that in a biography, written by Garry O’Connor, there is a suggestion that Richardson completely rejected his son Charles, because he “strongly disapproved” of his homosexuality.
Antony Sher is one of the present-day great actors who is gay. The Sunday Times has been carrying excerpts from his achingly honest autobiography. One of these extracts explored Sher’s relationship with his parents. He decided to come out to his mother in 1973 – her initial reaction was good, but she told him that he must never tell his father. Within a couple of weeks, she had done the deed herself. Sher was anxious about how his father, whom he found difficult, distant and macho, would react. To his surprise, there was a definite improvement in what had been a chilly relationship. But it never became an intimate friendship, something which Sher regrets – “Dear God,” he writes, “heterosexuals are so queer. How can you have a son and not hold him, hug him, kiss him?”
Gay Radio 4 pundit and historian David Starkey, was also reminiscing, again in The Sunday Times – this time about his mother, who pushed him relentlessly to succeed. Eventually he decided that he had to tell her the truth, although he knew she would find it hard to understand. “My mother had begun to suspect, but at first I suppose I had sufficient tact to shield her. But it all came to a head just after I moved to London in the very early days of Gay Pride, and there was that marvellous slogan, which in many ways I still live by, ‘Better late than latent’. Eventually, inevitably I developed the determination to confront my mother with what I was. I said to myself, I’m doing this because it is the honest thing to do, but there was probably a cruelty underneath… The final, terrible, blank hostility after I finished; the banal response: ‘We brought you up to live a proper life. What sort of life is it, that?’ She wanted the world as she wanted it, she wanted 2.4 grandchildren. She could never understand it, and she never got over it. And it was unhealable, because there was no moment at which reconciliation took place, as she died.”
And in politics – which is really a branch of show business now – we have Chris Smith and Nick Brown keeping high profiles. Nick Brown, the lugubrious gay Agriculture Secretary has been thrust to the fore by the foot and mouth epidemic. Failing to be drawn into the hysteria that the press has tried to create, he has kept a steady hand throughout that should do his career no harm at all.
Chris Smith was interviewed at length in The Guardian and revealed something of his own coming out experience. He didn’t really realise he was gay until his early 20s, and then he didn’t tell his parents until shortly before his public statement at a meeting in 1984 to protest about Rugby council’s decision to drop anti-gay discrimination policies. “They lived in Scotland and I was in London,” he says “We never really had chance to have that rather difficult conversation.” He says they were initially concerned but “subsequently they have been wonderful. They always ask about Dorian [Dorian Jabri, his partner] when I speak to them on the phone.”
Chris Smith is now a widely admired politician who has survived some of the worst crises of the first Labour government – the Dome fiasco, the Lottery cock up, the endless wittering about the arts. We can only hope that his skills will continue to be utilised after the election.
These stories, sometimes heart-warming, sometimes sad, indicate how homosexuality has now entered into the consciousness of the nation. And there is no doubt that if you have the requisite talent and necessary bravery, you can prosper as an open gay person in public life.
So remember, gay celebs – better to be honest and retain your dignity rather than waiting for the News of the World to come and get you.