We haven’t seen such a media frenzy over homosexuality since Michael Barrymore faltered from the closet. But George Michael’s cottaging “shame”, “humiliation”, “degradation” etc. was, from the tabloid’s point of view, much more satisfactory.
A pop star waggling his willy at a pretty policeman in a public toilet? It was manna from heaven for pun-crazed sub-editors who came up with headlines such as “Zip me up before you go go” (The Sun), and “Wham, barn, flash in the pan” (The Daily Star). The two downmarket tabloids revelled in this stupid, childish sniggering throughout the whole episode. “He’s trying to give up fags” was The Sun’s retort, when it was revealed that George had a nicotine patch on his bottom when he flashed it at Marcello Rodriguez (the hunky “built like an athlete” policeman who arrested him). The Star said Michael “Got a big hand” when he finally emerged from his hideaway.
Of course, we’ve witnessed this kind of hysterical response before, when famous people’s sexuality has become an issue. From Oscar Wilde onward we’ve seen the same mixture of finger-wagging censure and cod sympathy from the media pundits. This time round you could take your choice from an almost endless parade of commentators. Richard Littlejohn thought George “can have sex with whom he likes, when he likes. But not where he likes.” Lesley White in The Sunday Times shook her head and wrote, “Having refused to play the game [of coming out], the star is now paying the price of a pick-and-mix tolerance, which cheers Ellen DeGeneres and movies like Philadelphia, but leaps on those ‘exposed’ as gay with all the schadenfreude our equal rights legislation makes a forbidden pleasure.”
So,would George have fared better if he’d been honest all along and not gone on about his “ambiguous” sexuality?
Would the papers have been less brutal? I think not. And neither does Matthew Parris, who wrote in The Sun: “What flaming hypocrisy all this fake astonishment and pumped-up commentary is.” But surely hypocrisy is the stock-in-trade of the tabloids? You can’t criticise them for fulfilling their raison d’être.
Mr Parris might still be astonished at the small papers’ capacity for being repeatedly shocked about homosexuality, as though each outed celebrity had personally invented it and it had never been heard of before. Groundhog Day haunts the papers on this one. We are doomed to see the same pattern repeated over and over again.
How many times have we had to hear columnists trying to fathom the reasons for gay men cottaging, and how many times will we have to hear it again? How many more times can they get away with the huge acres of newsprint devoted to why famous men act as though they were ordinary mortals? Why did Hugh Grant pay a hooker when he could have women falling at his feet? Why did George Michael hang about a toilet for sex when, apparently, half the world would gladly give him a hand to orgasm in more salubrious situations?
Another part of the pattern is the huge amount of confused, contradictory and misinformed bollocks that gets written about homosexuality during an event such as this. In The Mirror, Adrian Shaw said that “in America they call it cruising, after the Al Pacino film of the same name” while rent-a-gob agony aunt, Anne Atkins, said in The Sunday People that Michael’s arrest had been “hijacked” by gay rights campaigners. “To them the only sin in the world is staying in the closet,” she wrote. “If only [famous gays] would come out none of this would happen. What nonsense. If George Michael had kept his private life genuinely private none of this would have happened.”
Not only bollocks, but self-evident bollocks. Mr Michael did try to keep his private life private. And it still happened.
The People also claimed that “A gay Brazilian who eventually died of Aids was the man who persuaded George Michael he was homosexual.” (Mr Michael presumably had no idea that he was gay before he met his Brazilian brainwasher.)
Then came the notorious News of the World pictures of “George on the Prowl”. These showed our superstar hanging about the same park toilets a few months before his arrest. He is shown “furtively luring” another man into the conveniences before the two of them emerge three minutes later. In case you think this proves that George Michael suffers from premature ejaculation, The News of the World had tracked down the other man, Johnny Brown, who has convictions for cottaging, and got him to tell the tale. According to Mr Brown, he followed George into the lav and saw him exposing himself in a cubicle. Mr Brown refused George’s invitation to join him, assessing the situation as too risky.
But George can take some comfort from history. All the same hysteria and hyperbole accompanied Michael Banymore’s exit from the closet two years ago, and in the end it has done him no harm at all. Indeed, it may have been the saving of him.
If the pattern continues in the usual way, George Michael will not only eventually be forgiven his “slip up”, he will be hailed as a hero who survived tabloid torment. If he continues to produce music that the public likes, his career will flourish. The only annoyance he will have to put up with is having the description “the troubled gay pop-star” precede his name every time it appears in print.