Gay Times, March 1997

It was Andy Warhol who said that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame. I’m not sure about that, but if you’re gay, the chances of finding yourself in the media spotlight are better than average.

Television programmes and newspapers (particularly tabloids) are constantly looking for people who can provide them with human interest stories or scandal – or both.

Involvement in the media can be voluntary or involuntary. The dozens of public figures who have been outed and “exposed” by the Sunday tabloids will tell you that it is a painful, humiliating and damaging experience. And despite the tabloids’ reputation, victims are still shocked by how underhand and mendacious the “investigative reporters” from the scandal sheets can be.

Then there are those who willingly assist with what they imagine is the media’s attempts to discuss homosexuality. They do it because they think it will raise public awareness and increase understanding. They, too, often come out of it feeling battered, bruised and betrayed.

Charming journalists can make you feel like the most important person in the world a they court your co-operation. After a few hours in their company, they can seem like your best friend.

You come to trust them and believe that they really will do their best for you, if you decide to open up. But remember: however intimate the conversation at the time, it has a potential audience of thousands, if not millions. And when it appears in print, it will be on the reporters terms, not yours. Your retractions, emphases and modifications will be left out if they are not in line with the angle the reporter wants to take. You may say something you later regret or which is open to misunderstanding when taken out of context. A passing remark can become the focus of the story.

The interviewer chooses which parts of the conversation to leave in and which to leave out. The reader will not hear the tone of your voice or see the wry smile. What you thought was a joke can sound nasty and heartless without these modifiers. Your fifteen minutes of fame can rapidly turn into your day of notoriety.

An example of this came last month, a Gay Times reader (who I will not name because he feels so aggrieved about what happened to him and I don’t want to add to his distress) gave an interview to the Mail on Sunday’s magazine You. The feature was about gay men who might straight women and then leave them for other men. Our reader gave the interview in good faith and was promised some sort of consultation before the feature was published. However, the article appeared with no further contact. 

Our reader does not come out of it very well. Being what it is, the Mail on Sunday gave all the sympathy to the wife, while the gay man and his lover came over as a couple of selfish home-wreckers. No wonder he was upset. I cannot imagine what his friends and family think about him after reading such a one-sided presentation.

We can all learn a lesson from this. If you are approached by the papers for an interview, be warned that you may not be pleased with the result. Newspapers – and individual journalists – have their own agendas. Even if the journalist is sympathetic and writes you up well, his words may be filtered through the prejudices of the sub-editor, who are well-versed I the paper’s political philosophy. At that stage the whole thing can be turned on its head. Judicious editing can turn a hero into a villain.

With this in mind, don’t say anything in an interview that you don’t want your Aunt Edith to know about.

In this situation the newspapers have all the power, pull all the strings and call all the shots. Unless you’ve just single-handedly won a Lottery roll-over (which is just about what it takes to fund a libel action) there’s no satisfactory way to get back at them.

Another variation of this is voluntary co-operation is the kiss-and-tell, where gay people go to the press and sell the details of their relationships with the rich and famous. A recent high-profile example was Paul Stone who last month shopped Jerry Hayes MP to the News of the World.

Mr Stone may have thought the News of the World did him proud and told the story entirely from his point of view. But the other newspapers saw it differently. He has since become the object of almost universal scorn and contempt in Fleet Street. Most of the other papers carried articles about him and none of them were very flattering – (“Paul Stone thought his betrayal of Jerry Hayes would mean instant fame. Today even his local pub has closed its doors to him,” – Daily Mail; “Oh, Paul, how could you?” – The Guardian; “I felt sick to the pit of my stomach at the wicked lies about Jerry,” – The People.)

Imagining you can “manipulate” the media to your own advantage is a delusion. If you please one newspaper, you automatically set yourself up for “exposure” by the others. And, as Paul Stone has found out to his cost, they are merciless.

Television is little better. Chat shows and documentaries need an endless supply of gay people with stories to tell. Did you come out to your parents? Did you foster or adopt children? Did you marry in haste and repent at leisure? Almost anything that gay people do is fodder for day time chat shows with incessant demands for participants. (Or “ordinary people” as we are patronisingly called).

It begins with a phone call from a researcher who will make you feel very important. Your story will be listened to at great length and, having satisfied themselves that you are capable of speaking a coherent sentence, the researcher will invite you on to the programme, assuring you that you will get a sympathetic hearing.

You will be whisked to the studio, all expenses paid, sometimes in a chauffeur-driven car. But once the programme begins, you will probably find it unpleasant and confrontational. It won’t be a serious attempt to explore the issues, but frivolous entertainment about the most intimate parts of your private life. Inevitably there’ll be some raving Christian fundamentalist denouncing everybody in sight. You might get to speak for forty-five seconds or so to tell your story (unless you can produce tears, in which case you might get as much as three minutes) and the rest of the programme will consist of shouting, hurled insults and acrimony.

If you don’t take it seriously and don’t expect too much, you might actually enjoy the novelty. But few opt for a second helping.

Television uses up “ordinary people” at an alarming rate. When the whole thing is over, you’ll feel as though you’ve been processed.

The friendly researcher who was so anxious for you to take part will now be completely indifferent, her only concern being to get you off the premises at the earliest convenience. I have spoken to many people who have taken part in these daytime TV farragoes – I’ve done some myself – and all have been left disappointed by the experience.

The moral is that gay people get involved with the media at their own risk. If you are approached for your story and you decide to go ahead, then tread warily. Journalists may seem like counsellors, but their purpose is quite different. If you’ve got a problem and need to sort it out, talk it through with a trusted friend.

***

No doubt at this very moment there is a researcher at Conservative Central Office combing through the minutes of every Labour local authority in the country, looking for evidence of “political correctness” that they can pass on to the tabloids.

As the general election approaches, we can expect to see more and more of their discoveries. Like the one at Camden Council in North London, which promised at £500 grant to Male Out gay youth group so that they could take a trip to Amsterdam.

Despite the fact that £500 hardly registers as a pimple on the council’s multi-million pound budget, there was an immediate uproar in the tabloids. Equally predictably, the council withdrew the grant. “Gays can’t go Dutch,” sneered the Daily Mail (February 1st) taking the opportunity to point out that Camden is a “cash-strapped, left wing Labour authority, and also pointing out that that two members of the Male Out group are “under 17 – a year under the age of consent for homosexuals in Britain.”

The London Evening Standard then told us that there was a “storm” over “explicit gay novels stocked in a library run by a Labour authority in a bid to give equal rights to homosexuals.” More Tory tosh, of course, but if any reader wishes to examine these shocking, child-corrupting works of literature, they are stocked at the Marcus Garvey Library in Tottenham.

***

Do I detect a growing intolerance among gay people for raving religionists who seek to interfere with our health and safety? The Times (January 21) reported that a Leeds-based group called Faith Ministries was pelted with eggs when they preached hell-fire and damnation for homosexuals in a York street.

A witness said: “They had a huge crowd gathered round and were shouting at the top of their voices for people to save themselves. You could tell there was going to be trouble. One started shouting about homosexuality and the people that practised it would rot in hell.” That’s when the groceries started flying.

Pastor Phil Dacre of Faith Ministries said: “For the past six months, since the Lord told us to go out to preach and proclaim, we have sent teams to Yorkshire telling people to repent. This team were asked by the Lord to visit York but it seems the people of that city did not want to hear the message.”

For their own safety, the evangelists were carted off to the police station and charged with causing a breach of the peace by aggressive preaching. York will now no doubt be known in evangelical circles as Sodom-on-Ouse.

Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported (January 18) the case of Keith Buxton, a gay man who worked at the Royal Courts of Justice. Mr Buxton was fined £200 for attacking a colleague, Naomi Perras, who is a born-again Christian. Apparently, the two had got on well together until Mrs Perras found out that Mr Buxton is gay and then started saying that she would pray in church for him to “mend his ways”.

After that, their relationship deteriorated until Mr Buxton could stand it no longer and punched Mrs Perras on the back of the head.

I am no advocate of violence and in no way do I excuse Mr Buxton’s attack. I always advocate the use of reasoned discussion to settle differences. The problem is that reason and born-again Christians just don’t seem to go together.

And speaking of unreason, we come to the latest antics of the Reform group, which is harassing the Anglican Church over its refusal to totally condemn homosexuality. The Independent (21 January) reported that “The schism in the Church of England over the ordination of practising homosexuals widened when the conservative Reform group announced plans to create its own bishops and plant churches outside the Church of England that would be ‘legally independent but theologically connected”.

The Independent tells us that Reform is “vague” about its plans. Of course it is. The groups is always making threats that it never carries out. And like most of what Reform says, this latest outburst is nothing but gob with gaiters on.

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