2014 has been somewhat of a queer year so far. We’ve seen some big name celebrities, high-flying heroes and developing protégés come out as gay in various ways, from news interviews to home videos. The taboos of sexuality in mainstream entertainment are beginning to be broken at a fairly consistent pace. Ever since the extended coverage of the various equal marriage debates it must be tricky for the not-in-my-backyard’ers, who may now have to be referred to as not-on-my-tv-or-timeline’rs, to get away from mentions of LGBT life in mainstream media and conversation given the frequency of gay-themed news stories and online trends of late. From the UKIP-induced “Weather Gays” running joke (which went as far as inspiring a t-shirt that reads: “I’m So Gay I Cause Localised Flooding”), to the wonderfully over-the-top Gay Mountain advert on Channel 4.
The latter, which extends best wishes to ‘everyone out at Sochi’, is one of many examples of public-eye organisations and companies displaying their solidarity with LGBT people around the world. Accompanied by a re-branded rainbow-coloured ‘4’ logo (echoed by Google, New Statesman, Huffington Post and others), the superbly camp video pokes fun at many of the unfounded claims that Putin and his ministers have made about what is wrong with homosexuality. It contrasts with the more minimalist, but equally effective clip from Canada in which two spandex-clad male lugers (is that the word?) ready themselves somewhat rhythmically for their luge run. The imagery is accompanied by the tagline: “The Games Have Always Been A Little Gay”. These combined efforts, and the support of millions more individuals, are paving a way towards an atmosphere where people in the limelight can be comfortable and confident in who they truly are. But should we demand our stars of track and field, stage and screen be open about their personal lives? Why should the fact an actor is gay be important at all? Ideally, I don’t think it should. People should be judged on their talent and merits alone. However to get to a point where people can choose to be out or not in their field, we first need to see on a large scale that indeed there are gay people performing equally well at the top of their game, who don’t necessarily fit existing stereotypes, with the vast majority of fans not bothered either way about the sexuality of their idols and role models.
I often hear it said that in an ideal world nobody would have to ‘come out’, and as much as I’d like to agree, we of course do not inhabit an ideal world. Or at least, we have created a less-than-ideal environment for many people to live in. I’d argue that it’s about time that more people in the limelight opened-up about their sexuality. Specifically, though, those in traditionally gender-stereotyped, or just generally ‘straight’ worlds. Mainstream music, Hollywood film, and most mainstream sports. Until recently there have been astonishingly few openly gay people working in these mediums. Given the solidarity shown by world media generated by the Sochi Winter Olympics, are we close to a tipping point when it comes to openly gay superstars?
This weekend I watched awestruck as Hollywood actress Ellen Page, the star of Juno and X-Men, received two standing ovations from an audience of councillors who work with young LGBT people for her beautiful and powerful speech, during which she came out as being gay. I cannot deny that, at the exact point Ellen’s voice cracked, a tear came to my eye. As Ellen says in her speech: “Here I am, an actress, representing – at least in some sense – an industry that places crushing standards on all of us.” Long has it been believed that gay actors will be looked over by casting directors for straight or masculine roles. Further still, the public image, credibility and ability to sell an artist as a universal heartthrob or beauty could be seem to be hampered if the were gay. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of gender and sexuality, but I know enough to realise that these beliefs are, of course, illogical and old-fashioned. Where are the ‘masculine’ men and ‘feminine’ women defying stereotypes by being open about their sexualities and proving to the wider world that all you need to be is yourself? Where are the role models desperately needed by gay people young and old?
Slowly, but surely, we’re starting to see them stand up, one by one, and make their voices heard. Few have been long-standing vocal supporters of gay rights, taking advantage of their position in the public eye: Ellen’s co-star in X-Men (an extended metaphor for gay rights), Sir Ian McKellan a prime example. The gay stars of mainstream TV are visible – the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Jim Parsons, and Wentworth Miller. Television roles are even starting to defy stereotypes too: the gay character of Ian Gallagher in the US remake of Shameless, portrayed by Camerom Monaghan, is as masculine as they get, and a stark contrast to more conforming characters such as Chris Colfer’s character Kurt in Glee. The way gay characters are beginning to be portrayed is gradually changing. Doctor Who, on TV both sides of the Atlantic now, and Paranorman in the independent film world have both had characters who happen to be gay, bearing no significance on the plot whatsoever. A shift in perception and expectation of film and TV can move us beyond a soap including a ‘gay storyline’ to just ‘a storyline’. It’s a direction, I think, that will help with how we view gay actors.
Ellen Page joins only a handful of film stars to have made their voices heard and their actions count. We also have big name straight allies, such as James Franco, who frequently speak up for LGBT rights. The great actor and philanthropist Paul Newman (who used to share an apartment with Christopher Isherwood) once said: “I’m a supporter of gay rights. And not a closet supporter either… There are so many qualities that make up a human being, by the time I get through all the things I really admire about people, what they do with their private parts is probably so low on the list that it is irrelevant.”
If Hollywood is slowly moving in the right direction when it comes to being honest and open for the greater good, it could be argued that the music industry is rolling in reverse. The matter of an artist’s sexuality seems either to be their Unique Selling Point (which is a bizarre idea if you think about it), or a secret until well after the peak of their career (see Ricky Martin). For years the rumour mill has trundled slowly along when it comes to artists in hypermasculine fields such as the ‘down-low brothers’ of big name rap and hip hop, whilst the very same artists use the worst of the worst of gay slurs in their lyrics. These attitudes and hypocrisies are starting to be challenged. Take for example the five LGBTQ artists who would gladly battle-rap against Eminem following the release of his heavily anti-gay album last year. Last year, artist and producer Frank Ocean revealed he had been in love with another man. It was huge news, and will undoubtedly have an enormous impact upon gay kids the world over. Here is a role model who is damn good at what he does, who happens to also be gay. There are sadly many artists and producers who are refusing to collaborate with Ocean’s undeniable talent, but his sexuality can’t be said to have affected his success, as proven by a certified gold debut album and two Grammies.
Despite this evidence of success, there are clearly still reservations amongst those in the music industry about whether artists should come out or not. In the world of chart pop, the mediocre machine that is The X Factor generated a star when Jaymi Hensley of boyband Union J revealed his sexuality, prompting speculation on how the news would affect the group’s sales. They’re still a popular band, but aren’t in danger of taking the world by storm anytime soon. Scale that scenario up to a troupe who clearly know what they’re doing and do it well, and you can begin to understand why the ever-frequent gay rumours surrounding the world-dominating boys of One Direction may, if at all true, be kept under wraps at great effort, lest hordes of besotted female fans buy anything less than every modicum of band merch that flies from the production lines. What Ocean has demonstrated, but what others still need to realise, is that if you’re demonstrably expert in your field, being gay doesn’t change much. However, it seems the industry doesn’t much care for the concept of creating role models for our gay kids growing up trying to sit comfortably and confidently with their sexuality.
If musicians and actors feel they need to stay in the closet, it seems largely because of industry pressures. The same does not apply, I would argue, to the world of sport. Whilst individuals in sport show homophobic attitudes, such as the Brazil’s coach Scolari who claimed: “if I found out one of my players was gay, I would throw him off the team.”, the anti-gay vibes in sport appear to come far more often from the fans themselves. I write this post sat on a train across Scotland crammed full of football fans. Amongst the jovial and celebratory chants bandied around, the occasional “faggot” or “poof” can clearly be heard rising out from the surrounding, less-comprehensible vowel-sounds that comprise the rest of the chants’ lyrics. There are police in the carriage yet not a single ear pricks at the anti-gay language coming from the passengers, so ingrained it is in the hypermasculine culture of football. It’s no wonder that no premiership football player in the UK has opened up about their sexuality whilst still playing, since the tragic case of Justin Fashanu in the early 1990s. The fans of Brighton and Hove Albion, supporting the team of my previous town of residence, have taken it upon themselves to challenge chants such as “does your boyfriend know you’re here?”, by retaliating with gems such as: “you’re too ugly to be gay”. Despite the ingenuity of the home supporters, the club had to report rival fans on multiple occasions last year, leading to ejections and arrests, following anti-gay abuse hailed at Brighton and their fans. Research last year showed that Brighton fans were on the receiving end of homophobic abuse at 57% of all matches.
All, however, is not yet lost for the ‘straight’ world of professional sport. One by one, sports stars are starting to come out too, adding to the global voice of out and proud superstars and growing podium of positive role models previously denied to fans who are gay themselves. Our Olympians worldwide are leading the way, the pinnacle from a public-eye perspective being Tom Daley’s adorably cute home video where he opened up about his loving relationship with another guy. However, athletes from almost every sport are starting to come out. Daley has catalysed the domino effect and shift in culture, with England Women’s football captain Casey Stoney attributing her decision to come out to the diver’s announcement.
The courage summoned by the likes of Daley and Stoney to come out whilst still at the top of their game has surely been drawn, at least in part, from the brilliant Robbie Rogers. Whilst sports stars like cricketer Stephen Davies and rugby player Gareth Thomas are openly gay and continue to play professionally, the Robbie Rogers’s incredible story accentuated the shift in attitudes towards gay players both in the UK and in America. Footballer Rogers played for Leeds United, but retired early, convinced he would not be accepted in the sport after revealing the truth about his sexuality. Encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response to his announcement, Rogers returned to professional playing when he signed for LA Galaxy. His Beyond It charity aims to put an end to the labels and stereotypes that limit us and hold us back from our innate humanity and morals.
Perhaps the most stereotype-defying revelation this year has been that of college American Football player Michael Sam. Undeniably excellent at what he does – he won Defensive Player of the Year whilst in his final year at college – Sam’s sexuality has still, unsurprisingly, sparked a frenzy of media and pundit debate over his draft prospects for professional play in the NFL, gaining almost as much air time on American TV as the whole of the Winter Olympics. Again the response from players and fans has been largely accepting and welcoming. A poll this week found a huge majority of NFL players would have no problem with a gay teammate. If drafted, which seems highly probable, Sam will become the first openly gay player in the NFL. It is potentially a gargantuan catapult forward for LGBT acceptance in a field traditionally so hostile.
Michael Sam, like Robbie Rogers, Tom Daley, Frank Ocean, Ellen Page & co, have become the figureheads in a new line-up of positive role models for gay kids and adults worldwide. If their courage and demonstrable acceptance in this brave new world can inspire more stars who are surely out there, silently afraid of the effects that coming out might have on themselves or their careers, then perhaps we can finally unite to fight the real oppression and injustice faced by LGBT people around the world. Suicide in the LGBT community, especially amongst bullied kids and teens is tragically common. A new study has shown that LGBT people have an average life expectancy 12 years shorter if living in an anti-gay environment compared to those in an area of low-stigma. In an ideal world nobody would need to come out and people would be free to love another person regardless of gender, but until then, we need role models and we need game changers to lead the way.