‘Covering your private parts!’; the debate around sexuality and privacy

GBC takes a quick peek into the dividing lines between the public figures right to privacy when it comes to disclosing their sexuality

What is our obsession with sexuality? Long after homosexuality was legalised and even with equality and anti-discrimination laws in place, there is still a stigma associated with being gay. People are fearful of the reaction of friends, colleagues and peers, worried of alienation or even violence about the detrimental effects of ‘coming out’ may have on their career and relationships. Those in the public eye, particularly actors, musicians, politicians and sportsmen have often kept their private lives just that, private. Some in the media however have seen gay celebrities as ripe for outing and singled out individuals for what can be seen now as shocking treatment.

Less than 50 years ago, sex between two men was illegal. A strange concept today when we’re on the cusp of marriage equality. Gay men were in fear not just of their reputations but also of the law with some horrendous cases of imprisonment and ‘rehabilitation therapies’. This law led to an underground scene of bars and clubs, illicit meetings and a slang dialect, Polari, spoken between gay men as a secret language. The subculture as it was became less notorious in the 1960s and, with gay figures becoming more obvious on TV and radio the use of Polari declined, seen as a negative stereotype.

It seems odd that, whilst the debate regarding equal marriage goes on in Parliament, only 15 years ago a leading newspaper ran a campaign calling for gay MPs to be named (and shamed) in public. Central to the story was Nick Brown MP, then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods. After a “News Of The World” expose had ‘outed’ Brown, the media jumped on the bandwagon and a series of other politicians were named as gay. The Sun’s infamous 1998 front page asking then Prime Minister Tony Blair “ARE WE BEING RUN BY A GAY MAFIA?” was retracted a few days later in an editorial asking “Now, can we please all get on with what REALLY matters in life?” after public condemnation but the issue represented a society that was still not comfortable with homosexuality.

Peter Tatchell has long been an active campaigner for gay rights but his views and tactics are often criticised. He described the Daily Mirror’s outing of soap start Michael French as “prejudiced and sensationalist, exposing his sexual orientation in a way that suggested being gay was sordid and shameful.” However, Tatchell and his campaign group OutRage have been prominent in exposing the homosexuality of leading Bishops who had spoken out against gay community. Comparing the two instances, Tatchell writes;

Because of the Bishops’ homophobia and double-standards impact on the lives of other people, the contradiction between their official pronouncements and their personal behaviour was, therefore, a matter of legitimate public interest.”

There is an obvious difference between a soap star (who may be a popular face on television but has no real influence) and a Bishop who preaches the sin of homosexuality to a congregation whilst their private life contradicts their public facade. There is however an inconsistency between the criticism of press tactics of naming public figures for sensationalism and Tatchell’s political motives. It also raises the question of when does a person’s sexuality become ‘of legitimate public interest’? Are the private lives of politicians currently debating the equal marriage bill fair game for exposure and are the ?

A photo of Robbie Rogers
Former Leeds United player Robbie Rogers

Sports stars make regular appearances in front of crowds of supporters and are often well paid to do so. So why are there so few openly gay stars? Justin Fashanu became Britain’s first openly gay footballer in 1991, although his story had an ultimately tragic ending. The money he received from the tabloids for selling his story was offset by his inability to find a new club and his career was all but over, his suicide in 1998 perhaps putting off any other high profile footballers from coming out. Former Leeds United player and USA international Robbie Rogers came out after leaving English football and has since become the first openly gay player in the MLS in his homeland of America. That he felt he couldn’t be open about his sexuality in Britain shows how far we still have to go in this country.

A photo of Olympian Nicola Adams
Nicola Adams shows off her gold medal to the crowds

Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were the darlings of the tennis circuit and role models for women around the world but both of their private lives were subjected to public scrutiny. King was a resolute campaigner for female rights and equal prize money but, once her sexuality was exposed, lost many lucrative sponsorship deals. Facing large legal costs, she was forced to come out of retirement and return to playing tennis. Following her Olympic success in 2012, the emergence of Nicola Adams as not just a female and black icon but also as a gay one is a huge step forward for the way homosexuality is perceived in sport.

What is it though that worries otherwise rational, heterosexual people to be so affronted by private goings on taking place behind closed doors? We are, it seems, obsessed in Britain by stories of other people’s sex lives , cheering on rock star heroes for their manifold sexual exploits whilst simultaneously tutting disapprovingly at any sexual behaviour contrary to the norm.  Honorary Brit Kevin Spacey summed up the right to a private life in an interview in 2010, saying,

“I might have lived in England for the last several years but I’m still an American citizen and I have not given up my right to privacy. You have to understand that people who choose not to discuss their personal lives are not living a lie.”

Whilst some pop stars and celebrities are often more than happy to live their lives in the public gaze, using sexuality for their own ends, I’d argue that those celebrities who choose to live a private life away from their industries are fully entitled to do so without fear of reprisal (not everyone wants the mantle of role-model after all). Laws about privacy won’t restrict the press from looking for stories any more than laws about ‘indecency’ stopped people from having same-sex relationships in the past.

We all have a right to privacy but if policy-influencers, like politicians or senior church figures, are going to take a moral stance; for instance, denouncing a section of society and demonising their sexuality for example. Then they should check their own closets for skeletons first, because when they’re measured against their own publicly ‘high-standards’  and found wanting, they can hardly complain when their own private life is held up for scrutiny.

Jonathan Paxton

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