Newspaperman shocked at existence of lesbians

I’ve been asked what I make of BBC newsreader Jane Hill coming out as gay. On one level, not very much. As long as she does her job well, I really don’t care about her sexuality. But how the story has broken in the media does have points of interest, and is worth a brief deconstruction.

Let us pass over the knuckle-dragging Sun with nary a glance – the story was aired in the national press in the first instance via Richard Kay’s gossip page in the Daily Mail. Mr Kay, in turn, picked it up by the intrepid journalistic ploy of reading the Beeb’s in-house magazine Ariel. The mag regularly runs those “personal appearance” profiles beloved of in-house mags everywhere, wherein the interviewee talks about her interests, hobbies, pets and domestic situation – partner, kids, what have you. In the normal run of things this is a hetero partner, and hence piques no interest. Jane mentioning her same-sex partner, on the other hand, is apparently newsworthy.

To tell you the truth, it’s not really a surprise. Jane’s sexuality is not exactly a state secret, and has been widely rumoured for years.[1] I do like the matter-of-factness of it, not least because it gives the lie to those who take the attitude that straight people discussing their partners is innocuous, while gay people doing the same is somehow ramming their sexuality down people’s throats. Male journalists, it seems, are making a much bigger deal of the gay woman’s sexuality than the gay woman herself. That she seems to have done this in a casual reference rather than the demonstrative coming-out that celebrities went in for twenty years ago probably demonstrates that attitudes are changing for the better.

But let us ponder awhile on Richard Kay. Any hardcore feminists reading his article will probably not be amused by his references to the “comely” Jane, who is living in “non-marital bliss” after “discovering Sapphic contentment”. I don’t take this very seriously – that cod-louche style is very much par for the course for Richard Kay. No, I was thinking there of the way he frames the opening, in terms of Jane’s many male admirers being disappointed. Now, nobody with a bit of sense really thinks there is a lesbian conspiracy to convert all the fit women – I don’t believe for a moment that Kay thinks that – but he’s touched on a point worth considering, albeit that he may not realise it.

Let’s depart from journalism for a second. In the acting profession, which is known for its advanced metrosexual attitudes, out gay men are so common as to be totally unremarkable, whilst I find it hard to think of more than a handful of out lesbians who enjoy professional success. It’s a double standard, of course, and my theory is that it has something to do with women being cast in roles on the basis of their attractiveness, and a possible prejudice that women who are known to be gay will thereby be rendered less attractive. It can’t really be a gay woman’s inability to play straight parts – think how brilliant Ian McKellen has been in innumerable heterosexual roles – and it would mesh with the old Hollywood practice of inventing rampantly heterosexual tabloid personas for male stars who in their private lives were as gay as a goose.

TV journalism is obviously not the same as acting, but it isn’t entirely different in how it selects its female stars. On his recent retirement, Peter Sissons was giving off about the “autocuties” who were achieving prominence on the news as a result of their attractiveness rather than their journalistic ability. Sissons overstated his case – there are plenty of young, telegenic presenters who are actually quite good, and for really serious stories like wars the crusty old men are still preferred – and this made him sound a bit like Ron Burgundy, but he was onto something.

There’s definitely a trend, pioneered I think by CNN in the States, to push relatively young and attractive people into prominent positions. News 24 definitely has that aspect, and a notable bias towards the blonde and skinny, with gleaming white teeth. We’re not talking here merely about the need for people working in front of a camera to be presentable – at times, and especially for women, it goes well beyond that. Take GMTV political correspondent Gloria de Piero. Gloria isn’t a joke journalist – if you’re not up at six in the morning, you can occasionally read articles by her in the New Statesman – but I was struck that GMTV proudly put a notice on their website about her being featured in the FHM Hundred Sexiest Women list. It isn’t quite Gloria’s employers issuing a press release saying “Never mind her journalistic qualifications, look at the size of those norks!”, but it’s not a million miles away.

So, in a business where the fanciability of the female anchor counts for nearly as much as her ability to read the autocue, it makes a sort of sense that the story of Jane Hill’s sexuality might be couched in the terms that Richard Kay uses. But disappointment from male admirers? Let’s try a thought experiment. I don’t often see Jane Hill on the news due to work patterns – if I switch on News 24, it tends to be late at night, when it’s often presented by the very beautiful Martine Croxall. Since Martine is married with kids, it’s a fair assumption that she’s probably straight. But if you were a gay woman who had been captivated by those big blue eyes, would knowing that make you find Martine less sexy? Not if you know the difference between reality and dreams.

To put it another way, Will Young or John Barrowman being gay didn’t stop them becoming pinups for straight women, nor has Hugh Jackman’s straightness stopped gay men fancying him. I can see where an illusion of availability or unavailabity might have some marginal significance, but we’re talking about a construct of the imagination (the person we see on our screens) as against the flesh-and-blood individual (in their real life off the screen). Unless you are a) a personal acquaintance, or b) a scary delusional stalker person, you are not really going to be thinking in terms of getting your leg over with that person off the TV. The point is that what you fancy is an idealised simulacrum. To that extent, the celebrity’s real life isn’t all that relevant, and girls with posters of Will Young on their walls are unconsciously vindicating Baudrillard.

To return, finally, to the matter-of-factness of the “outing”. I do think this shows a change in our general social mores. Think what it was like in the 1970s, when popular culture would retail us comedy poofs like Mr Humphrys but open homosexuals in public life were virtually unheard of, despite years of legalisation. That’s the context in which you have to see the sometimes melodramatic comings out in the 1980s. It was incredibly important, for instance, to have Kenny Everett be open about his struggle with Aids, because Kenny’s openness, and the love the public had for him, helped massively in breaking down taboos around Aids, as much in my opinion as public information campaigns.

I was just talking above about the increased visibility of gay men in the culture, and the relative invisibility of lesbians. I don’t want to heap any expectation on Jane Hill, and am a bit sceptical about the concept of role models, but I will say this. While it’s great to have an activist like Martina Navrátilová or Ellen DeGeneres, there is absolutely no requirement for any gay person in the public eye to be an activist. If we’re talking about what would help young gay women, an increased number of prominent and professionally successful women who just happen to be gay would be of value in itself.

[1] More precisely, it was rumoured that she was bisexual, which may or may not be true. But it scarcely matters, because to the heterosexist mindset There Are No Bisexuals – you’re one thing or the other.

21 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    January 3, 2010 at 8:59 am

    Gloria isn’t a joke journalist – if you’re not up at six in the morning, you can occasionally read articles by her in the New Statesman

    Not sure that last is necessarily evidence of the point it seeks to prove

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 3, 2010 at 11:16 am

      No, I rarely read the Staggers these days. My point is, of course, that she is an actual journalist and not a bimbo who’s been handed a microphone. Then again, we are talking GMTV.

  2. ejh said,

    January 3, 2010 at 11:43 am

    On the general subject of coming out, and feeling comfortable to do so – I would have thought sport was glaringly the last major area of cultural life where this continues to be, apparently, difficult to do. I know there have been gay sportsmen and women who have done so, but it’s still pretty rare. This extends, as it goes, into my field of chess, in which I can’t think of a single leading chessplayer known to be gay. I’d hope to write something about this if I can ever find both time, and the right approach.

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 3, 2010 at 12:04 pm

      That’s true, which is why the Alfie Thomas story is so significant in rugby, or Donal Og Cusack in GAA. Women’s tennis probably leads the field, thanks not least to Martina.

      • Daphne said,

        January 4, 2010 at 8:10 pm

        There has been lots of discussion elsewhere as to why a small handful of rugby players have been able to come out (Thomas, and Ian Roberts in league) but not in the round-ball form of football.

        Sorry to disappoint you, though – there is a lesbian conspiracy to convert all the fit women. Ten conversions and you get a free toaster oven.

      • skidmarx said,

        January 5, 2010 at 3:18 pm

        Turkey baster surely?

    • jp said,

      January 5, 2010 at 1:14 pm

      This may be true at the grandmaster level but at the club level there are many, many gay players – but none I have known to come out, at least at the club.

      • ejh said,

        January 6, 2010 at 12:10 pm

        Hmm. Without the “coming out” part it’s hard to judge the “many many gay players” part…

      • jp said,

        January 6, 2010 at 2:52 pm

        My meaning was that they did not come out publicly, which does not preclude my knowing that they were gay.

        By the way, your chess website is excellent.

  3. PamDirac said,

    January 5, 2010 at 12:28 am

    “This extends, as it goes, into my field of chess, in which I can’t think of a single leading chessplayer known to be gay.”

    Reuben Fine noted decades ago that there was not a single instance of a gay grandmaster and on reflection I realized he was right. Some late developers and a few semi-celibates, yes, but no gay guys, not even a dubious closet case, in the bunch. He proffered some traditionalist Freudian explanation for this but I forget what it was. Back then of course grandmasters were a much smaller sample size of the population.

    It is interesting that the “gayest” sport by far is male figure skating (this was proven during the AIDS crisis, when skaters began dropping like flies and and the obvious could no longer be denied) but although it has produced some flamboyant types only one skater, Rudy Galindo, came out while he was still active in competition. Inside the sport everyone is pretty open about such things — but not in public.

    “Let’s depart from journalism for a second. In the acting profession, which is known for its advanced metrosexual attitudes, out gay men are so common as to be totally unremarkable, whilst I find it hard to think of more than a handful of out lesbians who enjoy professional success.”

    I wouldn’t go that far. Rupert Everett has said that coming out was disastrous for him, career-wise, and there are no major male or female movie stars who are openly gay. The closet cases may be right in thinking they have something to fear. The power of fantasy shouldn’t be underrated.

    • ejh said,

      January 6, 2010 at 12:14 pm

      Reuben Fine noted decades ago that there was not a single instance of a gay grandmaster and on reflection I realized he was right.

      At least two strong American contemporaries of his were, however, gay: Weaver Adams and Anthony Santasiere. I don’t believe that in either case this was a matter of public record during their careers, or perhaps not even their lifetimes.

      Do you know where Fine said that? It’d be useful to know.

      • PamDirac said,

        January 6, 2010 at 7:23 pm

        Thanks, I had read that about Adams but not Santasiere. Fine discusses the subject in his Fischer-Spassky book, “Bobby Fischer’s Conquest of the World Chess Championship,” a droll work.

        (It’s possible, now I consider the matter, that he was talking about world champions only and not referring to all grandmasters, but I would have to look it up to be certain. The central point he wanted to make was that at the elite level no one was homosexual.)

      • ejh said,

        January 6, 2010 at 9:37 pm

        That sounds like something I ought to see. If you’re able to look it up easily, I’d be obliged.

      • PamDirac said,

        January 7, 2010 at 1:39 am

        Certainly, it’s no problem. Bear in mind the book is in most respects pretty ridiculous…..

  4. Mark Victorystooge said,

    January 5, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    Anne Heche didn’t do her acting career much good when she came out. Speculation about Hollywood actors’ sexuality is rife in the lower end of journalism, and has been since the late 1940s, but of a kind that would make most actors cover up their sexual preferences.

  5. Northside Socialist said,

    January 6, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I suppose it would be too much to hope that Jane Hill has enticed Iris Robinson to come out as a gay woman and caused the Robinson breakup.

    It would certainly add to our merriment south of the border.

    http://www.rte.ie/news/2010/0106/robinson.html

  6. Daphne said,

    January 6, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    Slightly off-topic, but in our host’s neighbourhood I bet there are a few red faces at the moment re: Iris Robinson, doughty hammer of the sodomites and defender of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage?

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      January 7, 2010 at 2:15 am

      Have just covered it. Yes, it is indeed Iris Robinson, known for her robust views on sexual continence.

  7. Martin S. said,

    January 6, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Reuben Fine “The Psychology of the Chess Player” 1956/67:
    “Observation indicates that overt homosexuality is almost unknown among chess players. Among the chess masters of the present century I have heard of only one case. This is all the more striking in that artists, with whom chess masters like to compare themselves, are so frequently homosexual.”

  8. Martin S. said,

    January 7, 2010 at 8:25 am

    P.S. Fine didn’t say who it was.

  9. harry monro said,

    January 7, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Pam, I’d count Jodie Foster as A list Hollywwod, though it could be noted she was guarded for a long time and her career is fading now.
    MarkVS at the time some people, perhaps friends of Steve Martin, thought Hecht was making a career move by becoming lesbian and when it didn’t work out then jumped ship, so to speak.
    Ellen, as I’ve got there by 1 degree of seperation, will be queen of daytime TV when Oprah retires: ah Oprah, there may me more evidence for Pam and Mark’s argument though.
    s/s I’m not sure how much of role models Martina or Billie Jean are (if I may bring another star to the debate); OK they are not Tiger Woods but I believe they both have ex partners who feel very hard done by. As socialists I’m sure we all realise that gays or lesbians can be as bigger shites as “hetro” men but the communities need out figures so I think they get turned into saints.
    As St Patrick’s Day approaches in New York perhaps we should return to this issue with a list of great gay Republicans, or discuss why there isn’t one?


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