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. 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.
 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.