The footnote to cricketer Steven Davies’s recent coming out interview should ring in the ears of Britain’s closeted celebrities like a rallying cry.
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At the end of the article in the Telegraph, it states: “Steven has donated his fee for this interview to NSPCC’s ChildLine, the 24-hour helpline for children who have no one else to talk to. In the past two years, the charity has received more than 10,000 calls from children concerned about their sexuality.”
While pampered public figures indulge their closeted concerns about the effect that being open and honest might have on their career – and, to be fair, on their personal life – thousands of gay kids, every day, face taunts, abuse and violence.
Those young people don’t have agents or publicists. They don’t have managers, fans, or the kind of bank statements that allow you to live where you want and do what you want. They instead have very few choices and a limited selection of role models.
Why is that selection sparse? Because a proportion – and who knows how high the numbers are? - of gay people in the media are shirking their moral duties. They refuse to come out.
Here is the irony: no other minority has the luxury of being able to decide whether or not they inform other people about what makes them a minority. (“In a tearful interview yesterday Barack Obama revealed that he is mixed race,” is not a sentence you’ll ever read.) Yet no other group faces the kind of early isolation that we do. Jewish people aren’t thrown out by their parents. Asian people don’t grow up hearing their dad say “paki”. But for gay teenagers, often bullied at school and subjected to homophobia at home, their only access to other people from their community is through the media.
It is a tragic, if not pathetic, state of affairs that people like Steven Davies - and, last month, Swedish footballer Anton Hysen - coming out has such a huge effect. It shouldn’t be the case that life for vulnerable youngsters can be so tough that honest celebrities or sportsmen can transform their life. But it is. Think about the person who inspired you, who made you think that there is hope, that there are other people out there who understand and accept you. The chances are that person was not someone you knew. Those, therefore, in privileged positions, those with a public voice, have a responsibility to help those with no voice.
For me that person was Freddie Mercury. When the lead singer of Queen announced that he was dying of AIDS in 1991 – effectively, at that time, confirming the rumours about his sexuality - I was 14. My best friend was a Jehovah’s Witness in my year at school who had previously told me she would shun me if I was gay. But when Freddie spoke out, my sad, lonely self thought, “Well if he can tell the world he has a disease that terrifies people, then what’s stopping me saying I’m gay?”
A week after his death I told my friend. She embraced me. Two years later she left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This morning, twenty years later, she phoned me asking me to help her choose the music for her wedding. Without Freddie Mercury I may not have had the courage to seek her support during the darkest years of my life.
When people in the closet say, “Why should I tell anyone? It’s no one’s business,” they are absolutely right – it isn’t. When others say that it should be everyone’s individual choice whether or not they come out, they too are absolutely right. But we don’t live in hermetically sealed vacuums. We live in a world drenched in a hatred that affects millions of powerless people. The unavoidable, uncomfortable truth for closeted celebrities is that until gay people enjoy the same levels of happiness, success and safety as everyone else, staying silent helps to keep us from achieving those same levels.
Harvey Milk, America’s first elected openly-gay politician, understood this. He understood the power of not just public figures but everyone coming out, hence his famous prescient line to be read in the event of his assassination, “If a bullet should enter my brain let that bullet destroy every closet door.” Without ordinary people saying who they are we would have no rights at all. If teenagers from rough schools can come out why can’t our public figures? Celebrities might have more people to face by doing so but they also have more power to make life better for everyone.
Take Lady Gaga. She announced that she was bi-sexual and, a few weeks ago, used her position to persuade Target, one of America’s biggest retailers, to support LGBT causes. That isn’t just inspiration, that is concrete help. Muscle. Teenagers need to know that someone’s on their side. So if you’re reading this and you’re on TV, think about all those kids taunted in playgrounds, think about what your own childhood was like and then do the right thing. Come out, come out wherever you are.
Follow Patrick on Twitter @patrickstrud