The End of Media Homophobia?
Has the reporting of gay issues got better or is media homophobia now more subtle?
The Soho bomb attack provoked condemnation of anti-gay hatred by all sections of the media. Even the tabloids - despite their long history of queer-bashing - were quick to express solidarity with the lesbian and gay community. The Sun declared: "There is a huge tide of sympathy towards the minorities. An attack on THEM is an attack on each and every one of US". But it was The Sun - through its columnists Gary Bushell, Richard Littlejohn and Norman Tebbit - that has for years stirred the very prejudice it now claims to deplore.
The right-wing broadsheets exhibited similar breath-taking hypocrisy. The Daily Telegraph thundered against the "stupefying evil" of the attack on the Admiral Duncan pub. Only a few months earlier, however, it condemned the vote by MPs to equalise the age of consent, justifying its support for discrimination with old-style homophobic myths and stereotypes.
While the opponents of gay equality vigorously deny any link, there is undoubtedly a continuity of hatred between the demonisation of homosexuals by the media and acts of violence against the gay community. The tabloids, in particular, have blood on their hands. With headlines such as "Poofters on parade" (Daily Star) and "Poofs in the pulpit" (Sunday People), they help legitimate the homophobic hatred that inspired the Soho bomb, and many lesser queer-bashing attacks.
Peter Hitchens's denies any such connection, however slight and indirect, between homophobic attitudes and hate crimes. Writing in The Express immediately after the bomb, he defended the right of newspapers to be homophobic: "I am worried that there will now be attempts to suppress certain attitudes and opinions, on the grounds that they may'lead to' incidents like these bombings. That would be wrong ... If we really want to stamp on the idea that you can blow up people you do not like, then attacks on'homophobia' are not the answer".
Despite the media's supposedly new gay-friendly attitude following the Soho bomb, the reality is more ambiguous. Even the reporting of the bombing contained a mixture of sympathy and insult. The Sun could not resist describing the pub where the bomb exploded as a "gay haunt".
As soon as it became known that not all the victims of the blast were gay, the media suddenly de-gayed its coverage by focusing almost exclusively on the heterosexual victims. The News of the World led with "Pregnant wife killed", and The Sun reassured its readers that "the victims were certainly not all gay". Nik Moore, the gay man who died, was not even mentioned in The Mail on Sunday, and he was relegated to a footnote in The Mirror.
What has changed since the Soho bomb? There is, undoubtedly, a new mood of media tolerance. But is it genuine and permanent? The coming out of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately is clouded by accusations that he declared his sexuality under duress, fearing he was about to be outed. Whatever the reason for Gately's coming out, his press treatment was remarkably supportive.
Media coverage of Ron Davies has been quite different. Although he mishandled the exposure of his "moment of madness" on Clapham Common, nothing justifies his subsequent hounding by the tabloids, especially the honey-trap tactics of The News of the World. Davies voted for an equal age of consent. He is not hypocritical. There are no public interest grounds for outing him. His revelation that he is bisexual and receiving psychiatric treatment for risk-taking behaviour was honest and brave. Yet Davies's candour has been reported with little sympathy. Most quotes have been from critics arguing that these revelations make him unfit to hold public office.
Is the mistreatment of Davies the last gasp of media homophobia? Or has press prejudice merely become less blatant and more devious?
The Times obituary of Sir Michael Tippett insultingly dismissed him as unmarried, ignoring his 30-year openly gay relationship with Meirion Bowen. Given that much of the media readily depicts gay men as universally promiscuous, this failure to acknowledge a loving, enduring homosexual relationship was deeply offensive.
When a would-be assailant stalked film director Steven Spielberg, most of the press - including The Guardian - gratuitously dubbed the man a "homosexual stalker". Straight men who stalk women are, in contrast, never labelled "heterosexual stalkers". The Mirror went further, denouncing Spielberg's stalker as a "gay pervert". Had the stalker been black, would The Mirror have dared call him a "black pervert"?
More double standards were evident during reporting of the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace. Nearly all the press branded his murderer, Andrew Cunanan, a "gay serial killer". Heterosexual mass slayers like Peter Sutcliffe are, of course, never described as "straight serial killers".
Journalists who always rush to condemn anti-Semitism said nothing when The Daily Mail denounced as a "perversion" a life-saving AIDS prevention campaign for gay men, and when the home of an elderly gay murder victim was pejoratively referred to by The Daily Telegraph as his "lair".
Similar insidious homophobia featured in The Sunday Telegraph last year, when it alleged that the "life expectancy of a practising male homosexual is about 30 years less than that of heterosexual men", and that "80 per cent of the victims of paedophilia are boys molested by adult males". No reputable research endorses either claim, yet both allegations were printed as undisputed fact.
The limits of tolerance are also evident by the lack of press outcry against the system of "sexual apartheid" that denies lesbians and gay men legal equality. If black people were banned from the armed forces there would be uproar from all sections of the media. Most newspapers would throw their weight behind campaigns to overturn the racist ban. But when lesbians and gays are excluded from the military there are no howls of indignation. Much of press endorses this exclusion, with the liberal minority confining their response to barely audible murmurs of disapproval.
This differential treatment in the reporting of racism and homophobia is equally apparent with regard to hate-motivated murders. While the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence has received massive news coverage, the murder of gay actor Michael Boothe by queer-bashers was given perfunctory attention. Both were horrific hate crimes. Why the different treatment by the media? To add insult to injury, the campaign to reopen the bungled police investigation into the slaying of Boothe has been largely ignored by the press. It seems that the murders of gay men are still deemed unworthy of media sympathy.
Published as "After the Bombshell", The Journalist, October 1999.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 1999. All rights reserved.
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