When Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz recently came out I expected the huge wave of support he received but what I didn’t expect was the ‘so what?’ attitude that many people displayed on social networks and comment threads.
I understand that for many heterosexual people (and also to some homosexuals) the story would simply not register as being significant, interesting or maybe even newsworthy. It should come as no shock to people that gay men can box, play rugby, fight in war zones or pioneer artificial intelligence.
I don’t agree that the coming out of sports stars and known public figures should form part of a journey of awakening for wider society; a realisation that us gays can actually ‘do straight things’. The reason why Orlando Cruz’s coming out should be considered as significant is because it has highlighted an ignorance that exists more widely than we care to admit.
When I was growing up I remember noticing gay and lesbian people on television. These people were portrayed so obviously that it would have been a miracle if I hadn’t noticed them. Gay kisses in soaps were TV events, graphic gay sex scenes caused public uproar and camp entertainers became the staple diet of any Saturday night TV schedule. Gays had their place and for the most part we were pretty happy with that; at least there was opportunity for us at last.
Believe it or not it has been almost 20 years since Channel 4 soap Brookside broadcast the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss on British television. It became the most complained about scene on British TV. In 2003 a gay kiss on BBC’s Saturday night drama Casualty prompted hundreds of complaints and forced the BBC to admit the scene went ‘too far’. Last year, in 2011, an Eastenders bedroom scene involving gay characters Christian and Syed caused viewers to complain to the BBC saying it made for ‘uncomfortable’ viewing and that it ‘confused their kids’.
So how far have we really come since that lesbian kiss on Brookside? A fair way in some respects, but not far enough.
I’m gay and I’m still taken aback when I see Christian and Syed kiss on Eastenders. I’m taken aback because I don’t see two men kissing on TV that often, in fact, I can’t think of another show where I’ve seen gay or lesbian physical affection portrayed in the last year.
The majority of people in the world are not gay and common sense would tell you that a large proportion of media would be aimed towards the majority of people. I have no issue with this concept at all. I would not expect to see a gay lifestyle show discussing gay travel destinations on primetime ITV1 for instance.
However (and this is the really important thing here) ‘gay people’ are not a niche. We are ‘people’ and we are part of that mainstream society that watch soaps and read mainstream newspapers. Therefore our portrayal within these media should be representative.
As I said, I don’t expect to see a gay takeover but I what I do expect is for the mainstream media (which, and let’s not be naïve about this, has many gay people working within it) to grow some balls, acknowledge their responsibility and start showing us in a more ‘normal’ light.
In a perfect world a person’s sexuality shouldn’t have to define who they are but unfortunately we do not live in a perfect world quite yet. We live in a world where people are uncomfortable with two men kissing.
That is why, by coming out, Orlando Cruz deserves our respect, our praise and our thanks. Until we live in a society where gay people don’t even have to think about whether they want others to know their sexuality, we are stuck with a situation where each coming out needs acknowledging and celebrating. We will get there, but we all need to play our part.
Coming out means something different to everyone. It is a mere blink of an eye to some or a simple confirmation necessary to avoid confusion in social circles. For others it’s a culmination of decades’ worth of anguish, internal fighting and feelings of utter despair. Of course straight people don’t need to come out, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t form part of the movement towards true equality.
Six months ago I started a website called rucomingout.com. The site includes over 100 stories from people who have come out and want to share their experiences in the hope that by doing so it will help others still living in the closet.
The aim of the site is not to try and tell others how to come out, but to support, reassure and ultimately empower those who need it. Many straight people have visited the website and I’ve received loads of emails telling me how little they had thought about what coming to terms with being gay must be like. Most of our straight friends don’t bear witness to the inner struggles that we face before we take that step and normally what follows is a sense of celebration and congratulations which pushes those negative emotions away.
Since I wrote my own story for rucomingout, I’ve spoken with many of my friends about what I went through during the years before coming out. Many were shocked, some were sad, others cried. What these conversations did was to help my straight friends understand what I experienced and more importantly what others in that situation now are currently going through.
I hope the website helps both closeted and out gay people as well as straight people wanting to learn a bit more about the whole coming out experience.
Until that perfect world exists (where gay characters on TV and in film are not defined by their sexuality, sports stars are out before they make their first appearance for their team and politicians don’t feel required to silence the press about gay rumors) we have to continue to congratulate and support our gay role models.
Gareth Thomas, Steven Davies and Orlando Cruz have cemented their place in LGBT history.
Of course we will look back one day and laugh at the sheer ludicrousness of the fact there were no out professional soccer players in Britain in 2012, but that day is by no means just around the corner. The sporting world as well as the mainstream media has a responsibility to support its talent, whatever team they bat for.
We all love our Alan Carrs, Graham Nortons and Dale Wintons but beyond that visible gay façade, which for a lot of people is gay Britain, there exists hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual people who don’t fit that stereotype.