Friday, 16 October 2009

Licence for prejudice: You died young... and you're gay

Jan Moir's column about the late Stephen Gately is an ugly and infuriating display of prejudice, even by the Daily Mail's standards.

Moir's tack put me in mind of the character of Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) in the 1997 comedy As Good as It Gets. Intimidated by Frank Sachs (Cuba Gooding, Jr), Melvin shouts for the police and threatens, "Assault and battery," adding with triumph, "and you're black!"

Analyzing the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of pop singer Gately, Moir pieces together a few apparently suspicious details before revealing the clincher: And he's gay.

What were those suspicious details? Gately and his civil partner Andrew Cowles had been out clubbing; they returned to their apartment with Georgi Dochev, a young Bulgarian man; Cowles and Dochev went into the bedroom while Gately remained in the living room. Gately had "at least smoked cannabis" that evening.

Quite slender details on which to hang a concrete theory, but Moir gives it her best shot, jumping from the few available facts to the statement "Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one." To do this, she discounts the results of the post-mortem, and reveals an astonishing medical ignorance: "Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again." Even I know this is not true.

The byline refers to the "sordid details" of Gately's death. Moir says that its circumstances are "more than a little sleazy." Gately and Cowles "took" the young Bulgarian to their apartment (how suggestive a little verb like "take" can be) and "a game of canasta ... was not what was on the cards." She ends boldly: "[Once again] the ooze of a very different and more dangerous lifestyle has seeped out for all to see."

Sadly, this ooze has seeped only out of Moir's imagination. That's not to say the scenarios she suggests are not possible, but how does she leap from possibilities to such certainties? Aha. With the all-important final detail: And he's gay.

It is clear Moir already has a chip on her shoulder about gays, and in particular the idea of civil partnerships. She betrays this with her assumption that if they are to be legitimate, civil partnerships should be held to a higher standard than straight marriage:

Another real sadness about Gately's death is that it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.

Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.

Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.

There is no more a happy-ever-after to civil partnerships than there is to heterosexual marriage. But for Moir, the failure of a handful of celebrity couples in the public eye somehow throws the whole concept of civil partnerships into question.

Few other people are held to such high scrutiny or expected to maintain such high standards in order to earn legitimacy. No one holds up OJ and Nicole Simpson as reason to question interracial marriage. These blacks, always going on about tolerance, but just look at OJ and Nicole. What about Jade Goody and Jack Tweed? Cervical cancer? We all know what's going on there. I'm sure there are some very happily married chavs out there, but you can't help but ask the question whether these sort of working-class, council estate types should be allowed to get married in the first place, eh? Jade and Jack was one thing, but now there's Jordan and Pete.

The folly of this kind of reasoning speaks for itself; its underlying prejudice is obvious.

Moir thinks that Gately's relationship status warrants a more intrusive kind of coverage. She complains that the story was reported "as if Gately had gently keeled over at the age of 90 in the grounds of the Bide-a-Wee rest home while hoeing the sweet pea patch," and protests that the "sugar coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath."

Why is it so imperative that Gately's death be reported in more detail? That the "bitter truth" (remembering that this bitter truth is so far just speculation) be revealed? Clearly it has nothing to do with a general ethical principle or a journalistic standard that applies to young and old, straight and gay alike. No, this is for one reason: because Gately was gay.

Gately was gay: therefore otherwise negligible details become suspicious; therefore his negatives - not that she has any firm evidence for their existence - can be applied to an entire community and used to put an entire group of people and their relationships under public scrutiny.

Gately's sexuality is the one fact that, for Moir, sets his death apart from others. It is the justification for innuendo and contrivances that reveal only the prejudice of their author.

Update: The Daily Mail website has changed the headline from "Why there was nothing 'natural' about Stephen Gately's death" to "A strange, lonely and troubling death...". The byline in the sidebar was changed to "Jan Moir on the tragic end of Stephen Gately" from something I can't remember exactly, but which definitely made reference to the "sordid details" of Gately's death.


  1. The original subheading was "Jan Moir asks why nobody will face up to the sordid reality of the Boyzone star's demise" - you can see where they forgot to change it in the right-hand sidebar here:

  2. I am no fan of the Daily Mail and agree that there is more than a trace of prejudice in the coverage. But, I'm not sure the negative coverage can be narrowed down to just a gay issue - the DM has always had a negative bent on the lives of celebrities as an affront to honest middle class taxpayers. I am not sure the sitaution would be that different in the case of the death of some other of the people you mentioned (except Jade Goody whose case is different given the nature of her staged death).

    Btw, there's far too much familiarity with celebrity culture in this post ;-)

  3. Thanks, John.

    Richard, maybe they'd have gone after any celebrity as viciously, but my beef isn't that Moirs attacked Stephen Gately, per se. It's that the allegations were used to smear an entire group of people. It was just a pretext for homophobia.

    Perhaps The Mail would have gone after a black celebrity, for example, but would they make race the issue? Would they use it as a pretext for smearing an entire ethnic group? (Well, actually, they probably would. Ignore these comments.)

  4. I think I want to backtrack a little having read a bit more on the issue.

    I think this is more than solely a homophobic article but I think you're right it is probably of different level of vitriol than may otherwise have been encountered. Interestingly I see the mail has been commercially affected (much like Fox) - I wonder if it will have an influence on editorial policy in the future.