Gay? Not gay? So what! Why should it be a matter for the libel lawyers?

Robbie Williams might have won his case against 'The People', but double standards may be at work

Sadly, there was no courtroom drama - the deal was done lawyer-to-lawyer before any judges got involved - but Robbie Williams' £200,000 libel payout last week was nonetheless extraordinary. For the first time in more than a decade, a star had gone to court to declare that he was not homosexual - and sought damages from a newspaper (and two magazines) which had suggested otherwise.

Time to rewind. In August 2004, The People newspaper - along with Richard Desmond's Star and Hot Stars - wrongly alleged that Williams had had a sexual encounter with another man in the toilets of a Manchester nightclub. The paper, according to its subsequent grovelling apology, had implied that Williams was a liar when he painted himself in his autobiography as a heterosexual.

Wrong and wrong. The paper now accepts the alleged encounter was a fiction and that Williams is not gay.

It is good the truth about Williams is now known, for the waters had been growing ever muddier. And for one good reason: for the past five years he been giving interviews in which he has encouraged fans to wonder about his sexuality. In December 2000, he said of his former collaborator Guy Chambers: "Guy and I have been in a steady sexual relationship for three years now." In April 2001, he told Top of the Pops viewers: "Tomorrow I will be coming out as homosexual, so get it while you can, girls." And to make the point even more deliciously unclear, he was playing the game on the very day he won his libel damages last week - telling Australian TV: "I'm not gay in Australia. I'm gay in a lot of places, but not there for some reason."

Williams' management suggest that on each of these occasions he was joking and that his comments have been deliberately misconstrued by a prurient tabloid press.

But forget the particular case of Williams. In the 21st century, is it defamatory to wrongly suggest someone is gay? Does a mistaken attribution of homosexuality really cause someone to "be shunned or avoided" or exposed to "hatred, ridicule or contempt", as the libel law demands?

"I am not Jewish, but if someone said I were, I would not dream of suing," says gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Going to court over an allegation of homosexuality "implies there is something shameful about being gay".

So how wise is it to sue in such a case? Which course of action is likely to lose a singer more record sales - allowing a false claim of homosexuality to remain unchallenged, or rushing to court to set the record straight? Williams himself has provided an answer to that question: after The People's piece appeared - but before the singer had cleared his name - he sold an astonishing 1.6 million concert tickets for his world tour in one day.

Singers and sexuality have made for some extraordinary court cases. In 1959, Liberace took the Daily Mirror to court after its columnist Cassandra had described him as "a deadly, winking, sniggering, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love". Liberace persuaded a jury that he was not a homosexual (as he claimed had been suggested), and scooped £120,000 - in today's money - in damages.

Then in 1992, another singer, Jason Donovan, went to court after The Face magazine printed a piece on the "outing" of gay entertainers. The article said soberly that Donovan was being plagued by people seeking to expose him as gay, even though there was no evidence that he was. But it was illustrated by a mocked-up picture of Donovan supposedly wearing a T-shirt declaring, "Queer as Fuck".

Donovan sued for libel and won - claiming, like Williams, that he had been made to look a liar about his sexuality - after his barrister had described the wrongful allegation of homosexuality a "poisonous slur".

The piece was written by Ben Summerskill, who 13 years on runs the gay rights organisation Stonewall. Today, says Summerskill, the case did Donovan no favours. "It's difficult to be certain his career was damaged but there was a report in the newspaper the other day that he'd been opening a supermarket."

At the time of the trial, Donovan "was at exactly at the same point in his career trajectory" as his former soap partner Kylie Minogue. "And clearly they've had different career paths since."

Media lawyer Mark Stephens says that, despite Donovan's win, "the wheels came off gay claims at that point. The public reaction made it clear to all lawyers practising in the field that you could never sue on the allegation that someone was gay." Law firms are forced to present any claim differently: we are not suing because the newspaper presented my client as gay, my lord, but because he was made out to be a liar, given his previous public proclamations of heterosexuality. And by accusing him of being a liar, my client has been "lowered in the estimation of right-thinking members of society", as the law has it.

But what if a singer could prove that a false claim of homosexuality had damaged his CD sales? Theoretically, this would de facto proof of the public's lowered estimation; in practice, it would be difficult to establish a causal link - and, more crucially, it is unlikely to happen nowadays.

As we have seen, Williams has continued to thrive even in the wake of The People's libellous story. His lawyers say he sued because the piece was about having sex with a stranger in a toilet, rather than that the supposed sexual act involved another man.

So why then did Tom Shields QC place so much importance on the point that, as he told the High Court, "Mr Williams is not, and has never been, homosexual."

"People see the headlines 'I'm not gay' and conclude that Robbie thinks it's bad or shameful to be thought of as a gay man," says Tatchell.

But the TV presenter Paul O'Grady, who is gay, sees things differently. "I can understand Robbie getting upset because they said he was in a toilet with a man," he says. "That's not nice. If they said it about me, I'd sue."

When the piece appeared, Williams did more than sue - he gave an interview in his west London apartment. A few weeks after The People's offending piece was published, his Greatest Hits CD came out. He decided to speak to just one publication: the gay lifestyle magazine Attitude.

In particular, he agreed to be the subject of a regular humorous item in the magazine, How Gay Are You? In this, a (usually heterosexual) candidate is quizzed about his or her lifestyle and assessed for his or her "gayness".

Halfway through the interview with writer Paul Flynn, Williams proudly produced a deodorant stick with "rehydrating moisturiser". His excitement was obvious. "How gay is that? It's the gayest," he said. "I am very nearly Donatella Versace. That's how gay I am!"

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Environment
The plant ‘Nepenthes zygon’ was donated to Kew in 2004
environment
Arts and Entertainment
booksPhotographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years - but he says it wasn’t all fun and games...
News
i100
Sport
Aguero - who single-handedly has kept City's Champions League dreams alive - celebrates his dramatic late winner
footballManchester City 3 Bayern Munich 2: Argentine's late hat-rick sees home side snatch vital victory
News
Muhammad Ali pictured in better health in 2006
peopleBut he has enjoyed publicity from his alleged near-death experience
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
News
news
News
peopleSinger tells The Independent what life is like in rehab in an exclusive video interview
News
The assumption that women are not as competent in leadership positions as men are leads to increased stress in the workplace
science... and it's down to gender stereotypes
Arts and Entertainment
Inner sanctum: Tove Jansson and friends in her studio in 1992
booksWhat was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Singer songwriter Bob Dylan performs on stage
films
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel your sales role is l...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Guru Careers: PR Account Manager / PR AM

£28 - 34k: Guru Careers: An ambitious PR Account Manager is needed to join a c...

Guru Careers: Web Content Editor / Web Editor

£35 - 45k: Guru Careers: A Web Content Editor / Web Editor is needed to join a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital