As a petition to drop James Arthur following the exposure of his use of anti-gay language gathers pace, I can't help but feel it's necessary to highlight the difference between an unrefined bigot with the inability to self-censor, and a true homophobe. Indeed the temptation to banish him from the land of gay is strong, given his resemblance to the archetypal straight school bully - at least in my experience - and longtime antagonist Eminem (who, lest we forget, writes homophobic lyrics even today and still gets adulated). But before we jump to conclusions, there are a few things to consider.
The furore around James began when he called rival rapper Mickey Worthless "a f****** queer", after Mickey released a 'diss track' against the Impossible singer. So far, so irritatingly immature. James soon tweeted an admittedly banal apology ("I assure you homophobia is something I do not believe in. I have many, many gay friends"), but not before former friend and out and proud gay girl Lucy Spraggan got involved, publishing a text correspondence between the pair whereby the true extent of James' warped vocabulary was revealed.
Cue James quitting Twitter, cancelling engagements citing 'severe exhaustion' and outraged fans demanding refunds having recently bought his debut album. Of course, it positively screams playground - although given James' candid honesty about his troubled past (he claims to have contemplated suicide) it would be unwise to assume he hasn't taken this career implosion hard.
James gatecrashed an interview of mine with boyband Union J (fellow 2012 X Factor alumni) at a festival earlier this year, and joined in our conversation about closeted gay pop stars coming out of the closet, saying he was all for it. His rapport with Union J's only gay member Jaymi Hensley (and myself) was plain to see and this is enough for me to conclude he is not a homophobe (I'm confident I've encountered enough of them to make this call). James is simply not of the same stock as Hazelmary and Peter Bull, who took their plea to prevent gay couples from sharing a bed at their B&B all the way to the Supreme Court (and lost) this week. As indefensible as James' use of the word 'queer' is, it's important we tell the difference.
Furthermore, James has admitted he has repeatedly waved offers of media training, for fear of turning into "a robot." He's probably regretting that now - but I've conducted countless interviews with straight stars for gay publications only to hear the same, uninspired lines ("I love my gay fans" they tell me blankly, before a tumbleweed rolls by); as such sometimes I can't help but doubt their authenticity. And I can name more than one superstar diva with a huge queer following and an affinity with god (when it suits her), who tellingly rarely reaches out to the nonheterosexual fans who adore her so.
Forever condemning an ill-educated straight person for their disgusting language does not increase acceptance; it creates an infinite divide, at least between that individual and the queer community they may've once respected in their own way. I've encountered straight men that have been guilty of far worse; we talked about it and some of them are now among my longest friends.
The fact is, moving forward, we need as many straight allies as we can get (step forward former England rugby player Ben Cohen, who has done more to help the plight of gay people than I ever have), and if we don't believe people like James can open their minds and strive for better, we need to readdress what we're fighting for.
Sir Ian McKellen once told me: 'prejudice can always show its ugly face and when it does it should be stamped on very hard indeed'. This is absolutely right - but the punishment directed at James is hysterical (up to and including death threats). He has apologised for his behaviour but it's being drowned out: if a louder, more heartfelt attempt is made I hope the intended recipients truly listen to what he has to say: that would be an example worth setting to kids at school who associate the word 'gay' with 'bad'. There's of course still a need for militancy when it comes to LGBTQ issues - but we need to pick our battles carefully.
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