Philip Hensher: Being gay is no longer disapproved of. Hiding it is

One's first reaction was: 'Paul Burrell? Who on earth would have thought it?'

Share
Related Topics

Since the dawn of time, gay men, talking to each other, have been claiming the ostensibly heterosexual as one of their own. I have no doubt that in ancient Egypt, there were conversations that went like this. "Khufu? He's down Nefertiti's Nitespot every Friday night. And have you heard about that big camp pyramid she's putting up in the desert? She thinks it's going to look butch. Pur-lease."

Perhaps the time has come, however, to put an end to this much-enjoyed game. Could we possibly hand some of them back? There are some "outings", as they used to be called, which fill us all with total dismay. It would be much better for everybody's peace of mind if they were allowed to maintain the implausible façade of a ladies' man.

A Sunday tabloid has produced evidence that Mr Paul Burrell, the former butler to the Princess of Wales, lives a strenuously gay and somewhat promiscuous private life. He was filmed snogging a Channel 4 producer, and a nameless source has supplied evidence that he trolls hotel saunas for rough trade. His wife and children, it was said, live quite separate lives from him, and are tearfully resigned to his shameless antics.

One's first reaction was, of course: Paul Burrell? Who on earth would have thought it? The man who, from an early age, dreamt of nothing else than working for the Royal Family? Who for years lived and breathed the heady glamour of Princess Diana, expertly choosing what cocktail dress she was going to put on that evening? The man who starts to hyperventilate whenever he is allowed to mention the Queen? The man who presents a television programme about etiquette and deportment called – pur-lease – American Princess?

Some years ago, after an ugly run of similar stories, several red-top newspapers let it be known that they had no further interest in "outing" well-known figures. The decision was influenced by a number of factors. In the first place, in a climate of increasing openness, they ran the risk of looking pretty stupid. The humiliating aftermath of George Michael's coming out, in which he was generally conceded to have run rings round the fake moral posturing of the media, was not quickly forgotten.

There was, too, the point that readers seemed to dislike such stories a good deal. Way back in the mists of time, when a newspaper decided to out Elton John over a series of weeks, its circulation fell sharply. People loved Elton John, and clearly disapproved of him being hounded to the point where they just wouldn't buy the paper to read allegations which turned out to be untrue in specifics. The economic factor was decisive.

And yet, in 2008, here we are reading what I admit to be a horridly fascinating story about Paul Burrell. Surely, nobody cares much if someone is gay or not any more. What, if anything, has changed since the dark ages?

The moral argument has shifted its ground, clearly. In the past, being gay appeared to be grounds for disapproval on its own. These days, the grounds for moral disapproval are not being gay on its own, but the dishonesty of concealing it, and living a life of clear hypocrisy. If you said in print that a public figure was gay, incorrectly, I doubt that claim on its own would be enough to sustain a legal claim for defamation. It would only be like saying that someone was Jewish when they were not.

What would be defamatory would be the suggestion that they were living a life of deceit. The libel lawyer's definition of something disapproved of "by all right-thinking people" has shifted from the nature to the behaviour. No-one would care about this story, if there were not a wife and children involved.

We've seen a number of these stories recently. Simon Hughes effectively disqualified himself from leading the Liberal Democrats, not because he was gay, but because he had not had the courage to be honest about it, even when asked directly. The American senator recently discovered in lurid congress in an airport lavatory deserved our contempt because he had not only supported oppressive policies of a "family values" variety, but paraded his devotion to his own family for electoral gain.

Burrell doesn't give the impression of ever having calculated or planned in that manner. Having read one of his rather awful books, and observed his bizarre appearances in the witness box, I would say that the quality he conspicuously lacks is bravery. We talk about bravery as if it were a rare quality, and give it medals. But the sort of ordinary bravery which millions of gay men and lesbians exhibit in not concealing their nature seems to have been quite beyond him. If we can't hand this specimen back, let's at least agree to look down on him with some distaste.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own