Philip Hensher: Something is wrong with a culture when so many have to conceal their sexuality


Related Topics

Back at the dawn of time, I was occasionally required to go outside the nice school buildings and practise some sport. It was not a high point of my life. Whether or not I had any inclination for exercise or physical competition, it had been decided in 1970s Sheffield that people like me were not going to be serious competitors. On the football field, it was accepted that the three or four people like us would gather near the goal, be labelled "defenders", and quietly ignored. Sometimes the sportsmaster or the more committed would call us the "mothers' union" or "backline bummers".

In any case, it was clear to us 14- and 15-year-old rejects that if you were growing up to be gay, as we all did, then sport and exercise were not for us. I had later patches of keen cycling, and the occasional venturing in the direction of the gym. But it was too late. I had been taught that gay people were not welcome in sport.

But that was a long time ago. Things have changed in every other section of society – the military, even. There is very little reason for anyone to keep their sexuality secret, and there are even laws to protect people from discrimination. What about sport?

When Carl Hester, the dressage rider, won a gold medal this week, he may have been the first openly gay athlete to win a medal at the summer Olympics. There are some 14,000 athletes appearing at the London Olympics and Paralympics. Of those, 23 are openly gay, of whom four are male. If it were not for dressage competitors, there would be exactly one.

You may say that it is none of anyone else's business, and in individual cases that is the case. But when an entire class of people feels unanimously obliged to conceal something so ordinary, there is something wrong with the culture.

As somebody who has been more or less openly gay since the early 1980s, I know how difficult these things can be. But sportsmen and women become important and admirable not just by running fast, but by standing up for social principles. We remember Jesse Owens, for example, where all his contemporaries have been forgotten. The Olympics has been rightly proud of setting an example, and offering an opportunity to sportswomen in Saudi Arabia. When is it going to start setting an example of openness and tolerance to gay people across the world?

The first major sportsperson who comes out at the peak of his or her career is going to be a hero, not just to their contemporaries, but to history. The rest of them already look like cowards, at work in an industry confident of its shame.

There's a market for rude restaurants

I'm a longstanding enthusiast for The New Yorker's restaurant reviews – not as recommendations for places to go, but the opposite. New York is full of good restaurants, and you wouldn't dream of going to these horrors instead. I've sometimes suspected the reviewer of making up the worst, but it is all, apparently, quite legitimate. The latest hit an amusing low point with a review of a nightmarish-sounding hellhole called Super Linda in TriBeCa.

"One must arrive ready for abasement, which is served with considerable creativity," it promisingly begins. An "intimidating" bouncer, a "cruel" hostess, and a "chic host" who approached a couple "not to offer consolation or a round of drinks, but to remark 'you really should check that', pointing to their insufficiently glamorous gym bag".

What happened to the rude restaurant? Peter Langan blazed a trail, in the 1980s, of abuse, once memorably falling asleep on Princess Margaret's table, and on another eating a cockroach which a complaining lady customer had brought back from the loo. But it must be years since Gordon Ramsay threw anyone out for asking for ketchup. Even Wong Kei, the legendarily insulting Chinatown restaurant, has toned itself down in recent years.

I blame the cult of the service industry. But if anyone wanted to buck the recession and start up a restaurant devoted to drunkenness, waiters with a dedication to the F and C words, and hosts prepared to tell customers that they can't bring that hideous bag into the restaurant, I dare say there would be a masochistic market for it. If it works in New York, after all, it might work in London.

Can we hit back at these accusers?

The barrister Simon Walsh has been unanimously and swiftly cleared of the charge of possessing and distributing "extreme pornography". The case should never have been brought. The images, accounts make clear, were not of the sort of acts that everyone carries out. But only gross homophobia or naivety could seriously propose that these adult consensual acts were things which would permanently harm anyone, physically, mentally, or morally.

The tone of the prosecution was set when a CPS barrister asked a witness: "People who attend sexual health clinics engage in more risky practices, do they not?" The witness, to her credit, answered: "People who attend sexual health clinics take their sexual health seriously."

Simon Walsh lost his job with the London Fire Authority and has been unable to practise as a barrister since the charges were brought. As in the case of Paul Chambers, the Yorkshireman who was prosecuted for joking about blowing up an airport, no consequences seem to follow for those who have attempted, on the flimsiest grounds, to destroy a life through frivolous prosecution. Might there not be a case for public accountability for this irresponsible behaviour?

React Now

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

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'