Clare Balding: Homophobia, AA Gill, and me

Why <i>The IoS's</i> initiative still matters

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:42

It's a tricky one, influence. Does someone have influence because they have the power to change lives forever through education, medicine, politics, law or by campaigning for an end to domestic violence? Do they have influence because they are famous, or rich, or extremely good at their job?

In the steamy debate undertaken by we Pink List judges, all these things were taken into account and although you may argue with the order or the new sub-sections, the idea was to celebrate those who, over the past year, have made a difference to the way people think.

That is why Mary Portas and Gareth Thomas are at the top of the list. They challenge the accepted view of gay men and women. They are supremely successful, they are confident and bold, they are very visible, and they happen to be gay. They don't need to march or wave a placard but in their own way, they have had a huge impact.

You may wonder why a list of influential, successful, tangibly out-there gay people is worth the effort. We live in one of the world's most tolerant and respectful countries, don't we?

Well, David Laws rather sums it up. A man of great intelligence and a rising political star who felt the need to protect his "privacy" was so great that it demanded a false expenses claim and, ultimately, the loss of his job as Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

What he was actually protecting was not his privacy but his secrecy. He did not want anyone to know he was gay and it is tragic that in 2010, a man of such high standing should believe that it was more important to deny his sexuality than it was to abide by the rules governing MPs expenses. I say this not to condemn him but to illustrate the fact that it is still not plain sailing for everyone, and that the fear of judgement hangs over us all.

When Laws returns to Westminster happy in his own skin, he will no doubt rise again and his name will shoot up the Pink List but for now, his shadow lingers over all.

As another example, The Sunday Times last week thought fit to print a review by AA Gill of a series I have presented called Britain By Bike using my sexuality as a stick with which to beat me. I have never really come across direct homophobia – there may have been plenty of indirect sneering and jeering but that's easy enough to ignore and I am not one to cry out in pain unless I think someone else is being hurt as well.

In this instance, I do believe that many others have and will be hurt.

Anyone who is paid to appear on television accepts that they will be criticised and lampooned to a far greater degree than they are praised. Thus, I put up with jokes about my weight, my hair, my clothes sense or my voice. However, I draw the line at being attacked for my sexuality – not for being called a lesbian, but for it being the reason for attack. I do object to being called "a dyke on a bike" because that's just the sort of language used in the playground or the street by those who wish to denigrate and tip bile upon others.

I have never written a letter of complaint before but this prompted action. The editor of The Sunday Times, John Witherow, tells me that: "A person's sexuality should not give them a protected status. Jeremy Clarkson, perhaps the epitome of the heterosexual male, is constantly jeered at for his dress sense (lack of), adolescent mind-set and hair style. He puts up with it as a presenter's lot."

Jeremy Clarkson? WHAT? As if somehow there will be a spate of name calling in the street as "Clarkson" is shouted aggressively at every curly haired, white, middle-class male in jeans and a suede jacket.

The whole experience confirmed my belief that the Pink List is worthwhile, and the fact that we all love a list is a bonus. It is getting ever harder to narrow down the credible candidates to 100 and we inventively came up with a few new mini-lists to allow ourselves more names on the main one.

The Independent on Sunday is the only national newspaper that celebrates the influence of gay people and that, as Mary Portas would say, is a strong point of difference. A unique selling point. A message within a message.

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