Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The columnist, her prejudice and consequences

Time was, it was impossible to open a newspaper without seeing something anti-gay lurking on the pages. Homophobia was rampant in the dark old days (not so long ago); it was almost a universal journalistic convention—in the English-speaking world, at least.

Times have changed, and as the world has moved forward, much of the antipathy toward GLBT people has waned. And yet, sometimes it still rears its ugly, fanged head to have another go.

Jan Moir, a columnist for Britain’s Daily Mail, not exactly a top-tier newspaper, penned a column on the death of Boyzone co-lead singer Stephen Gately that was widely viewed as homophobic. She denies this. Nearly everyone agrees it was insensitive in the extreme to publish it as the singer was being farewelled, but is being tacky a sackable offence?

Well, yes, it is, but more about that later. First, to the main charge: Was it homophobic? Without a shred of doubt—though she’s apparently incapable of seeing it.

Moir claims she’s not homophobic because she supported the “civil partnership” law in Britain, as if that has anything do with, well, anything. We can see from her column that she believes that gay men, celebrities especially, use drugs, have promiscuous sex, even if coupled, and that their relationships don’t last. She used her column to support those beliefs by projecting them onto Gately.

She claimed that on the night he died, Gately had used drugs and insinuated that he and his partner had brought a man back to their apartment for sex. In fact, the coroner ruled that Gately’s death was due to natural causes, which Moir grandly dismissed, “Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one.” Unfortunately for her, the toxicology report showed no sign of drugs.

She also cannot know why 25-year-old Georgi Dochev accompanied Gatley and his husband, Andrew Cowles, nor what happened when they got there. And, quite frankly, it’s none of her business for the same reason that I don’t know—and certainly don’t care to know—the sexual appetites and behaviours of Moir or her cohorts. Unless she has some evidence of murder—which she absolutely doesn’t—then it’s an irrelevance designed merely to smear Gately and, by extension, all gay men. She makes this clear in her arrogant defence of her column in which she refers to “the casual invitation extended to a stranger” (she doesn’t know it was casual or that he was stranger).

She clearly didn’t like Gately. She dismissively declared, “he was the group's co-lead singer, even though he could barely carry a tune in a Louis Vuitton trunk” (catch the subtle fag joke in that?). I can hear fans all over the world shouting back at her, “says you, bitch!” which is fair enough, actually: So she hated Gately’s singing—so what? What on earth does that have to do with his death? Absolutely nothing, but it gives her another opportunity to spit on Gately.

She also said that Gately only came out because “someone was planning to sell a story revealing his sexuality to a newspaper” and “Although he was effectively smoked out of the closet, he has been hailed as a champion of gay rights, albeit a reluctant one.” So, in her view, he couldn’t even be good at being gay. It’s fair to infer from this and her dislike of Gately that she views his continued fame as being the result, in part, of being openly gay, which she clearly doesn’t feel is legitimate.

She then used this all of this as a reason why gay relationships are inferior:
"Gay activists are always calling for tolerance and understanding about same-sex relationships, arguing that they are just the same as heterosexual marriages. Not everyone, they say, is like George Michael.

"Of course, in many cases this may be true. Yet the recent death of Kevin McGee, the former husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas, and now the dubious events of Gately's last night raise troubling questions about what happened.”
She neglects to mention that McGee committed suicide after years of drug addiction and depression, problems that began long before his marriage to Matt Lucas. Or does she mean to insinuate that all gay men are incapable of relationships? What, precisely, do these two examples have to say about the thousands of other civil partnerships in Britain? Precisely nothing, actually.

What this all adds up to is that Moir was homophobic: She used her column to project her own prejudices against gay men onto Stephen Gately, and then used that to reinforce those prejudices. She used facts irrelevant to Gately’s death to denigrate both Gately and gay men generally, clearly intending to call them into public disrepute. She then used those same prejudices to denigrate gay men in relationships, attempting to suggest by innuendo that they’re not equal to heterosexual relationships, again in an attempt to call them into public disrepute.

More seriously for a newspaper, she was also factually wrong: Toxicology reports found no evidence of drugs, yet she continues to say they must’ve been a factor. The coroner ruled the death was from natural causes, yet she dismissed that based on nothing more than assumption, conjecture—and prejudice.

All of this is reason enough to sack her. No newspaper wants a columnist who uses her column to promote her own prejudices and trash minorities without at least some justification, some factual basis. But she could also be fired for being tacky: Advertisers have told the paper that their ads are not to appear near her column. Cancellation of ad contracts isn’t unimaginable if the paper doesn’t act against Moir in some way. Columnists who create problems for their employers can’t count on keeping their jobs.

As always, there’s politics: Moir will definitely become a cause célèbre for the rightwing, who often complain darkly of the intolerance of GLBT activists as they spit out the phrase, “pink mafia” (while also often demanding that their critics be fired, though we’re not supposed to remember that part). Moir claims she isn’t homophobic and that her critics haven’t read her entire column (I have, they’re right, she’s wrong).

If she really intended that her column “was to suggest that, in my honest opinion, his death raises many unanswered questions. That was all,” then she could have done so without the snide remarks and insinuations. If she really did mean by writing “it strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships” that she “was suggesting that civil partnerships… have proved just to be as problematic as marriages,” then she didn’t need to do so by implying none can last.

In sum, Moir was insensitive, tacky, factually wrong and homophobic. She, and the editor who allowed the column to run, should be sacked. And if she is, she has no one to blame but herself.

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