Death by role modelling

I have not been away, no. I would have had the Internet anyway. I just buried my grand father two weeks ago and for some reasons, I have not been able to care about something long enough to put some thoughts together properly and write about it. What’s coming may well be all over the place as well but I want to talk it.

However, it came to my attention that once again, the Internet put on some pants who were far too tight and that made it a bit touchy and angry.

Last week or so, Russell Tovey, who I really like, said in an interview with The Observer that he ‘could have been really effeminate’ had he been able to ‘relax, prance around, sing in the street’. He then thanked his father for refusing to let him become a ‘tap-dancing freak without qualifications’.

Everyone got mental on social media and he was branded “the worst gay ever” after having been branded “the best gay ever”. Russell Tovey has unfortunately fallen into the honey trap of all other accidental role models: he turned out to be nothing but a puny human like all of us. How dared he?

The reason why he was made into a gay role model in the first place is because, from very early on in his career, he was not the “normal” gay. When people found out he was gay, they were surprised. Even gay people were surprised for, even in their eyes, he was nothing like a normal mincing, bitchy, sassy drama queen whose tight, too-short jeans, geled come-overs, garish and ostentatious colour combinations were to become an inspiration to One Direction and all nowadays oversexed metrosexual men.

Yes, that’s what Russel Tovey’s role modelling was all about. He looked like a normal Essex straight guy. I remember when he was just another young British actor, whose ears showed the lack of care of new-borns in England, when he was unknown from the rest of the world, when his sexuality was still a private matter, some questions did however pop up about his not being like “the other gays”… whatever that means. And these questions were coming from gay people themselves. That’s possible, then? How wonderful! How does he do that? Please, Russell teach us!

I got into trouble myself with a group of gay friends for I could not understand their obsession with “how did he manage that? You know, being like a normal man”. I pointed out that their questioning made them look like they were desperate to emulate him, as if they were looking for a way to not be who they were, rather to conform to another, more masculine version of a gay man. A version they had sadly – it seemed – never managed to achieve. They said I was “not a real gay anyway”…

So Russell Tovey, who has never advertised himself as being a role model, has never done anything publically expect being an actor and playing roles that are not who he is, has become a role model because he was different from the “usual gays”. He walked like a straight guy, he talked like a straight guy, he’s butch like a straight guy, no swoopy hair, clothes you can buy in supermarkets…no one would ever realise he is gay unless they were told so. His whole accidental role modelling is based, by others, on the fact that he is not like them, he’s an atypical gay man. He became the ultimate version of what the “gay people would be if they could be bothered to try a bit”: normal, looking like every other man except that they are attracted to men. One that “doesn’t prance around singing in the street”

Let’s be honest, this is the big stereotypical question people can’t figure out and the psychological struggle you will find within a lot of gay people: why are gay men so ostentatiously gay? Why can we see them coming a mile away? How can we less physically and behaviourally defined by our sexuality? Is that even possible?

Yes, by finding people like Russell Tovey or Neil Patrick Harris and putting Boy George and Elton John aside for a bit. Enough with the stereotypes: the moustachioed 1970s closted husbands, the 1980s queens and the 1990s pyschologically struggling gay man who pretends to like football when in fact he fancies David Beckham – and has obviously bad taste!

It’s fucking 2000s, let’s get real here! The queen is dead, long live the everyday gay guy. Let’s have an alternative that would help people like me who are not extravert and just want to get on with our lives. Russell Tovey became someone who managed to blur the line, to put sexuality in the optional section and for that, the gay community put him on a pedestal.

Now, the issue when you are on a pedestal is that you are not allowed to make mistakes. Being a role model (willing or unwilling) is making you a messiah, someone who will lead by example and someone who has, from the moment they are praised to the skies, a mission to preach rather than speak.

That’s what happened to Tovey, a great actor and a great guy – for those who live in England, you will have seen what a genuinely nice and simple guy he is. Once again he was asked how he managed this unbelievable, almost magical, surely mystical feat of being gay but looking normal and his answer was bad. It was clumsy and badly put, although you can feel the frustration behind the words. The frustration of someone tired of being asked the same daft, irrelevant questions about the non-visibility of his sexuality and, if he’s like me, a bit of frustration at the whole world for reducing gay people to the sights of the various prides.

I see myself in Russell Tovey and that’s the kind of answer I would have made, unfortunately. That’s because the questions speaks to my younger self, to my formative years of accepting my homosexuality and trying to find my place. And the prancing ones singing in the streets did drive me to be a different kind of gay: private and minimalist. In Russell’s words, you can feel the immaturity, you can see that he has not reflected upon this issue deeply since he was younger so the way he thinks and talks about it today came out like a teenager or young adult would phrase it: blunt and silly.

When I was a teenager and a young adult, the gays we were shown by the media and the gay community itself were in my eyes outrageously fake. I was Will Truman and although I found Jack McFarland funny, I wish he had more substance and would let the human show up from behind the mask.

I could not shake away the feeling that the gays I was seeing were hiding behind make-up, muscles and attitude, hiding who they really were. “No one can be like that all the time”, I used to think. “That’s fucking exhausting!” For a long time, these types of gay people were something I did not like because they were sending a message everybody else was more than happy to buy: that gay people are all “fabulously sassy bitches” whose careers are made in the cabarets and through endearing rudeness. “The tap-dancing freak without qualifications.”

I did not want to be the extravert, me-showing, look-at-me-my-arse-and-six-pack stereotype of gay you see shaking it badly on the gay parades. For me, they were the ones who never showed anything but glitter to define ourselves. How about jobs? How about substance? They also were not me! No one was fat, or with body hair, a student, a young teacher or anything. How about real life?

Now, I have grown up and I have found my way to be. I don’t have to look at somebody else when it comes to being me because I have found my way to be gay. With reflection, I have also learnt to understand why some people need to be outrageously visible: it’s a message, it’s a way to express who you are, it’s a way to be in the face of the world and say “I exist, deal with it!”. And I actually took inspiration from them: being physically very masculine, I have let my feminine side come out in various ways. For example, I went to one Gay Pride, in London, and wore my 5.5-inch stilettos. It’s not what I do in real life, I wear these heels about twice a year but it helps me let some part of myself out.

But I digress.

My main issue here is the treatment he got and the terribly humiliating apology he had to make because people were offended. The “offense”, the almighty O word that justifies everything from trolling, abusing and insulting strangers to murdering journalists and suicide bombings. We have re-entered a more religious society where every individual and its identity has become sacred and cannot be touch, as much as religious beliefs should now not be touched. People from the First World have interiorised the American idea that being offended is making you a victim and therefore, you will have a valid case of retaliation.

I say “American idea” because it was made even starker and more obvious after the assassinations at Charlie Hebdo: everywhere in the media, when I talked to my American friends, when I hear American people talking about it, they all had this idea that somehow the journalists had it coming. They offended the Muslims and, yes it was awful, yes it was terrorism but the journalists were “also guilty” and more or less “deserved what they got”. We did not really have that in Europe…

Today, on a different scale, in the minds of the offended gays, Russell Tovey deserves what he gets: the abuse, the insults, the “worst gay ever” brand from people who themselves dictated that he was a role model. He offended us, we are therefore the victims, he’s the executioner so he deserves what he gets.

It reminds me of the French who still say that beating children is the best way to make them learn from their mistakes. The same way anti-smacking campaigners are not saying children should be forgiven everything, I am not saying that Tovey should be let off the hook – it’s not black or white – because there is something in what he says, in the words he used which are derogatory. I am saying that vomiting your bile on the Internet, abusing him for one sentence out of the whole article, out of all the work he has willingly or unwillingly done to show the world that sexuality was irrelevant to who you are and what you (can) do, I am saying that it will not solve any issue. You will get an apology and then what? You’ll probably move on to the next person who offended you in some convoluted way.

As I said, his answer was badly put, I give you that but by branding him the “worst gay ever”, you are not only blowing out of proportion (I am sure there are way worse gay people in history) but also, you are serving our enemies by reducing him to nothing but his sexuality, how he sees it and how he lives it. He is not a man anymore, he is not an actor, he is not a son, he is not a British citizen, he’s just gay! And he’s the “worst” at it – on some scale dictated by some people he has never met and who do not know him. Branding him the “worst gay ever” is nothing but misguided, unfair, right-minded self-righteousness.

Role models are important but it’s also time for us to grow up and understand that one is not perfect. If we decide to make someone else a role model, we have to accept their mistakes and flaws as a way forward. An occasion to make it right, not an self-invitation to a free-for-all lynching party. And if you can’t accept it, if you’re looking for absolute perfection, maybe it’s then time to find another role model without quenching your need for closure through the public burning of the icon.

And this is not just true of the gay community but for all minorities who need a model to be inspired and to follow. All role models, speakers, advocates for any cause are not allowed to be flawed or they will “bring disrepute on the whole community” they are standing for. Because this is common practice among the dominant to slander and count the mistakes of the ones who are threatening the order that is favouring them, we try to avoid that but getting rid of people like Russell Tovey the second we think they derailed.

The reaction from the minorities should be to show that mistakes are part of being human, we must show that the amalgam is the most nonsensical and unfair way to consider people. That Germaine Greer outdated views on transgenderism doesn’t undermine her work on women’s rights in any way so she should still be listened too, even if it’s to be corrected in a civilised manner – not abused. That Russell Tovey is not “the worst gay ever” because he clumsily said what he thinks. What about everything else he has done to raise the profile of the every gay guy? All is wiped out?

What thousands of gay people have just done is rise someone unwilling to the sun and claim he was our leader. Then they checked every single of his steps until they found a wrong foot. They sliced the back of his ankles and now only grovelling, begging and the right amount of humiliation and blood will soothe the sores they inflicted themselves but are blaming him for re-opening.

We are still playing by the unfair rules of the dominant and got rid of someone who was proving them wrong. Who’s next?


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