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A Sordid Scandal
On Huw Edwards, "the closet", and moral panic
There is a paedophile on your TV screen every night. There is a paedophile on your TV screen, and you pay his wages. There is a paedophile on your TV screen, and he uses your money to pay children to take sexually explicit photographs for him. There is a paedophile on your TV screen, and the BBC won’t stop him. There is a paedophile on your TV screen, and you pay his wages, and they won’t even tell you who he is.
This has been the news in Britain this week. There’s no way you could extrapolate anything differently from the article in the Sun, the tabloid newspaper which broke the story. The child’s parents had come forward to complain, and the newspaper alleged this high-profile presenter had paid the child “more than £35,000 since they were 17 in return for sordid images”, a clear criminal offence. The Metropolitan Police and the BBC had ignored them. There is no other way to read the story. This is what was alleged. Ever since, social media has been aflame with insinuations and accusations against various BBC presenters.
And yet, this didn’t happen. The Metropolitan Police and South Wales Police have both investigated the case, and “determined there is no information to indicate that a criminal offence has been committed.” What is more, the story was uncorroborated, and the young person at the centre of this case — a young adult man — had explicitly informed the Sun before it ran its story that there was no truth to the case, and that nothing inappropriate happened, something they chose not to include in the story. Two days ago, the TV presenter in question, BBC newsreader Huw Edwards, was named in a statement by his wife after he was receiving in-patient psychiatric care, his long-term mental health problems seriously exacerbated by the episode.
It might yet turn out that Edwards has indeed engaged in abusive, intimidatory, or even illegal behaviour. None of that takes away from the story so far — that the Sun knowingly published uncorroborated, unfounded allegations against the man accusing him of illegal sexual activity with a child. Others will write about the legal side of the case, the subject of journalistic ethics and standards, privacy issues, and the role of social media in forcing his name into the press. But for me, what has been disturbing but clarifying about the affair is what it tells us about the state of sexual toleration in Britain, and how the nation’s deep culture of homophobia, long thought to be on the way out, the preserve of a few prudes and bigots, still lies beneath a thin crust of acceptance, just waiting to seep out. Edwards’ treatment has been notably worse than it might have been, and the reason for that is a widespread homophobic anxiety about closeted men.
The media’s relationship with gay people has changed significantly in the past 20 years. Someone’s homosexuality is no longer a news story in itself, and the culture of “outing” people for no valid reason is no longer deemed “in the public interest”. Part of that social change comes down to the “normalisation” of homosexuality; it has become seen as “normal”, but in the process, what is seen as acceptable homosexuality has been largely limited to pre-existing norms. This was always part of the conservative argument for gay marriage; as far back as the 1980s the gay conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan argued that extending marriage to homosexuals would offer “general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extract-yourself from commitment to another human being.” And so it has been the case; in return, however, homosexuals have been expected to largely embrace the chaos of heterosexual marital and sexual norms and expectations. Have some fun with people your own age, then settle down, marry, and keep it in the bedroom, between yourselves.
Those whose lives exist outside of this model have become increasingly abnormal, and none more so than those who haven’t “come out of the closet”, or acknowledged their sexual orientation openly. “The closet” is a foreign place. Few speak from it, and most of what we know about it, especially what straight people know, comes from those who have since “come out” of it: by their very nature, a self-selecting sample. As more and more people have come out, the process seems inevitable, and those who haven’t seem increasingly pitiable, and I think, especially for straight people, suspicious. Straight people love the idea of the closet: those who come out can be celebrated, those stuck in mocked, and it produces a convenient scapegoat for widespread social homophobia: those straight guys who mock or bully gays are not actually exhibiting straight behaviour, they’re just still in the closet. This is gay-on-gay crime, and nothing to do with us.
In reality, the closet is far more complicated than that. It presupposes some easy binaries of in/out, of hetero/homo, that simply don’t exist. Even for openly gay people, the closet follows you around. You don’t come out once, but many times, whenever you start a new job, move to a new city, make new friends. It also presupposes that people’s social identities — how they’re understood in the world — and sexual identities — how they fuck — should line up neatly, and if they don’t, you’re “in the closet”. That’s not how the world works. I’ve fucked straight guys for much of my adult life, and many I simply do not believe are gay or closeted. Likewise, I have plenty of gay and lesbian friends who came out as teenagers, who have since occasionally slept with women or men, myself included. This might seem ridiculous to you — “you’re bisexual” — well, maybe, if we’re talking about descriptions of behaviour. But we’re not, we’re talking about identities, and they are socially constructed, a collaboration between all of us. If someone says they’re gay, straight, bisexual, I believe how they identify says far more about who they are than any literal description of sexual behaviour.
And so there are many straight men who fuck men, yet are not closeted gay or bi men. They have no intention of coming out, their sexual orientation will never be part of a wider social identity, they don’t think of themselves as gay or bi, and they claim no solidarity with us. This is part of why forcible “outing” is so violent, demanding someone is recognised socially as something they really are not. But the inability to recognise these complex arrangements of identity and desire within a wider straight culture produces the idea that men who are “in the closet” are both tragic and underhand figures. The wider tolerance of gay men who have “come out” just adds to the suspicion of why these men haven’t.
“There’s a place for you in the sexual order now,” we seem to say, “this discrepancy between public and private is fundamentally dishonest; they must be trying to trick us.” This goes some way to explaining why there’s so much more opprobrium for married men like Philip Schofield who turn out to fuck men, then men who cheat on their wives with other women: they’re not just cheating on their wives, they’re cheating on us.
Much of this lies in history. Since the early twentieth century British society has been haunted by the idea that homosexuals form a secret cabal, a “Homintern” colluding to undermine its values. This builds on a deeper fear; that homosexuals are all around us, and our sons (particularly), looking to undermine and corrupt them, leading them away from heterosexuality and masculinity. Perhaps, at its core, a damnable fear of getting fucked themselves. One of the strongest bargaining chips the gay rights movement offered in its compromise with conservatism is that, if you let us all come out, at least you’ll know who we are. The “closeted man” reneges on that deal, and so is suspicious.
Undoubtedly, there are many older men in the closet who would dearly love to reconcile their sex lives with their social identities, but struggle to, due to lives lived in the shadow of violent homophobia, familial rejection, and self-hatred. But many men are quite happy, sometimes partially out to friends, or with homosex being simply a part of their life, but unrelated to their social identity. Sometimes this involves deception, including of wives and girlfriends, and this is deplorable. But it isn’t necessarily the case, and I suspect a lot of “his poor wife” often involves an extra dollop of disgust that wouldn’t be there with a heterosexual affair.
The assumption that gay lives now should follow a path of suffering in the closet, followed by an inevitable blooming out of the closet, leads people to believe that something has gone dreadfully wrong with those who don’t. Part of this comes from the current belief that sexually is innate and inborn, emerges during adolescence, and is fixed from there on out. The idea that the subject of someone’s sexual desires might change over time is pretty much alien to the contemporary discourse; if you desire men now but didn’t then, you must have been repressing something. And lastly, of course, is the ageism. A man coming out at 22 is a joyful self-realisation. A man coming out in his 50s is tragic, and faintly unpleasant, because we refuse to believe that old people can be hot, that young people could find old people attractive, or that their sexual desires can be anything but creepy.
One of the problems with how we approach men who have sex with men, but aren’t openly gay, is that in not thinking about it more deeply or hearing their voices, we ignore the potential for abuse that absolutely can emerge from these unique dynamics. These run both ways. The power of “the secret” can provide a powerful bond, but also a captivating motivation to not discuss with others what’s happening in your relationship. Being unable to discuss what’s happening to you, especially if you’re young, unmoors you from what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour. Any sort of shared secret within a relationship is a boon for an abuser to exploit. On the converse, the potential for blackmail, once an ever-present component in gay life, lives on for closeted men, especially when they’re famous. Both parties can feel shame and anxiety about the relationship; painting them as only the territory of predatory groomers is inaccurate, and counterproductive to helping either party.
To a straight public, a closeted man inherits all the suspicions of subterfuge and criminality that once implicated all of us gays, and as such are a lightning rod for all the homophobic attitudes that came with it. In the day since he was revealed as the subject of the scandal, Edwards has been called a nonce, a pervert, a corruptor of youth, a liar, and any number of unfounded libels online. There is no evidence that any of these are true, but they should be familiar to anyone with a knowledge or recollection of recent gay history, and he has been treated this way precisely because the relationship was homosexual.
“Come off it, anyone would be treated like that if they wanted sex with a younger person, even if he wasn’t a minor!” I hear you type already. Really? While reading the latest from the Sun’s political editor, Harry Cole, about the “bombshell claims,” I recalled the time he tweeted excitedly about being in a coffee shop full of “jailbait”, and a gym full of “sixth form girls” (16-18 year olds). When I watched commentator Rod Liddle on BBC Newsnight defending the newspaper for behaving “impeccably” throughout their reporting in the public interest, I recalled his article recalling that he didn’t become a teacher because “I could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids.” Over on Jacob Rees Mogg’s show on GBNews, Kelvin McKenzie defended the Sun for its campaigning journalism on Edwards’ case, despite the fact that while he was editor of the Sun he paid a 16 year old Samantha Fox to pose topless, publishing it on Page 3 of his newspaper. Over on TalkTV their International Editor Isabel Oakeshott discussed the “extraordinary parallels” between Edwards and Philip Schofield, although she didn’t notice the parallels with regular TalkTV guest and paper reviewer Simon Danczuk, who was offered the job after resigning from the Labour Party following the revelation that he had been sending explicit text messages to a 17 year old girl. Unlike the Huw Edwards scandal, all of these involved minors, yet few have received the extensive and venomous vitriol or professional repercussions that Edwards have. Indeed, they’re regarded as suitable, independent voices to comment on his case. They are all heterosexual.
It might be tempting to write this off as simple hypocrisy. But it’s not (just) hypocrisy; it’s also about a plastic concept of what an adult and child is that relates not to a fixed legal category (age), nor to a proximity to potential abuse, but rather to the figure of the homosexual man as necessarily predatory. This story, like Philip Schofield’s, is presented differently because of the homophobic anxiety around younger men being corrupted by older men.
It might be tempting to say “any relationship between a young man and an older man is inherently predatory”, but it is simply not the case. Life doesn’t work like that, and there are many men who have experienced beneficial relationships, either emotionally, sexually or financially, with older men, just as there are adult men who feel the age difference in their relationship was a tool that enable them to be exploited.
Both are men, adult men, who can drive and vote and buy a house and join the army. When they stab someone in the street, they are men in the headlines. When they invade countries, they are men on the ground. Yet the figure of the boy, the teen, the child, is more flexibly deployed when it comes to homosexuals. The “teen” straddles the ages of consent, while the “child” is relational to the parent. (I’m sure, having read my novels, my father could say he has deep concerns about his child, but I’m a fully-grown man). The choice to deploy these terms is of course strategic (and often racialised).
There may be the potential for abuse in a relationship between people of different ages. That abuse might relate to the difference in age. But if both are adults, then the potential for abuse is not the abuse of a child. I believe maintaining the clear distinction between who is an adult and who is a child is important, precisely because it protects children. The tendency to suggest that those over the age of consent can’t really consent because you personally regard them as too young, or too immature, or the relationship as creepy, muddies the concept of a legal age of consent. Suggesting the age of sexual consent is not a clearly demarcated line of legal responsibility but a subjective feeling about what is “normal or abnormal,” “right or wrong,” is clearly a terrible precedent, because it can be used in the opposite direction by adults to groom children into “feeling” they’re mature enough to engage in sex. The age of consent is not the be-all-and-end-all of whether a relationship is abusive or not; adults can be vulnerable, manipulated, coerced and abused, but they are not children.
Until and unless we know more, we simply cannot know the nature of their relationship, or whether abuse took place. It is possible that this was a vulnerable young adult who was a victim manipulated or coerced into a sexual relationship. It is just as possible that this is a young man who makes his living, like thousands of other young gay men, from sex work and from selling professionally produced explicit content, and Edwards was just another client. The man’s mother has claimed Edwards was fuelling her son’s drug addiction with his payments, but that also hasn’t been corroborated. As I mentioned, there are, within relationships with large age differences or closeted parties, the ever-present potential for dynamics of control or coercion, although that isn’t inevitable. We do know that he refutes the allegations that he was underage, and that he contradicts his parents’ story, and that the police have investigated and found no evidence of a crime. We also do not know anything about the nature of his relationship with his parents. We also have no right to know: he is entitled to his privacy in this situation, although I doubt he’ll get it.
The representation of these relationships between men is almost invariably depicted in the press in terms that push the homophobic narrative that gay men are predatory towards younger men, and that that predation is uniquely duplicitous and destructive. This homophobic narrative about the unique vulnerability of young men to homosexual predation is baked into the British story of homosexuality. The biggest stumbling block to partial decriminalisation in 1967 was the popular belief that older men would corrupt younger men, robbing them of their chance at heterosexual happiness and families, and so the age of consent was set at 21. This reinforced in law and the popular imagination the idea that young men were particularly vulnerable to being corrupted by older men and turned gay.
Through the debates to equalise the age of consent in the 1990s and 2000s, this reinforcement had become concrete. Speaking against equalising the age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals in 1999, the contemptable bigot Baroness Young insisted that “boys in particular are often less mature than girls at 16, and not infrequently ambivalent about their sexuality. Good parents do not want their sons to be encouraged to take up homosexual relationships at such an early age… I do not believe that any responsible parent would want his or her daughter to marry at 16, and certainly not to have an involved affair with a much older man. But in particular parents do not want older men to form relationships with their 16 year-old sons.”
The assumption seems to be that parents of gay children necessarily act in their best interest at all times, an assumption many gay people would reject. This assumption might further be questioned by the fact that the Sun’s sister TV station, TalkTV, has reportedly been in negotiations with the parents about conducting a TV interview with them in exchange for “large sums of money.” The figure of the family as a caring unit who naturally guides young men towards a “normal” heterosexuality, opposed to the homosexual older man who uses subterfuge to deviate him from that path, was always at the core of this prejudice. The equalisation of the age of consent was an important victory for LGBTQ rights because it struck against this slander. To suggest that young adult men need special protection from the corrupting influence of older men above what is provided for heterosexuals, is an argument for an different age of a consent: a homophobic argument.
This slur against gay men as corruptors of youth is a homophobic lie without a heterosexual equivalent, and a lie that saw gay men jailed throughout the twentieth century for offences that wouldn’t have been criminal were they between heterosexuals. When the age of consent was finally equalised, the Sun called it the “Vote of Shame”: “Any parent knows that girls mature earlier than boys,” it declared, saying that equality under the law “sent a devastating message to the young … And more important, to those perverts who prey on them.”
This has long been the story told about us, and far from abating, it seems to be returning with gusto in the current moral panic more generally around “gender ideology”, a moral panic which again cloaks itself in the defence of the child. The figure of the family under threat from the queers regains all its old paranoias: the idea of a collective conspiracy, of subterfuge and predation against children. Perhaps more incriminating facts will come out about Huw Edwards, perhaps not: that does little to change the fact that the reporting and framing of his current travails continues in the same Great British tradition of homophobia, and we’ll all suffer for it. There is a word for adult men who have sex with adult men: homosexuals. If you are choosing to use the words “nonce” and “paedo” to describe us instead, then it seems the long-held bigotry is far from dead.
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