Monday, 14 October 2013

Stephen Fry's 'Out There'

I've got a bit of a love/hate thing going on with Stephen Fry. I know a lot of people who feel very strongly about him in good and bad ways, and I pretty much agree with them all. I got so annoyed when I read his first autobiography Moab is my washpot, it read to me like public school propaganda, he also infuriated me with the language he used about gay sex, which I'll get onto later. However, his passion in documentaries such as Last Chance to See and his America series was really infectious. I also met him at a book signing for when he wrote a foreword to a collection of Oscar Wilde's short stories, he did a reading from it, which was beautiful, and he was extremely likable. I suppose most people who I know who despise him base this largely on the fact that he purports to be an anti-establishment figure, when he is quite clearly the exact opposite. All this aside, I watched Out There on BBC2 with some interest, hoping it would make up for the laughable BBC3 documentary about being gay in Uganda hosted by Scott Mills of all people.

However, it troubled me in many ways. Obviously, a lot of the stories shared in the documentary were heartbreaking, but it was the way the documentary was framed that I'm focusing on here. I was bothered by the following:

  • Fry's use of the word 'gay'. It was 'gay people this' and 'gay people that'. The inference being 'gay men'. We heard from one lesbian, but apart from that, the language used was very exclusive, and while it's understandable that, at least in the UK, a lot of legislative changes around queer issues have been focused around gay men, that's not to say that issues of homophobia don't concern lesbians, bisexual men and women and trans people. If anything, gay men are the ones whose lifestyles have most broadly been accepted in this country. If you're referring to the LGBTQ community, then address it as such, not the gay community.
  • On the subject of language, stop saying 'homosexuality' it's a dated and scientific term that we really need to move away from. Most annoyingly though, and this was my main issue with Moab... is that he insists on calling anal sex "sodomy" or "buggery", both were words used to prosecute and to animalise people. While Fry rightly argued against people assuming that (again, male) gay relationships were purely about anal sex, by saying that anal sex most regularly occured between mixed-sex couples, his defensive tone and assertion that most gay men don't have anal sex was extremely offensive. It's not really moving away from prejudice to steep a very common and natural part of sexual activity in your community with shame by denying it exists, or referring to it in such heinous terms. Of course, it's a nice soundbite to say that queerness is not about sex, it's about love, but of course, it's also definitely about sex.
  • Stephen Fry and Elton John as the voices of the gay male community makes me shudder. One is a man ashamed of gay sex, the other has assimilated so willingly to a heteronormative life. Of course I'm not assuming that there's anything wrong with people wanting to get married and have children, I think it's great that people have the option, but surely we've moved beyond this being the pinnacle of queerness.
  • Finally, it ended with a white rich gay actor who is successful in Hollywood, and another man who was being trained to shed any hints of effeminacy he might have, as that is the only way he felt he could achieve anything as an actor. I really don't think narratives about these exceptionally privileged people deserve the same platform as a lesbian who was "correctively" raped as a 14 year old, forced to have an abortion and given HIV/AIDS, or an underground medical support group in Uganda for those too scared to seek help through traditional avenues given impending death-sentence laws. Again I'm not suggesting that varying degrees of prejudice aren't worthy of conversation, but I think it trivialises the real issue to contrast them in this way.
  • I also didn't like the way he kept saying "one of the few people brave enough to speak to us", I don't think braveness should be measured that way. This suggests that the queer people who are suffering immensely who don't speak on television are not brave. It's deeply troubling. Lastly, I think it was a bit regressive for him to say to a "gay cure" doctor "you could pass as gay because you're so well groomed" I see what he was trying to do, but let's not enforce stereotypes.

Apologies this is a bit of an incoherent rant, I'm just tired of seeing issues such as these being handled so poorly. I learnt nothing from this documentary, but that's fine, I wasn't the intended audience, I follow queer politics around the world quite closely, but if this show was aimed to educate people, let's not educate them within such troubling and tedious heteronormative parameters. Do I admire Stephen Fry? A little. Do I like him? A lot. Does he speak for my queer community? Absolutely not.


  1. Saying that we shouldn't use the term "homosexuality" because it's "too scientific" is not a very good point. Should we stop saying "lithium" "chemistry" because they're too scientific too? If we have restrictions on what we can and can't describe homosexuality as, we're not doing very well are we? Furthermore, I didn't infer that "gay" meant "gay men", "gay" is simply a collective noun in my, and many people's eyes.
    Your post seems very narrow minded, for such an open minded issue.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I think the conversation around language is important to keep having, people are always going to disagree, especially as the rate of how language relating to LGBTQ issues evolves is so fast.

    Of course I don't object to scientific terms, I object to how it can be misused. It's a valid term, but doesn't capture anything beyond the science of LGB identities, it says nothing of queer experience more broadly, and is associated mainly with gay men. I think it needs to be continually troubled.

    Secondly, while "gay" might be a collective noun in many people's eyes, in many others' (including my own), it isn't. I think LGBTQ is a better term, which captures broader identities better (but still needs to be contested and unpicked). I think the overuse of both terms (homosexuality and gay) were particularly ill-advised given that, especially in the second episode, trans identities and transphobia were dealt with as well. It's dangerous to sweep trans identities under the blanket of "gay" especially since trans people are so often cast aside by most legislative measures and attitude changes around gay and lesbian communities.

    I don't think it's closed-minded to challenge language used in a documentary about my own community that I found offensive. I appreciate the aims of the documentary. I also don't think an issue can be open-minded, an issue can be approached from an open-minded stance or angle, but in itself, it's not open- minded.


  3. I only saw a tiny clip of this, watching people watch it on Channel 4's gogglebox. What irked me was how when he said most gay people don't have anal sex he also claimed that he'd never had it himself. Which is not what he says in Moab is my Washpot, where he goes into a reasonable amount of detail about him being penetrated.

    As for his use of 'gay/homosexual' instead of LGBTQ ... I think really he's too self-interested for it to even occur to him to make his program about trans/queer people.

  4. I find him irritating in that he basically just recites other people's great lines and reaps the glory, he complains about being depressed yet he is adored by millions of people and is so totally loaded he doesn't need to work at jobs he doesn't want to do like most people AND he is embarassed by anal play which is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of hetrosexual people around the world let alone homosexuals! In addition to all this he ruined my name.... even changing my name to have an A in it to differentiate and one searches for StephAn Fry one get's 8 pages of results for Stephen Fry..... seriously we could do without him! Haha!