Oh, what a month it’s been. While distracted by a relapsed illness, blinds drawn against the world, the world has moved along without my attention or participation. Domestic debates over health care continue ad nauseum, and quite frankly I am worn out over discussions of the economy and the endless gaming in the Capital. It appears we are fully back to gloves off and business as usual after a brief respite. The predictability of the political cycle creates cynicism which results in apathy. The worst is when one becomes apathetic about apathy.
Things are no better elsewhere, but my attention was piqued by two ongoing issues which fall under the broad spectrum of human rights and social justice. Two issues while not dichotomous, do spin in separate orbits around the same planet. As a writer who is working at tightening up some of my random wanderings, this presents a crossroads. Do I offer both issues and then go about explaining the connection, or do I pen two essays? I suppose the twin can contain the bridge, but I’ll construct it another time.
That’s the plan, then. When I get to the other side, we can discuss my term grade. Now, off we go to serious matters.
A month ago, a gorgeous young man died of a previously undetected congenital heart condition. This lovely and talented thirty-three years young fellow, Stephen Gately, was a member of the Dublin “boy band” Boyzone, a group hugely popular in the UK, including New Zealand and Australia, the Continent and Asia. The group has yet to break into the American music scene in a significant way.
Inadvertently, Gately, an actor, songwriter and one of the lead singers of Boyzone, became an unwitting poster child for gay rights back in 1999 when he was forced to come out on the eve of a titillating gossip piece in a junky English tabloid, The Sun.
“On 16 June 1999, The Sun newspaper covered its front page with what it described as a “World Exclusive” and the headline, ‘Boyzone Stephen: I’m gay and I’m in love”‘. At the age of 23, Gately sold his story to the newspaper because he feared a former member of Boyzone’s security was about to sell the story. (BBC News. 16 June 1999. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/370073.stm)
Look at that again. Gately was 23. A bottom-feeding journalist, and I use the term journalist with reservation, set about to create a sensation with a quick cash return. The result was huge storm. It remains so today. Gately, although out to a tight circle, was not prepared to be the locus of the gay youth community. Struggles ensued, but Gately soldiered on, and in 2003, after being introduced by Elton John and husband David Furnish to an internet businessman, Andrew Cowles, the pair celebrated a commitment ceremony (The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,26210611-26040,00.html. Retrieved 16 October 2009).
In 2006, they registered as domestic partners in London (Pink News. http://www.pinknews.co.uk/news/articles/2005-857.html).
It’s hard to grasp in the United States the intensity Gately’s death had on people in the UK. The outpouring of disbelief and affection from dignitaries, fans, other performing artists, and ordinary people dominated the news.
It was due to the unfortunate lack of judgement by the publisher, as well as an ill-timed case of bad taste that had Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir inciting mourners into angry activists. Her assessment was insensitive and ignorant, and read as if written by someone who had no historical sense of the past forty years since Stonewall whacked us up the side of the head in 1969. To further the offense, the piece appeared one day before the funeral. The despicable tabloid was inundated with complaints and demands for Moir’s brooming. Advertisers pulled print adverts. In every corner, Op-Ed keyboards were smoking.
A few respected popular figures made use of their access to express the general outrage and frustration. From there began a cycle of sandbox warfare. I don’t mean to make light of the situation with that term. Perhaps “ginormous pissing contest” is a more accurate description. Glib? Yes, but the picture illustrates the scene. Somewhere in the muddle people who were already in terrible pain were hurting even more.
The burden of Moir’s piece is that Gately’s death is connected in some unspecified way to the fact that he was gay.
Though the official announcement after he was found dead in a Majorca hotel room was that he died of natural causes and that there were no suspicious circumstances, Moir writes:
“Hang on a minute. Something is terribly wrong with the way this incident has been shaped and spun into nothing more than an unfortunate mishap on a holiday weekend…
The sugar-coating on this fatality is so saccharine-thick that it obscures whatever bitter truth lies beneath. Healthy and fit 33-year-old men do not just climb into their pyjamas and go to sleep on the sofa, never to wake up again.
Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural death.” (Jan Moir, The Daily Mail, Friday 16 October 2009)
“Her evidence for that claim is non-existent. Instead, she resorts to innuendo and goes on to make a leap of stunning illogicality by suggesting that the death “strikes another blow to the happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships.” (Roy Greenslade Friday 16 October 2009 13.33 BST guardian.co.uk)
She further snipes on drug use the night Gately died. Witnesses and toxicology reports concur cannabis was present. Are we still labeling cannabis as a “drug?” Besides, any causal relationship between cannabis and pulmonary edema is absurd. The Medical Examiner drew no such connections or conclusions.
Furthermore, her article called into question the integrity of domestic partnerships, by suggesting that gay couples participate in risky behaviors more often than heterosexual couples. Moir’s piece was structured on homophobic misinformation.
The original Daily Mail column was initially “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death” which they toned down to “A strange, lonely and troubling death . . .” in the online edition. That was an improvement?
Stephen Fry, infamous polymath who is one of the kindest of the kind, and most gentlemanly of gentlemen was particularly exercised over the matter and used his nearly one million Twitter followers to express his initial reaction.
“I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of
decency would be seen dead with has written something
loathsome and inhumane.”
Harsh words from a fellow rarely given to such language. A follow-up tweet gave the web address for the Press Complaints Commission. By then the news was viral. The PCC site crashed before noon.
Fry and others have endured criticism for speaking out. This is ridiculous nonsense. Thank God that when hate mongers spew their slime, we have a few artfully articulate people who can and do speak up. Fry is lovely, but he is human, and has stepped in a pile or two. He is so transparently nice that when this has happened, he immediately owns it, apologises profusely, sometimes to the point of irritation, and moves along.
Moir, in her retraction the following week, made it even worse by trying to explain herself. Her column was fluffed with defensive rationalizations. She apologised, but in that irksome way that devalues responsibility. The words, “if I have caused distress…” is a non-apology.
“I would like to say sorry if I have caused distress by the insensitive timing of the column, published so close to the funeral.” (Jan Moir, 23 October 2009, http://www.dailymail.co.uk)
There has been grumbling lobbed back over the fence from conservative sources, including Moir herself, which blame social networking for the demise of balanced opinion, thereby creating an atmosphere in which personal opinion is not respected. There has been even more grumbling over an internet fueled conspiracy to promote liberal causes by…too much enthusiasm for social networking. Pardon? Statistics show a broad majority of social network users of Twitter and Facebook do trend to fancy progressive and liberal thinking. Is that a conspiracy, or is it just a demographic?
Surely there are other examples of the value of social networking beyond mundane and gratuitous tweets by starlets? It can be a tickle. I take pleasure in following Fry on Twitter. But there are indeed more important uses available.
In June 2009, Twitter and Facebook users played a pivotal role in the Iranian elections by supporting what began as a DDoS attack against the President, after which the government shut down local internet for an hour, then restarted with a lower bandwidth and filters intended to make accessing social networks and YouTube impossible. Cell phone calling and texting was nearly impossible, and all BBC affiliated sites were blocked (Hiawatha Bray 19 June 2009 “Finding a way around Iranian censorship: Activists utilize Twitter, Web tricks to sidestep blocks”. Boston Globe. http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2009/06/).
The response of the Global Village was to set up proxy servers. Iranian citizens and foreign journalists (many of whom kept behind doors to prevent expulsion or worse) could document the protests and inform the outside world in real-time of the atrocities wrought by the government against the protesting people. For two weeks the Green Revolution rode on the back of the internet.
I participated for five hours the first night and a few hours each day that first week by way of a temporary anonymous Twitter account. The content of one’s tweets mattered not, but the frequency did. On and on it went as users set their location to GMT +3.5, Tehran time. Hundreds of thousands of tweets overwhelmed the local server. Using proxy servers citizens were able to post to YouTube and update international news agencies. People were able to communicate with friends and family members both in and outside Iran. It was one of the few times in my life wherein I felt I was part of something much bigger than I could ever fully understand. But I now know precisely what “Global Village” means.
Put your conspiracy theories there, Ms. Moir, because the Twitter Revolution was Oz behind the curtain. The Green Curtain. You caught a piece of it yourself when you wrote your column about the late Stephen Gately. Mind your manners because news really does travel fast.
Fry is for better or worse, a celebrity in the UK. Cambridge educated at Queen’s College, Fry is a delightfully literate individual who is said to hold a BBC record for saying “fuck” on TV more than anybody else. The difference between the American style of celeb and the UK brand has to do with using one’s renown commensurate with one’s strengths. Americans don’t always grasp this subtlety.
An overwhelming majority of the publicly recognised species do not have the resources and skills to write or speak extemporaneously as Fry and his peers. But these others, primarily confined to life in the shadows of a nine letter landmark on a hill in Los Angeles do possess an even broader talent. That ability is an obligation to support specific philanthropic associations. In doing so, they induce their fans, many of whom seem unaware of conditions elsewhere, into taking up causes to improve the health and well-being of our brothers and sisters in places on the world map where the need is urgent.
Speak up! Speak up against injustice if language is your skill. Help improve the planet in other ways by using your time, talent and treasure according to your ability. Tweet for fun, but don’t forget the powerful medium for change you possess with your phone and computer.
And remember that for as far as we’ve come in Western culture, equal protection and civil rights are not universally embraced. Not even in the West. Yet.