Among the queer politics crowd, reality TV is frequently bashed; moving more in those circles than between the cocktail-serving clubs of Soho and Shoreditch, and being unabashedly a regular viewer, this is an awkward fact for me. The ‘bread and circuses’ argument – that light entertainment culture on Saturday nights acts as a political narcotic – has its merits, but I’d argue that if you want to find out how societies work, their circuses are the best place to look.
Like freak shows from the early 20th century, reality competitions are so often the home of the marginalised, helping for better or worse to form their role in public consciousness. It’s the X Factor stage specifically, with its annual quota of mincing queens and sensitive closet-dwellers, on which queer people’s social role in Britain is most publicly played out, and as with pop culture in general, tuning in can tell us much about the things that really matter. The widely reported coming out of Union J member Jaymi Hensley, who yesterday thanked his bandmembers and mentor Louis Walsh for ‘supporting his decision’, is a case in point.
The programme has a history of queer contestants, many of whom had noted comings out during or after their time on it, including Rylan Clark, Jade Ellis, Lucy Spraggan and MK1’s Charlie Rundle in this year’s series. At this point in the run, the usual onscreen comments that each act has ‘grown as a person’ are being made, and coverage of Hensley’s statement fits the X Factor-as-therapy mould. Attention has been paid to his account of a teenage fan’s tweet prompting his disclosure, and to Walsh’s encouragement; as in the cases of Marcus Collins and Joe McElderry before now, whose success there led to public self-outings, it paints the programme as a positive force for queer liberation, which embraces and values non-straight identity.
I’m sceptical, of course. It’s first of all a troubling idea that anyone should require fame and financial opportunity for coming out to be an option – and, of course, I’m still not sure why Robbie Williams appeared alongside Collins’ parents last year to express love and support, but his boyfriend was conspicuously absent. Most troubling here though is all the evidence suggesting Hensley was out when X Factor began.
Reports quote him as keeping his current partner’s identity under wraps, which is, of course, his choice, but the party in question is on searchable record supporting Union J via social networks throughout the competition, including making public declarations of the relationship; there was Hensley’s now-deleted Myspace page, which listed him as gay, and there remains the YouTube video from two years ago (now with over twenty thousand hits) of him performing at a Pride concert. Is this the public profile of a closet case? Probably not. In which case, why only make the announcement now?
From their very first appearances, both Union J and erstwhile competitors District 3 – next year, I’m hoping for an act named Jurisdiction π – were marketed explicitly in heterosexual terms. There was their first audition, where a guest judge commented, ‘I think the girls will love you’. There were scantily clad, gyrating female dancers in their numbers. There were stories in the press of girls ‘mobbing’ the band members and invading their hotel room. There were interviews about ‘how a girl can impress them’ – and in the latter one, Jaymi Hensley played along, as he seemed to when he stated in the press, ‘I’m in a relationship and have been for three years… she wears the trousers‘.
I don’t know if X Factor producers knew all along that Hensley preferred guys. Given how public that apparently was, it wouldn’t surprise me. But I am struck that by not acknowledging that – and, in fact, by airbrushing it out of all publicity – they necessitated a coming-out: if his orientation had been shown matter-of-factly from the start, as Lucy Spraggan’s was, there would have been no need for a headline-winning revelation. Straightwashing Union J like this seems effectively to have put one of their members back inthe closet for three months. It suggests that on X Factor, gay men are only allowed to be comedy acts or victims who need support: if they’re neither straight nor bothered by that, there might not be room.
It also shows that heteronormativity still operates at the highest levels. In workplaces and universities, we might have started to chip away at the assumption that any given person is straight; among the great and good (or at least ITV), this isn’t yet the case. A presumption still exists, evident right from the beginning of this year’s series, that conventionally handsome boybanders must be as interested in girls as girls are in them; that while lots of young men like other men, lots are indifferent to gender and lots aren’t interested in anyone, none of that could possibly apply to the budding rich and famous.
In common use, the phrase implies something into which people are born: before we came out, we were always in the closet. The truth is, closets come in flatpacks, and straight authorities – our parents, teachers, television producers – build them around us by stigmatising queer expression. Jaymi Hensley never made his relationship a secret, but X Factor turned it into one, like a homophobic teacher in whose classroom certain crushes discussed at break time must be hushed up. However ‘out’ we are, spaces of necessary nondisclosure remain: the living rooms of bigoted relatives, for example, or train seats next to aggressive groups of drunken straight men. When we’re told in infancy that we’ll grow up, marry ‘members of the opposite sex’ and procreate, advised about what boys and girls do differently and generally labelled as straight, that nondisclosure is made similarly hard to avoid.
I’m glad Jaymi Hensley’s found his way out of the closet X Factor constructed around him, but I’m angry that he had to – and that his sex life could only be discussed on the producers’ terms.
So many of our parents, after all, have raised us to believe we’re straight and made it hard to say otherwise, only to proffer words like ‘I support you’ once we have. The way to support us, straight people everywhere, is not to make us invisible.