What Jaymi Hensley’s coming out reveals about the closet and fame

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.

These police commissioner elections should terrify us all

Of the few encouraging signs about today’s PCC elections, one is the total unenthusiasm on display: I know only one person planning to vote, and friends are organising collective ballot-spoils. This couldn’t contrast more with Barack Obama’s reelection, the run-up to which included all the usual choruses of You must vote! and Don’t forget!

By most of the self-declared progressives I know, the choice to abstain was treated almost as a kind of treason; one acquaintance in Australia wishes voting were compulsory around the world, as it is there, and I’ve heard the same suggested closer to home.

Assuming that when our new police commissioners are chosen, turnout is as miserable as now seems likely, the case for staying at home on national election days is worth contemplating. Traditionally, one argument is that they’re not just how people choose specific governments, but how they choose in general to be governed. The most politically important part of voting is entering the ballot box; to step into it is to legitimise the electoral process, granting the eventual winner our consent to govern us, even if it’s not them we support. Both in America last week and in 2010, when David Cameron came more-or-less to power, a great deal of coverage went to people unable to vote, left standing in their queues for hours – trumpeting the notion that, whatever government resulted, its right to rule was popularly acknowledged. (In fact, four people out of ten chose abstention in both cases.)

The vote, paradoxically, is always a minister’s first port of call when something unpopular needs justifying. Invading Iraq might face widespread opposition, but Tony Blair’s party were elected to take tough stances; austerity might be viewed as needless and cruel, but people chose a government to make tough decisions. More than anywhere, and most implicitly, it’s with the police that government’s entitlement is presumed. Think back to the riots in August last year, with the demands on social networks and in print that lethal force be authorised, or the military contacted. The smashing of shop windows and burning of cars was mindless violence; the potential widespread shooting of citizens by police was a means by which to restore order. Why is the violence of the state the only kind acceptable? Because government directs its forces, and we elected the government.

Our leaders, we tell ourselves, only hold power over us because we say they can. Except sometimes we don’t, and they still do.

One side might always regret a lost election, but inconclusive ones spell trouble for whole political establishments. That Cameron came so visibly to office by Nick Clegg’s direct choice and not the U.K. population’s is more than just a point against their government; it exposes the superficiality of Britain’s electoral regime, just as it caused skittishness across the pond when George W. Bush entered the White House with fewer people’s votes than opponent Al Gore. There are other inadequacies, too. We’re encouraged to vote based on politicians’ promises, but none of these are binding and most are broken once in office; we’re faced typically with a forced choice between two or three realistic candidates, of predictable backgrounds and broadly similar political leanings; what power we’re granted, we only hold on one day every four or five years; we’ve no ability to change our minds, or update the scoreboards as opinions shift – the Labour Party, for example, retains around as many seats as it won in 2010 with 29 percent of the vote, despite polling in the low to mid-forties today; we make our voices heard as much as possible, but see major parties’ financial backers drown them out.

Still we go to the polls, encouraged by news broadcasts about democracy and freedom, convincing ourselves that whatever future legislators do, we chose – that, as with all the most effective placebos, we have an investment in it, and no right to complain. However you vote, an English teacher told me once, you always end up with the government, and a socialist truncheon looks much the same as a Thatcherite one. In the past decade, governments of all colours have chipped away at our civil liberties with surveillance and shadowy arrests, no-protest zones and kettled schoolchildren. Far from solving these problems, the electoral cycle seems to me to validate them. Ticking boxes on ballot slips less often demonstrates what freedom we have than makes us feel more complicit in its erosion.

What happens when the police themselves make vaunted, tenuous claims of public appointment? It’s from them that government derives its power, after all, and not the other way around.

So far, major police decisions (on whether to fire water cannon at demonstrators, for example) have usually been checked in practice by a need for the approval of elected politicians like Theresa May. If publicly appointed commissioners allow them more autonomy, as seems to be the aim and matches the Cameroon ideal of ‘liberated’ schools and hospitals, no such external validation will be needed. The shiny if inauthentic seal of electoral support will, on its own, become a means of validating police actions, just as it’s used to validate the most despised government policies. The overt parliamentary costuming of candidates, drawn along party political lines and including the likes of John Prescott, adds to the effect.

Political parties, on the other hand, are privately bankrolled. However ‘modernising’ Conservatives might be, their party’s funding depends largely on City of London financiers‘ approval; however centrified a Labour leader might want to become, trade unions’ ire must never be raised. Their ambitions may be extreme, at whichever end of the political spectrum, but the vested interests of relied-upon donors limits their actions for good or ill. Our publicly funded police force, on the other hand, can count on its continued income; should its actions become draconian or its reputation tarred, the threat of financial starvation will never hem it in.

Begin electing police leaders, then, and we give them all of government’s entitlements, with none of the drawbacks.

These PCC elections should terrify us all, because they aim to give constables the false legitimacy ministers wield: it’s the police force’s freedom, not ours, they’ve been devised to increase, so let’s hope for the lowest possible of turnouts, because when police are given more freedom, we almost always lose some of ours.

On the pathologising of queer desire

“Not gay!”, the adverts said, “Ex-gay, post-gay and proud. Get over it!”

The people behind them, Anglican Mainstream, planned this April to drive them through London on the sides of buses. Boris Johnson, acting as chair of Transport for London, vetoed the plans (the mayoral election, after all, was only weeks away). What the banners advertised was conversion therapy, described by the group as ‘supporting men and women with homosexual issues who voluntarily seek change’ – the same ostensible counselling techniques investigated in Patrick Strudwick’s exposé “The ex-gay files“.

There’s nothing new in using psychiatric structures to queerphobic ends: let’s not forget that it was only in 1990, the year before my birth, when the World Health Organisation stopped calling homosexuality a mental health disorder. The word itself was coined inPsychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Victorian volume on so called perversions, in which cross-dressing and BDSM are similarly pathologised. What’s interesting about Anglican Mainstream’s work, apart from their misuse of “post-gay” and expectation Oxford Street would be a hotbed of homoerotic repression, is their insistence that “there is [no] indisputable scientific evidence that people are “born gay”, and…have no choice but to affirm their homosexual feelings”.

As “The ex-gay files” shows, the current conversion movement strongly resists the notion of the homosexual person. It never refers to being gay, but always to experiencing same sex attraction; never to a mode of inherent being but always to a chosen lifestyle. This sets it apart from historical homophobes like Krafft-Ebing – who saw queer desire as a chronic medical condition and whose book reads “homosexuals…recognise one another by their gait, natural shyness and by signs just the same as normal persons of opposite sexes do” – and also from much of the LGBT community now, where the strongest opposition to Anglican Mainstream’s adverts was the “Born This Way” argument. Chris Bryant, for example, said: “Homosexuality is not a lifestyle or a choice but is a fact to be discovered or not. The pretence that homosexuality is something you can be weaned off in some way is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of creation.”

The ads’ creators and the ex-gay industry are, of course, monstrous, but isn’t it striking how Krafft-Ebing’s rhetoric, to which that of twentieth century bigotry can often be traced back, has taken over the groups it attacked? When I look at LGBT dialogue today, I see queer bodies pathologised again: homoerotic desire ascribed to an elusive ‘gay gene’, sexuality “explained” by prenatal hormones and correlations of finger-length and gender preferencebrandished as proof that, as one of Stonewall’s people put it, “being gay is [pre]determined rather than being a so-called lifestyle choice”.

That humans exist who aren’t straight is deemed a biological phenomenon, biologically resolved. We’re invited to believe that the brains and bodies of (for example) gay and straight men are, by definition, categorically different. Don’t doubt my support of science for one moment, but in British skepticism, we’re fond of one motto above all others. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Genetics might account for sexual preferences in many cases, as it influences all kind of predispositions, but it’s far from the alpha and omega of the sexual self. Of all the world’s fiftysomething men married to women, who were raised in exclusively straight environments and have never consciously experienced queer desire, surely some will possess whatever ‘gay gene’ does exist? Likewise, is a destitute m4m sex worker without it somehow straight, and unaware of that?

Ask me if I’m gay and I’ll say no – although I do gay quite a lot. Our orientation has at least as much to do with social order as bodily nature and it can’t be reduced to something we innately are. There is no state of homosexuality: we shouldn’t view it as a mental health condition, because it’s not a condition at all. There are no homosexual people, just people who like doing homosexual things.

The problem with conversion therapists is that they teach people, as churches have done for millennia, that harmless and enjoyable impulses (whatever their provenance) are a source for guilt. So what if this is a lifestyle choice? So is vegetarianism. And if you prefer a meat free diet, that’s perfectly fine.

What are the implications of the ‘queer bodies’ narrative? If we accept that gay brains and straight brains exist – not to mention those the rest of us have – aren’t we handing people ammunition who want us to be cured? Most of us, after all, would love it in the not-too-distant future if genetic engineering eliminated cancer; once queerness is accepted as genetic, though, what’s to stop it being targeted the very same way?

Leave the idea of sexuality as a physical state unchallenged and we only risk more medically cloaked attempts to eliminate anything that isn’t heterosexuality. That those attempts would be fruitless is beside the point – they would still make queer people back into sufferers of illness, the medically defective carriers of sociosexual plague. I don’t want that to happen: they wish to cure us, as Magneto says, but I say we’re the cure.