Sometimes you can look at something a million times without really seeing it. It’s particularly true of language. Certain words or phrases roll off the tongue without us ever thinking about what we’re really saying, about what words really mean. Recently I was reading an article about Sir Ian McKellen that referred to him, as is usual, as “the openly gay actor”. I’ve read the phrase a thousand times, it’s almost always used when the press write about gay celebrities. Whenever I’m interviewed or written about I’ll be called “openly gay” or “the out gay actor” and until now I’ve never questioned it.
But while I was reading the other day it was like a light went on, and suddenly I saw – for the first time – that little word: “openly”. What’s it there for? Why is it needed? Let’s think about it. Let’s say a publication knows an actor is gay but closeted. Would they call him “the closeted gay actor”? Obviously not. Would they even call him “the gay actor”? Again, no. All but the sleaziest gossip sites respect a person’s right to keep their sexuality private should they so choose. The respectable newspaper that I was reading would certainly never speculate about a public figure’s sexuality. So if an actor is gay and the paper is happy to mention that (though why they would want to in the first place is an entirely different article) it seems to me to be a given that he or she is out. There is no need to describe them as “openly gay” when the word “gay” is clearly enough.
Which brings me back to “openly”. There, wrapped up in that tiny little word are a whole bunch of assumptions and prejudices. As if they need to point out that not only is this person gay, they’re open about it. It harks back to a time when we were expected to be ashamed, to hide our sexuality, and when it was widely considered career suicide for public figures to come out. We may still have a lot of work to do in dealing with homophobia, but there’s no doubt that we have come a long way since those dark days. We have countless actors, musicians, politicians and increasing numbers of sportsmen and women who are coming out of the closet; what was once a trickle is becoming a flood. And yet the press still describe people like Clare Balding and Russell Tovey as “openly gay” as if the openness was not already implicit in the word “gay”.
It’s just a little word, but it reminds us of shame, fear and hiding. And it’s not necessary, so can we please lose it.
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