Tuesday, 1 December 2009

What is so strange, lonely and troubling about Stephen Gately's death ?

The recent death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately inspired a number of generous obituaries and one shockingly vicious piece from Jan Moir in the Daily Mail (16th October 2009). The effect of this piece of writing was so painfully felt that it elicited a record number of 22,000 complaints to the Press Complaints Commission from Gately's fans, acutely tuned in to the nuances of homophobic discourse. Moir, of course, in a retraction a week later, denied that her intent was homophobic, but many of the readership, and 'overhearers' who were moved to read the original piece online, disagree. What, then, constitutes homophobic discourse?

There is little point in searching for obviously homophobic lexical items, but instead we must look at the discursive effect of texts. Leap's (2010 forthcoming) notion of a homophobic formation allows us to argue that although there are no recurrent formal properties which identify a homophobic text, there are several key characteristics which they share. Leap remarks that homophobic messages emerge from texts, rather than being contained within them. He is referring to the way in which language users may express homophobia indirectly or obliquely, through lexical items, idioms, metaphors, presuppositions, judgment markers and inference structures which reference homophobia. The homophobic formation appears not solely through explicitly homophobic language, but via a complex set of linguistic and social processes which work through context to deliver their message. I comment below on some examples of these in Moir's article.

Let's remind ourselves of the established facts of Gately's death. He had returned to his apartment after a night out, and was accompanied by his civil partner and a friend. Gately apparently went to sleep on the couch, and was later found dead by his partner.

The title of Moir's article, then, stands in contrast to this reality: “A strange, lonely and troubling death”. Troubling, yes, but why strange and lonely? These terms function here (using Martin and White's 2007 Appraisal framework) as linguistic markers of judgment, referencing some unstated, but assumed heterosexual norm. These reveal the point of view of the homophobe who judges gay men as essentially lonely, and strange. What troubles her, evidently, is her assumption that Gately's partner and their friend might have been having sex. To the homophobe, any gay male sex is distasteful, and the notion that a man may have sex outside a relationship disturbs the heteronormative ideal. These tropes of 1950s gay male sexual offenses are reinforced by the following characterisations, “shadowed by dark appetites or fractured by private vice. …..secret and not-so-secret troubles, or damaging habits”. Vice ? Damaging habits? These again imply negative judgment, and are modified by adjectives expressing negative reaction (Martin and White, 2007:56). It is unclear what she is alluding to – the nature of (unspecified but assumed) gay male sexual practice, or perhaps more scandalously and libellously, drug use. This becomes more evident when, without access to any evidence, and only her own prejudice to draw on, she writes of, “ the official reports point to a natural death, with no suspicious circumstances”. The emphasis on 'official' implies there are other unofficial reports which she has access to, but are concealed from us; 'point to' implies doubt and that the official reports are in fact inconclusive and tentative.

The reports, according to Moir's reading, serve only to obscure the self-evident and inevitable truth lying behind a gay man's early death, “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”. Sadly, this occurrence is far from unknown, but this doesn't prevent Moir asserting her ignorance with a modality choice of certainty, indicated by a universalising use of the verb 'do' governing the following infinitive clauses. Such is her certainty that no gay man could meet a natural death in these circumstances that Moir feels justified in contradicting the considered verdict of the coroner, and the verified cause of death of pulmonary oedema. The death, according to her “is not, by any yardstick, a natural one”. Gay men, in the world of the homophobe are strange, troubled and unnatural. And for confirmation that all gay men die early deaths, she mentions the former partner of Matt Lucas. This sad death was no more related to Gately's than the Queen Mother's was to Jade Goody's. The only common factor was that they are gay and dead, but the one condition leads inexorably to the other, is the inference.

Of course another characteristic of the gay 'lifestyle' is the use of drugs. Disregarding the evidence of toxicology reports, Moir concludes that “Gately's family have always maintained that drugs were not involved in the singer's death, but it has just been revealed that he at least smoked cannabis on the night he died”... “Nevertheless, his mother is still insisting that her son died from a previously undetected heart condition that has plagued the family”. The contrastive adverb 'nevertheless' suggests a deluded mother maintaining her son's innocence in the face of obvious corruption. The function of the adverbial 'at least' is to deliver the presupposition that it was probably more than just cannabis. This impression is further reinforced in the next paragraph where we find that the men are judged by Moir to be sleazy. What seems to have led her to that determination is that Gately's partner and their friend went into the bedroom together, leaving Gately in the lounge. Whatever they did or did not do is irrelevant to the circumstances of death. None of this was criminal, unusual or even sleazy behaviour. Two men wanted sex, perhaps. In the words of the Stonewall t-shirt – get over it. This, for Moir, though, invalidates the possibility that 'gay marriage' can be as happy or as valid as heterosexual ones. This is effectively a 'straw man' argument - the spurious contestation of a civil rights issue in order to impugn the whole category of 'gay'.

Of course, Moir's 'retraction' a week after publication of the original piece denied any homophobic intent, stating; “Absolutely none of this had anything to do with his sexuality. If he had been a heterosexual member of a boy band, I would have written exactly the same article”. But as Leap (2010) points out, homophobic messages may be inferred by some speaker/hearers, whilst others will perceive them as unproblematic. I view Moir's apology as insincere. It takes a close critical discourse analysis to trace the emergence of a homophobic formation from her original piece. None of the linguistic choices made in this text are exclusive to the repertoire of the homophobe, however, what reveals a homophobic formation is its defamatory, shaming intent, and its reception by the audience/ readership. I think Moir's purpose is transparent in this piece, and she has been justly vilified for it.
(Photo credit: MangakaMaiden. Permissions)

No comments:

Post a Comment