Ian McKellen Writings

September, 1995 | Michael Barrymore Comes Out

The developing story of Michael Barrymore's coming out as a gay man has dominated the popular press this last week, understandably, as a very famous public image has been peeled aside to reveal an unexpected private life. The tabloids who righteously sniff out lies and hypocrisy are in this case somewhat at a loss because Barrymore can't be accused of lying - not any more - after all it's he who is doing the outing and not them. Also, they must tread carefully with the nation's affections for a uniquely popular entertainer.

The tabloids began the week in the role of unctuous, marriage-guidance counsellors, advising their client to come clean - "own up Michael: you'll feel better and we'll forgive" sort of thing. Then when they heard he had told the truth, although not to them but to a midnight radio show - and an avowedly gay one at that - the only cliché they could then come up with was to accuse Barrymore of "flaunting" his gayness. I smell professional jealousy.

In truth, Michael Barrymore's story is less sensational than it appears. Any lesbian and gay man will recognise most of it, from their own experience.

Coming Out goes by stages - short or protracted, depending on your circumstances and your temperament . The older though not necessarily wiser you are, the more tentative the later stages of coming out may be. I was 49 when I finally did it. Nigel Hawthorne, last year, was 65. Michael Barrymore is 43. These days, many young people take advantage of the increasingly relaxed view that society by and large takes of the lesbians and gays in its midst and are happy at the outset of their adult life to be honest about their homosexuality. Some even come out to their parents and schoolfriends at an age when the law would imprison them if they ever actually made love to someone of the same gender.

You begin by coming out to yourself, accepting that despite society's near-overwhelming pressure on you to conform to the heterosexual pattern, you know you have always been gay and you want to live as nature and a little bit of nurture intended you to. The next stage, as your confidence increases, will be to tell someone else - from your friends, your family and, if you are at work, your colleagues, employer or employees. The journey, not always as painful as you fear, will not be complete, however, until there is no one in the world, whom you know or whom you are to meet, to whom you would ever lie.

If you are in the public eye, if you depend on the approval or the votes of strangers for a living - your coming out has an extra step to go. If honesty is your aim, you may no longer prevaricate with the public or the self-appointed surrogates of public opinion and a press statement or interview is almost obligatory to end the matter.

This need not be a lonely journey. En route, you can find growing numbers to support you. You read about famous gays past and present and take comfort from their example. There are Lesbian and Gay Helplines. If you are lucky, particularly if you live in a big city, you meet gay people and make friends with some of them. They tell you their coming out stories.

That's why Michael Barrymore, the master of the spontaneous this week, found it so congenial, so easy and so inevitable to take to the stage in an East End gay pub and tell the ecstatic audience that he was one of them. And again, his spur-of-the-moment decision to invite himself on the gay radio programme where he spoke candidly to the few thousand who were tuned in at 1.00 am, confirms that he has found new friends. The straight media may be baffled but gays understand. Coming out, whatever your age, is to start a new life, and to help you celebrate there are the open arms of travelers who have already arrived.

If it feels like that to you Michael, "Welcome".

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