independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Accidental outing of Derek Mooney may not be so bad after all

NOBODY, except politicians who use one hand to limit gay rights and the other to fondle other men, deserves to be outed. The practice (outing, not fondling) is deeply unpopular amongst gay people, each of whom has his or her own memory of that nerve-racking day they flung the closet open.

Even generally, the idea of outing someone is now considered so despicable that following the public backlash around the Sun's outing of Ron Davies (former Welsh Secretary of State) a few years ago, the British tabloids abandoned the tactic. However, in a slack news week, the Irish Sun will still out people, as it did with Fianna Fail Councillor Malcolm Byrne. Mostly though, even in the Irish media, there has evolved a curious (and laudable) chivalry whereby actors, singers and assorted slightly famous people get to officially come out if and when they're ready.

So, for example, we have people such as Mark Fehilly of Westlife and Nell McCafferty finally coming out to an unsurprised public long after every single hack in the country knew for a fact they were gay. It's a definite improvement on the pre-Davies situation, but the problem with all these open secrets is that they're bound to find their way into the public realm at some stage.

And that was what happened with Derek Mooney last week. Since his rise to household name status, he had been extended the new closet-case courtesy by the media. But because so many people knew or suspected that he was gay, it was only a matter of time before he was outed some other way. That time came last week. In a Today FM radio interview with Ray D'Arcy, comedian Des Bishop joked that he himself was gay. D'Arcy jokingly pushed Bishop to give an "exclusive". Des replied, "I'm gay," before quickly adding "I'm not, but hey!"

D'Arcy then asked: "You're very comfortable with your sexuality?", to which Bishop replied "Me and Derek Mooney are doing a show."

Showing just how open a secret was Derek Mooney's sexuality, the audience at the live broadcast laughed (which they surely wouldn't have done if Bishop had used, say, Pat Kenny or Gay Byrne in the same gag). D'Arcy then said he was going to go to an ad break before Bishop "outs anyone else".

Instantly, the Irish-American comedian was the villain of the piece and Derek was all over the front page. But actually if anyone outed Derek Mooney, it was a very flustered Ray D'Arcy. Bishop will get the blame but it was only when D'Arcy said the word "outed" that Derek's days in the closet were numbered.

After all, the comic didn't say "I slept with Derek Mooney" or "Derek Mooney is gay". And he's a comedian, so not every joke he makes will be taken literally. D'Arcy was playing the (ahem) "straight" man in the exchange, so we knew when he abruptly cut to the ads, the alarm was real and the news was finally official.

Had D'Arcy made one of those little non-committal laughs he specialises in and "moved swiftly on", Bishop's "gag" would have been just another fragment of innuendo about the Winning Streak presenter's sexuality. (Like the camp'Once a public figure has come out, their sexuality becomes part of their title'

send-up of him on RTE last August by Brian Ormond, a colleague of Mooney's.) That there was no real malice intended was further evidenced by Bishop's immediate on-air protestations that he "didn't out anyone".

But he played his part and as soon as the word was out, all bets were off as far as the media were concerned and the papers went to town on the story. The general opinion seemed to be that this was an invasion of Mooney's privacy. Now, there is no doubt but that Mooney is entitled to his privacy and that to come out should be a personal decision. But sexuality straddles the boundary between the personal and private sphere.

It doesn't just relate to sex but to one's entire personal and family life. You would never hear a heterosexual person respond to reports that they liked the opposite sex as "an invasion of privacy". It would just be another mundane fact about the person. That the story became such a big deal would seem to vindicate Mooney's reticence in coming out in the first place. But it seems to me that if being gay really is to become a non-story, then it is gay people, especially those who are well known, who will have to move first.

Derek's front-page splash happened in part because he was less than forthcoming about his sexuality (although it's worth remembering he never actually denied being gay). Had he come out on his own terms, indicated he wasn't embarrassed or ashamed (as many famous people have done) his being gay wouldn't have been such big news.

But there's no good crying over spilt milk, and if Derek Mooney is wise, he won't be crying too hard over this either. If some family members or friends found out about his sexuality publicly, then that's unfortunate and upsetting, but I can tell him from experience, they will get over it.

His main problem is likely to be that, despite the fact that we like to pretend that being gay makes no difference, once a public figure has come out, their sexuality becomes part of their title. Just as Will Young or George Michael went from being pop stars to "gay pop stars", following their coming out, so too does the same fate await Derek Mooney. Doubtless he will henceforth be referred to as "gay TV presenter Derek Mooney".

But, however irritating this new prefix will be, it's unlikely to seriously hinder his career. I'd bet it will help. Being gay makes his persona less asexual and more interesting. There was already a cuddly camp element to Derek's onscreen shtick which can surely now become less self-conscious (though let's hope he doesn't turn into Brendan Courtney).

And people who have been outed usually enjoy a groundswell of public support and sympathy. Klaus Wowereit was an also-ran politician until he was outed and became the mayor of Berlin (which he has remained since 2001) and a national icon in Germany. When the Sun outed Wexford Councillor Malcolm Byrne last year, radio polls a day later suggested he'd probably get elected as a TD if he ran. George Michael went to number one.

And the argument that Derek is different because he has to deal with the grannies who watch Winning Streak just doesn't hold water. Don't all the old dears love David Norris?

In fact, when the shock of seeing himself next to the word 'gay' on nearly every front page has abated, this might even be a relief to Derek Mooney. The closet is a lonely place and even though he was already out to an extent (he was sometimes to be seen on the gay scene in Dublin and London) he now knows no bitter scene-queen can blackmail him because he's on the television and nobody can get a cheap laugh at his expense.

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