Clare Balding (The Standard)

March 10th, 2004

clare_baldingI love racing. I love horses. I do not care if Clare Balding is straight, gay, Martian, or neutered, as long as she goes on entertaining us at the racetrack. Tipped as the next face of BBC sport, Miss Balding is what the BBC does best – no gimmicks, no gameshow personality, just top class commentary that comes out of a big brain with plenty of experience and a passion for the subject.

Passion has got her into trouble with the Mail on Sunday. Miss Balding has taken her lover to a celebrity bash, and has admitted that she and her lover are living together. What kind of news is that? None at all unless the lover happens to a woman.

According to the Mail, ‘to the surprise of the racing world’ (what did they do? Fall off their horses?), Miss Balding arrived ‘with her live-in lesbian lover on her arm’, which makes the poor thing sound like a Filipino sex toy or a dangerous bird of prey.

In tabloid-land, she is both. Lesbians are still pictured as exotic and predatory, a mixture of Sister George, who, remember, collects horse brasses, and Thelma and Louise; women who will take their revenge on men, and who can’t be left alone with your wife. No wonder women think twice before declaring their sexuality.

There is a special problem for gay women, not shared by gay men. Many women have had to work extra hard to get on in life, or to make a place for themselves in a male world. Coming out, or being outed can end or halt a career. Female colleagues may feel awkward. Male colleagues often become Playboy fascinated or assume that you secretly hate them. I have a friend who works in a very male environment in an investment bank. She is bisexual but she dates men. In her words, ‘I have enough problems here, why make one more for myself?’ I have a feeling that a gay man in her job would find it easier, because he is still a man. She is the only woman on her team, and she is sure that throwing in her sexuality on top of her sex, (so to speak), would make her life much harder.

On the other hand, admissions of homosexuality, and continued speculation about his private life, cost Portillo the Tory leadership. Michael Portillo is furlongs ahead of any other top Tory, and he is the only man who could re-unite and modernise the party.

That the Tories should let prejudice stand in the way of unity is sad enough, but it is worse that the Church of England is claiming prejudice as the only possibility of unity.

The Church nearly fell at the hurdle of woman priests; does Britain really want its Established Church to unseat centuries of history and faith just because a gay man is declared fit or unfit to become a bishop?

We all know that the Church has a high percentage of gay clergy. If we allow them to be open about their sexuality, we will surely find a wiser, more inclusive ministry, and one without scandal or hypocrisy?

This is the twenty-first century. We know we cannot judge a man or a woman by their gender, race or faith. Are we really saying that the defining characteristic then, is sexuality?

Will Clare Balding be different next week because we now know she has a girlfriend and not a gentleman caller? Will the BBC decide that her career cannot go any further because a lesbian cannot be ‘the face of sport?’

They might decide that. There is still a strange prejudice that says heterosexuality is inclusive and gayness is exclusive. Just as there is still a shade of belief that man includes woman, but not the other way round, so we assume that anyone who is gay is different to the rest of us, and cannot speak on our behalf.

This is rubbish, but it is potent rubbish. The truth is that it is gay people, not straight people, who are used to living in two worlds – the dominant heterosexual culture, and a vibrant gay culture. Most gay people have slept with members of the opposite sex as well as their own sex. Most gay people have a conscious balance of masculine and feminine qualities in their nature, and for these reasons alone, gay people are valuable members of the community. Above all, gay men and women do not see themselves as a world apart, and it is painful to be endlessly labelled as ‘other’.

It is a pity to be labelled at all. I have never called myself a lesbian writer, and I would hate to be one. I am a writer. I have a girlfriend. My friends are not ‘either’ gay or straight, they are fun, interesting people, some with children, some not. To me, that is normal life. What is not normal, what is deeply abnormal, is our forensic fascination with gayness.

Oh, you may say, but if only gay people would just get on with it and shut up. The trouble is that we have had to make quite a noise since the 1960’s, simply to achieve some equality under the law.

Prominent people who are honest about their lives, lend courage to others, and remind society that gay people are major contributors in every field.

Privately, no one should have to live a lie, but for gay people, simply telling the truth, is read as ‘outing’, or ‘confessional’ or ‘expose’. What was Clare Balding to do? Should she not have taken her girlfriend to the party? Should she always go out alone or with a suitable male escort, or with her mother, perhaps?

Clare Balding did the right thing. If others sensationalise it, she should ignore them.. My advice, for what it’s worth, is heels down, hands loose, full gallop. She can win this one, and many of us will be cheering her from the stands.