“Coming out” used to mean attending a debutante’s ball. Nowadays, as we know, it means a person announcing that their sexual orientation is gay or “non binary”. The television presenter Phillip Schofield has taken the ceremony of “coming out” one step further – by making the announcement on live television. He has been hailed as a brave hero for doing so (although his wife of 27 years has described the experience as “emotionally painful”). The outspoken commentator Brendan O’Neill has written that Mr Schofield has been virtually canonised as a secular saint for his announcement.
Our forebears certainly did things differently. My husband’s great-grandfather, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), was a Victorian man of letters and, although married with four daughters, it was always known in the family that he was by inclination homosexual. Perhaps it would shock modern people to be told that it was sometimes referred to quite jokily by his grandchildren. JAS found Venetian gondoliers to be rather attractive young men, so whenever Venice was mentioned, there were ribald references to “Hello, sailor!”
Yet it was recognised that JAS often found his situation agonising. The pressures of Victorian respectability prompted marriage with one Catherine North – a botanical scholar – although he had been aware since youth of his homosexual nature. He was also afflicted with health problems, and eventually died of consumption in his fifties.
The Victorians covered up sexual inclinations which they believed damaged family values. They also distinguished between what was in the public realm and what was private. Many a respectable husband and father might have a secret life which was not at all in alignment with Victorian ideals.
Symonds threw himself into the literary and scholarly world of the Greek classics and the Italian Renaissance, which was deeply rewarding for him. Moreover, despite his inclinations, he loved his wife, and his daughters adored him, nursing him in his final illness.
By seeming to be a conventional husband and father, he did sacrifice what today would be called “his authentic self”. But he also had the compensation of a devoted family life, and his direct descendants today number over a hundred. To some degree, too, he himself agreed with certain Victorian values in that he disapproved of the law “meddling” in private life. He was opposed to WT Stead’s campaign to raise the age of consent from 12, and deplored the Methodists for their “meddling” in social reform.
Phillip Schofield isn’t the first married man to decide that he’s not a straight guy; but different times approach the situation differently, for sure.
To the surprise of many, a South Korean film, Parasite, was the big winner at the Oscars – winning Best Film, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Production Design. It’s the first time a foreign-language movie has been so successful.
Some critics call it a South Korean Downton Abbey, because it has an upstairs-downstairs theme: a contrast between a poor family, the Kims, who live in a squalid semi-basement (known as banjiha in Seoul), and the Parks, who inhabit a stunning, architect-designed mansion. There is pity for the impoverished Kims as they wangle their way into the lives of the swanky (but gullible) Parks. There’s also a moral ambivalence about their often unscrupulous conduct. Hilarious moments turn to dark and violent scenes, and a semi-farce becomes a murderous tragedy.
Some universal perceptions are made by writer-director Bong Joon-ho – the Korean rich are strikingly similar to the Western rich, while the marginalised poor have a similar haunted desperation. This Oscar-winner may be an impressive story, but it’s also an unsettling one.
The victory of Sinn Féin in the Irish elections is a source of alarm for some commentators and political participants, including in Ireland itself. Sinn Féin has a left-wing agenda, and it has also been the political face of the IRA. It took the road to peace in 1994, after the Belfast Agreement, but not everyone believes the IRA Army Council has dissolved.
Still, Sinn Féin has the votes – more first-preference votes than any other party – and democracy must be honoured. And it may be some consolation to know that some of the most conservative figures in Irish history – Eamon de Valera, Kevin O’Higgins, WT Cosgrave – began their political careers in the original Sinn Féin party.
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