Phillip Schofield's statement is 'huge moment' for gay community

Attitudes to gay people have undergone massive change since 1980s when presenter made his TV debut

In 1985, the year Phillip Schofield made his debut on British children’s TV, the Sun reported that a Liverpool publican had banned gay people from his establishment. “A lot of ordinary people are going to catch something from the glasses,” he told the paper, according to a contemporaneous report in the Gay Times. “We don’t want gays on the premises.”

Two years later, when Schofield moved to present the flagship children’s Saturday morning programme Going Live!, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced a bill with a clause that banned schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. By the time Section 28 was repealed in 2003, Schofield was already in his current job as a presenter of ITV’s This Morning.

All of which may go some way to explain why, when Schofield took to his own TV sofa on Friday to talk about the statement he had just released, in which he came out as gay at the age of 57, his body language was defensive and anxious, his voice agonised.

Through the course of his 35-year career, Schofield has lived a different, ostensibly heterosexual life – he has been married for the last 27 to his wife, Steph, with whom he has two adult daughters. Causing them pain had clearly been agonising.

But his sexuality, he told co-presenter and friend Holly Willoughby, had been “bothering [him] for a very long time … There’s no question that it has in recent times consumed my head, and has become an issue in my head.” There had been pain, confusion and “some very dark moments”.

The presenter is clearly blessed in the supportive reaction of his family and even his wife – “There is no one in my life who would have supported me the way [she did] … she’s astonishing.” The overwhelmingly positive reaction from his audience, too, is heartening evidence of the extent to which attitudes have changed since the hate-filled 1980s.

“You are still Phillip Schofield,” wrote one This Morning viewer in a much-liked tweet. “You were loved yesterday and you are still loved today … Go ahead, be free, live your truth and be happy in life.”

Schofield has never been a particularly headline-grabbing presenter – neither plagued by paparazzi at his every outing nor courting controversy for the sake of it. As a warm, dependable and thoroughly professional presence, however, his value to broadcasters is unarguable.

“When you create a new entertainment show and start discussing who should host, the first name on the list is always Phillip Schofield,” the presenter and producer Richard Osman said on Friday. “That’s a fact. He’s just the very best at what he does and the public adore him.” When the vehicle wholesaling firm wanted a face for an ad campaign riffing on “the most loved man in the UK”, it was Schofield they chose.

As such, while there is no question that British attitudes have revolutionised in three decades to those coming out, the presenter’s announcement is highly significant, says Jeff Ingold, Stonewall’s head of media.

“I think it’s a hugely important moment, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction we are seeing online and in the media really speaks to how momentous this can be.

“For LGBT people, any time someone comes out it’s such an affirming moment just to see yourself reflected back at you. To have a national treasure like Phillip come out, really opens people’s eyes to what it means to be LGBT and the different experiences people have [before] coming out.”

The veteran LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell agrees that attitudes have shifted from the time when “the Thatcher government, tabloid press and the police had declared virtual war on the LGBT+ community”, but makes the point that most openly gay people are white and male. “We need more women and people from the African, Muslim and wider Asian communities, where young LGBTs often have a tougher time coming to terms with their sexuality and finding acceptance.”

Schofield’s decision has a particular resonance for the singer and actor Duncan James, who built an enormous teenage fanbase with the boyband Blue in the early noughties, and had a daughter with a female partner, before coming out as bisexual in 2009 (he now identifies as gay).

“He has a family, kids, he’s in the public eye. I know for a fact that all those extra layers make it really, really hard. So he’s probably been feeling absolutely petrified. I know I was.”

James eventually chose to speak out, he says, “for my own sanity”. “I was living a lie and living in fear that somebody would expose me. I was very, very frightened.”

Coming out, he says, was “the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me such a happier person. All the insecurities and the huge sandbags I had been carrying for so many years, they all evaporated, and it was like I became … light.”

Schofield’s statement, James says, is a “huge moment” for the gay community. “And it gives so many people – maybe the older generation as well – [the courage] to go, I’m going to live my last few decades happy. I want to be free.”


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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