John Barnes, the former professional football player who played for England 79 times, has stepped into a row about gay men – with people accusing him of outright homophobia.
On Saturday night’s episode of Celebrity Big Brother, the 54-year-old retired Liverpool star was talking to fellow housemate Shane Jenek (who also goes by the drag name Courtney Act) about Shane’s friendship with Andrew Brady and the topic of sexual experimentation.
Shane said: “Sometimes somebody can have a little taste of something that…”, before John quickly interrupted with: “Kick them out of the club. Kick them out of the club. I’ll tell you why, because if anything happened in that room he’s out of the club. If anything happens in the room, Andrew’s out of the club. He’s not in my club if anything happens.”
In a later discussion about these comments, Barnes told Shane: “They [men] assume he’s definitely going to want to have sex with me. And that’s why men aren’t comfortable with gay men. They think ‘I wonder if he’s thinking about me without my clothes on’. It is an uncomfortable feeling that he is going to pounce on me.”
Barnes added: “I’m that way because everything I’ve said here is about the way I’ve been brought up. Everything I’ve been saying here has been a product of my environment. Things we know to be wrong, we can’t help thinking that. I know that I should not be that way but I’m 54 years old, I can’t just think that naturally.”
You can watch the whole troubling clip here:
A Stonewall spokesperson this afternoon told Shortlist: “These attitudes are totally unacceptable and must be challenged. We believe in working with people, wherever they are on their journey and we’d invite John Barnes to get in touch with us once he’s left Celebrity Big Brother so we can discuss our Rainbow Laces campaign and the importance of acceptance without exception.”
And inevitably, there were a huge number of negative comments from Big Brother viewers on Twitter.
Tommy said: “Hands up who doesn’t want to be in fucking John Barnes’ club anyway?”
Dave Smith added: “Always had time for John Barnes but he did himself no favours with his lazy homophobia.”
And there were pretty swift consequences for John, who was nominated for eviction by his fellow housemates – in part because of his controversial comments.
John’s family put out a statement defending him, which you can read in full here:
It should also be noted that this isn’t the first LGBT+ issue to rock the Big Brother house this year after anti-gay marriage comments by Ann Widdecombe and controversial remarks by India Willoughby.
But here’s why John’s comments are so disheartening and potentially even dangerous. John’s insinuation that gay men are predators has a long and painful history, including in our legal system. It’s called the gay panic defense (also known as the Portsmouth defense in the UK) and this is how it goes: straight men prey on gay men, harass them, beat them up and sometimes even kill them – but they get away with it. Why? Because for decades, legal systems around the world have allowed violent attackers to defend themselves by claiming the victim’s own sexuality was to blame for their excessively violent reaction.
The LGBT Bar explains: “The perpetrator claims that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity not only explain – but excuse – their loss of self-control and subsequent assault of an LGBT individual. By fully or partially acquitting the perpetrators of crimes against LGBT victims, these defenses imply that LGBT lives are worth less than others.”
The defendants in America’s most famous anti-gay hate crime – the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard – even tried to use the gay panic defense to excuse their sickening violence.
But the truth is this: around the world gay men and other LGBT+ people are MORE likely to be victims of sexual assault and violence. Just today, the Guardian reported that violent killings of LGBT+ people in Brazil have hit an all-time high. And a recent Stonewall study found that 41% of trans people in the UK have experienced a hate crime or incident because of their gender identity in the last 12 months.
I’m a gay man and I can tell you that the anxiety of homophobic violence follows me everywhere. Just this weekend I was out in London with my boyfriend and we both agreed we should take off the glitter and sparkling face stickers we were wearing to make sure we didn’t get beaten up walking back to the Tube station.
More broadly, there needs to be a debate about how we can amplify the voices of LGBT+ people – especially after the fantastic success of the #metoo movement which should serve as an example to us. But for now, we can start by aggressively challenging homophobic statements wherever we see them – including in this case when they’re broadcast on national TV to millions of impressionable men or after Kevin Spacey’s outrageous comments last year.
While everyone should be given the space and time to grow, people like John Barnes (even if they are 54) must make a commitment to make progress right now - because when it comes to LGBT+ safety, we are in the midst of an urgent crisis.
John Barnes’ reps have been contacted for a comment.