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Stephen Gately

October 11, 2009

There are at least two truths I can think of when it comes to unexpected deaths.

Truth number one: unexpected deaths will take an audience by surprise, focus attention and maintain that focus considerably longer than an ongoing story.

It’s happened plenty of times in the past. Think of where you and what you were doing when you learnt that Princess Diana had died or most recently when Michael Jackson dropped off his perch and if you search around in your memory you’re recall that fleeting moment when you thought to yourself: “that’s just weird, surely that’s a mistake”.

Then you’ll wonder why it could be a mistake. People die all the time after all. And, given that I didn’t know the person at all why would their death be noteworthy for me? Why am I listening to this story? Why am I still thinking about this person in death when I never thought about them when they were alive?

It’s the same with news of Boyzone member Stephen Gately’s death announced this morning. I’m not a fan of the band and even though all would agree the guy was cute, I wasn’t especially a fan of him either. And yet his death whilst on holiday with his partner Andy Cowles leaves me feeling sad.

On BBC Online, Stephen Fry’s comments about Gately’s death illustrated the performer’s popularity in the industry, whilst the singer’s most recent Twitter update provided a possible early indication that this wasn’t suicide. In these moments of relative shock when an unknown individual’s death grabs one’s attention, such individual comments can help shape your reaction to the news and insodoing secure the memory of his or her life and death.

Truth number two: people who use the internet see death as permission to leave downright unpleasant comments about the deceased merely to voice their own prejudices.

At the time of writing, Boyzone’s recent video Better had attracted all sorts of comments in light of Gately’s death, including the line ‘he choked to death on cock’ and ‘you fucking cunt, god hates you’.

gately2Social media types often advise that “feeding the troll” is never good in these situations, preferring to rely on the community to self-regulate. Those experts are wrong. Ocassionally an opportunity arises to hold up such prejudices and ridicule them in a bid to reach a base-level of decent human behaviour.

Gately was a gay man who succeeded in the entertainment industry as a member of a product whose target audience was largely teenage girls. Boyzone succeeded in attracting that audience and maintaining it when Gately later came out as gay and subsequently entered into a civil partnership with his boyfriend. Boyzone didn’t ditch Gately because of his sexuality. Far from it. They didn’t exploit it either. Boyzone became the group which always prompted one predictable question: “Isn’t one of them gay?”

Embracing Gately’s gayness in a suitably well-balanced way was in industry terms a big step and although ultimately private, the low-key publicity of his civil partnership to long-term partner Andy Cowles did much to promote an air of positivity soon after it had been made possible for same-sex couples to marry in late 2006. Gately was to most gay men what they’d quite like to be themselves. Happy, loved and successful.

It’s a shame that younger gay men may well (I’ve seen one or two comments abound today closer to me than I would have expected which have left a sour taste in my mouth) dismiss Gately as unmemorable, questioning why news of his untimely death has warranted so much attention. To many younger than the singer he was just a popstar in a boyband. Shame on them.

Yet there is a shatteringly positive message his gay life has promoted – illustrated in the appearances he makes in this video. It’s vital gay men and women remember that at this moment in time. His life experience was unusually positive and one some people will continue to strive for.

Watch Watch ‘Better’.

  1. Agreed. On all fronts.

  2. bessybumblebee permalink

    Couldn’t agree with you more! I actually was a Boyzone fan during my teen years but I had long moved on and some of my sadness today is with his death goes another little bit of my youth gone! What people have been saying about him is uncalled for and cruel! I find consolation in the fact that Stephen will be remembered for the good he did while these bitter narrow minded people will die having no impact what so ever

  3. Jon,

    As always you write with an amazing sense of honesty and respect.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I appreciate what you have written here.

  4. I agree with you.

    Homophobia is common on places like youtube because it is unregulated and youtube only really responds to racism, see

    I’ve posted very simliar thoughts as you (but not as indepth), especially around Stephen’s role in changing attitudes to homosexuality since coming out. See

    Take care & RIP Stephen,


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