Speaking to our Editor-in-Chief Darren Burn, Stephen Fry discusses how to keep your cool in lockdown, his views on James Corden and whether gay characters need to be played by gay actors, meeting homophobic pastors in Uganda, interviewing the president of Brazil and where he hopes to travel with his husband after the pandemic.
He needs no introduction. Stephen Fry has one of the world’s most recognised faces and voices – something that came from reading all of the audiobooks for Harry Potter no doubt. A comedian as much as he is a serious storyteller, he won an award for his incredible documentary Out There which explored homophobia around the world, including in countries like Russia, Brazil and Uganda.
Famously gay, Stephen once quipped about his sexuality: “I suppose it all began when I came out of the womb. I looked back up at my mother and thought to myself, ‘That’s the last time I’m going up one of those’.”
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Exploring the world as an LGBT+ traveller
Stephen reflected on his many travels with us but also the nuances of travelling as a gay man: “We can lull ourselves into a false sense of security because things in the West have improved so much in our lifetimes. The idea that when I was growing up I could marry the man I loved was just inconceivable. And that I would never have to think about putting on a defensive posture when going out or pretending not to be gay.”
“In some of the most homophobic countries, it’s very common to see men holding hands in public. So people think ‘I can have my arm around my friend and I can kiss in the street’. And then you’re shocked to find that you’re having fruit thrown at you or being chased down the street for apparently outrageous behaviour. So I think gay travellers have to be smart. They have to look up the country they’re going to and see what its record is on LGBT rights.”
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Stephen Fry’s view on the impact of social media
Stephen has notoriously had a love / hate relationship with social media, but Stephen Fry’s Twitter following is a loyal one standing at almost 13 million.
On gay men and the impact social media can have on them when they see the chiselled and toned bodies of other gay men, he said: “There’s a lot of glorifying of a certain type of body, which I’ve always hated. I’ve never had that kind of body! And indeed, if you live long enough, your brain actually changes itself and you start to look on these kinds of perfect bodies as physically ugly. Think about what’s going on on the inside. It’s more fun and beneficial to the world.”
And he worries about social media’s effect on young people. “Sometimes my heart slightly breaks when I read a very tender and sweet post online and I notice that it was maybe posted five hours ago and that it has not a single like, retweet or response. And I think that is a bit sad, but on the other hand, it’s out there, I saw it and maybe someone else saw it. And the trouble is social media builds up people’s expectations. Children who feel that unpopular on social media can become suicidal, they literally kill themselves because they’ve lost followers that day, or nobody has retweeted. That kind of pressure is horrific because I can remember, most people can, the feeling of being unpopular at school.”
Stephen Fry on straight actors playing gay roles
Photo right: Stephen Fry (Credit: Claire Newman Williams)
There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether you need to be a gay actor to play a gay character. Russell T Davies’ recent television show It’s A Sin presented the AIDS crisis from a UK perspective. The show proved to be a huge hit and Stephen played a fictional Tory MP in the programme. What’s his take on Russell T Davies’ suggestion that gay actors should play gay roles? “I think Russell was absolutely right. In the case of It’s A Sin, there is something magically extra about knowing that the boys are themselves young gay men. They missed the crisis because they’re far too young. So there is a sort of feeling as you watch it about how those boys could have been us, particularly for the younger people watching.”
But Stephen doesn’t agree that you have to be gay to play all gay roles. “I don’t think when Russell said that he meant it to be true of all drama for all time. He just meant for this project, it somehow has a special resonance.”
Stephen also challenged the idea in Hollywood that meant that James Corden could be nominated for a Golden Globe whilst Jonathan Bailey (the openly gay actor in Bridgerton) has said previously he was advised to not come out as gay.
“I don’t want to add to the hate James Corden is receiving [for that role]. I have to say in his defence that whatever performance ends up on film is the responsibility of the director. So Ryan Murphy is at fault there, not James. He should have said to dial it down and not to go for a camp, podgy 1970s figure.”
“In the case of actors not being allowed to come out and being told it will harm their careers, it’s shocking that it’s still the case in Los Angeles. I interviewed [in Out There] a man whose job is to de-gay people’s voices. I met an actor who was told he was great for a role but that he ‘couldn’t have a gay voice’.”
Stephen Fry on mental health during the pandemic and lockdown
We asked Stephen what he learnt about himself during the pandemic. Notoriously open about his own mental health challenges, he said: “I’ve tried to learn to forgive myself for days that aren’t good. You know, there are days when I get up and I just can’t bring myself to work or to make that phone call or wash that saucepan. I think: ‘Come on Stephen, what’s the matter with you? You’re so fortunate. You’ve got this nice house, you’ve got all these opportunities and so on, you’ve got nothing to complain about.'”
“There’s no getting lockdown right. And again, social media can be a nuisance here because you see how perfect the cakes are that other people bake. And how pretty and beautiful their gardens are. But actually, that’s the wrong thing to focus on. We’re all getting through this in different ways – there is no right or wrong way. Time will alter every week. Sometimes a day drags and sometimes it flashes by so fast that you feel embarrassed.”
Photo: Stephen Fry in South America
Stephen Fry on gay rights around the world
LGBT+ rights in Uganda
We discussed his documentary Out There, where Stephen encountered homophobic figures all over the world. In Uganda, he met homophobes from both the political world and the church. Uganda is widely considered to be one of the most homophobic countries on earth. We asked him what motivated the homophobia of the pastor. Was it religion or more?
“They [tend to be] supported by American religious groups that are very self-consciously trying to get footholds in Africa for their brand of Pentecostalism. Being a pastor in Uganda is a power grab. Pastors have big audiences, big congregations.”
“They start to get television, they get money. They become established, they have a voice. The Latin word for pastor means shepherd. They think of their congregations as their sheep and the more sheep they get, the richer they are. Some of them are really very straightforward about it. They know that in order to differentiate themselves from other pastors, they have to have a point of view and gay people as scapegoats work. Gay people are outsiders who are inside, which makes us a threat. It’s exactly the same as communists in 1950s America.”
The Middle East – Gay rights in Saudi Arabia
Stephen talked about being invited to places like Saudi Arabia and how that sits with him when it comes to their poor record on LGBT+ rights including death for gay people. “I’ve been asked to do goodwill visits to Saudi Arabia. I’m vaguely well known there and they say they want to show me it’s not what I think it is.”
But he admits it’s complex. “A friend said to me that if the West stops any support of Saudi Arabia, Russia and China are only too keen to forge very strong relations with their country. Is that a good thing for the world? And then immediately you’re pulled into the complexity of world relations and world politics and I suppose there is a point to that.”
Russia’s “gay propaganda law”
LGBT+ rights in Russia deteriorated in 2013 when the so-called “gay propaganda law” was passed. It was similar in its scope to Britain’s Section 28 law that was in place from 1988 to 2003. Stephen covered the decline of LGBT+ rights in Russia in the same documentary. “I spoke to the St Petersburg politician who put in place a law banning the promotion of the LGBT lifestyle as being normal or equivalent to a straight lifestyle. Anyone who spoke well of or implied normalcy to gay relations was breaking this law. There was a strong belief that this law would be passed onto the Duma and become federal Russian law, and indeed it did.”
“I’m also Jewish, and we all know the stories of what happened to the Jews in Europe: how they were singled out for this kind of special hatred and blame. We see it happening again with gay people and the nativist right. When you mix nationalism and some form of Orthodox religion, you get the blood of gay people running on pavements. Gay people are the ones that wake up the most primal fear.”
Meeting Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil
Brazil‘s president Jair Bolsonaro is an out and proud homophobe. He’s made many anti-gay remarks over the years, not least to Stephen Fry when he interviewed him when a Senator. Bolsonaro flirted with the idea of COVID being a hoax and told the Brazilian people to stop dealing with it “like fags”.
Stephen discussed the aftermath of meeting Brazil’s current president: “The irony is, just after the interview I went to see the Sao Paulo gay pride parade. It’s the largest in the world and the size of it, the spectacle of it, the joy of it, the fellowship of it, it was so magnificent that I thought, well, you know, they’ve got this strange senator who’s a right-wing military fascist, but look at the country, they’re so open and accepting. It was a gay pride parade unlike anything I’d seen before. Goodness me, the Brazilians do know how to do that.”
Stephen Fry on Greece
Partying in Mykonos and expanding your mind at the Parthenon
Stephen has also written a number of books about Ancient Greece. So, when he visits Greece will he be drinking at Jackie O’s or exploring the ruins of the ancient world? “The great thing about Greece is you can do both. You can enjoy Mykonos as a reward for your cultural trawling earlier on. I love Greece and the effect it has on my sense of self and history. To be in the place where so many heroic figures were and where so much of our civilization was born is a tremendous treat. Plus it’s just so beautiful. The sky is particularly blue over Greece. The sea is particularly blue, the stones are white, the grass green and the mixture of them all is so magical on the senses.”
And when it comes to people thinking cultural and historical trips are for the older generation, Stephen says: “There’s a general feeling that cultural holidays are for older people; that people in their sixties start going on cruises. I think it’s a shame that there’s a kind of age apartheid about that. I think young people don’t only want to lie on a beach shagging and drinking cocktails. There’s such pleasure to be had if you curate it in the right way.”
Stephen Fry’s Post-pandemic bucket list
When it comes to traveling, one thing is for certain – everyone wants to get back out there after the 2019 / 2020 pandemic and Stephen Fry is no exception.
“My husband and I love traveling and being older [than him], I’ve been to more places. We’re looking at the South Pacific. I’ve been to Bora Bora but I’ve not been anywhere else in the region. There’s got to be a lot more responsible travel in the post-pandemic period. I will definitely want to go somewhere warm and sunny and I thought maybe Brazil, funnily enough!”