Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Gay Boys in the Band

Every now and again we hear of a young boyband member coming out as gay or bisexual. It doesn’t seem to affect the headlines these days, not unless the boyband member is a huge celebrity.
It seems that a lot of the most popular boybands of the 1980s and 1990s had one lgbt member, and so here’s an overall look at the history of the Gay Boys in the Band.
First of all, let’s set some criteria. What do I regard as a boyband? Obviously, all members of the band are “boys”, that is of any age up to their mid-20s (some even re-form when the members are in their 30s, but they still get labelled as boybands). Whether they play an instrument or not isn’t important. Next in importance is the target audience. Generally, a boyband appeals to the teenage market, usually teenage girls. Their music is pop-based, and their band’s image is usually carefully managed – during one phase during the 90s lots of naked young torsos were on show! 

Very often a boyband has been specially “manufactured” and created by record producers rather than evolve out of previous years of performing before being “discovered”. 

The roots of boyband culture go back several decades. Groups like the Beach Boy and the Beatles can all be said to have influenced the boyband style. The Osmonds, the Jacksons and the Monkees were probably the first “proper” boybands. 

One of the earliest, and most literal, boybands was the Puerto Rico group Menudo. Members of this band had to be aged between 12 and 16. Once past that age a band member was replaced with someone younger. Menudo produced one of the most famous gay boyband members, Ricky Martin, one of the few gay ex-boyband members to have success in a solo career. But he wasn’t the first member of Menudo to come out. 

At the age of 14 Angelo Garcia left Menudo to pursue a solo career. Unlike fellow band member Ricky Martin Angelo recognised his sexuality in his teenage years, yet he didn’t come out publicly until 2010, influencing Ricky’s decision to come out several weeks later. 

But who was the first boyband member to come out officially during his boyband career? During the 1990s, at the height of the boyband phenomenon, there was a spate of manufactured bands whose members were all, or almost all, gay. Generally these were formed by record producers who had a large association with the lgbt club and dance scene and who thought an all-gay boyband would have as much success as any other. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your personal view of boybands), the all-gay line-up had only a fleeting success and they all disappeared after a year or two. 

In the UK the most well-known, or at least most moderately successful at the time, was a band called 2wo Third3 (pronounced Two Thirds) in 1994. The name of this 3-member boyband was supposed to indicate the sexuality of the singers – two were gay, one was straight (a 4th member was a cartoon character!). Only one of these gay members, Lee Thomas, is still active in the music industry. 

Across the Irish Sea at about the same time another gay boyband was put together, assembled from young lads who answered an ad in an Irish lgbt magazine called “Guyz”. The success of the Irish boyband Boyzone led “Guyz” publisher to form an all-gay Irish line-up of 5 boys in a clear imitation. The band’s name was influenced by the magazine – 4Guyz – a name which clearly indicated its target market. After a flurry of publicity and a few gigs, including London Pride 1996, 4Guyz failed to get as far as releasing a single. 

Which brings me back to Boyzone. In the UK there hadn’t been such a fuss made out of a current/former boyband member coming out since George Michael as that of Stephen Gately of Boyzone in 1999. When he decided to come out in the Sun newspaper before they had a chance to out him there was such a wave of support from fans and public alike that it can be said to have been a turning point in the media’s (particularly the Sun’s) reputation in handling coming out stories. Stephen Gatley’s coming out was treated sympathetically and without sensationalising his sex life. 

Former Wham member George Michael, on the other hand, as I’m sure most of you will remember, outed himself in spectacular fashion in 1998. It probably lost him a lot of fans, and it certainly helped the British media to begin labelling him as the bad boy of pop after years of them lauding him as one of the greatest singer songwriters this country has produced. 

Other than the manufactured all-gay line-ups of the 1990s, who was the earliest known boyband member to be openly gay from the start of the boyband’s existence? That honour goes to Andrew Kinlochan of the UK boyband Phixx. When the band was formed in 2003 he was already openly gay, though this was not known to the media at large until he admitted it to the Sun newspaper in the publicity surrounding the release of Phixx’s first single. Recently Andrew tried to revive his singing career as a soloist on a tv talent show, but this was unsuccessful and he is currently working for Burberry. 

Perhaps the experience of Stephen Gately’s coming out (and particularly after the hugely supportive and respectful coverage of his sad death and funeral, despite attempts by some tabloids to do otherwise) probably encouraged other gay boyband members to come out. Stephen’s partner at the time of his outing was Eloy de Jong, member of the Dutch boyband Caught in the Act. Another Irish boyband member, Mark Feehily of Westlife, came out in 2005, again in the Sun newspaper (what’s the big deal with the Sun newspaper, I don’t know?). 

Thanks to talent shows like “X-Factor” there has been many young gay singers emerging onto the pop scene. The popularity of boybands, not seen since the 1990s, has brought more gay boyband members to the public notice. The most recent of these, in the UK, is Jaymi Hensley of the band Union J, who found fame in the 2012 UK series of “X-Factor” (Union J is managed by Louis Walsh who also managed Boyzone and Westlife). 

Other boybands with gay members, some more well-known than others, have been ‘N Sync (Lance Bass), Blue (Duncan James), New Kids on the Block (Jonathan Knight), and V (Kevin McDaid). 

These days any new boyband seems to be subject to “which one is gay” speculation, such has been the regularity of former boyband members coming out and the acceptance by fans of openly gay singers. Even One Direction and the Wanted haven’t escaped this speculation. Who knows? Only time will tell.

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