Boy band singer Stephen Gately of Boyzone, died on the weekend. Apparently he choked on his own vomit after a night out partying. Which may seem like a fairly standard celebrity death that the tabloid media would be all over, and you’d be right.

There’s just one interesting sidenote: Gately was gay and had been married to Andy Cowles since 2006. You might have missed this, since Cowles is rarely referred to as his husband.

“Gately had been on holiday with his long-term partner Andy Cowles when he died on Saturday,” reported news.com.au. Most news.com.au articles didn’t even refer to the fact that they were married.

The Mirror (UK) referred to Cowles as Gately’s ‘partner’, and made no mention of them being married but made sure to note that Gately had been partying at “Palma’s biggest gay nightclub”.

Some seemed unsure of their relationship status, like The Times, who in one article refers to Cowles as his ‘partner’ but in another acknowledges their marriage and used, *gasp*, the h-word:

“He leaves a husband Andrew Cowles, who he married in a civil union in March, 2006.”

They weren’t alone with the husband usage, with the Daily Mail also calling Cowles his ‘husband’, which seemed to rile many of the commenters on the site. Further confusion over at The Telegraph, where Cowles was either his ‘civil partner’ or his ‘long-term partner’.

But the classiest bit was the Telegraph‘s obituary, where there is several juicy paragraphs about Gately’s messy gay love life, including:

In 2003 Gately went through a “commitment ceremony” in Las Vegas with his new boyfriend Andrew Cowles, an internet businessman, and entered into a civil partnership with him in London three years later… He is survived by his parents and by his companion, Andrew Cowles.

A “commitment ceremony”? But it’s “companion” that’s really insulting.

Not that Gately is alone with much of the media’s homophobia and confusion over how to label gay relationships. Just last week, the ex-husband of Little Britain star Matt Lucas was found hanged:

Matt Lucas’s ex-lover found hanged in flat. The former “husband” of Little Britain comedian Matt Lucas has killed himself after leaving a tragic message on Facebook. — Daily Express

Matt Lucas’s ex-lover Kevin McGee ‘found hanged’. Matt Lucas’s former boyfriend, Kevin McGee, has hanged himself – 10 months after the Little Britain comedian divorced him, it has been reported… Lucas, 35, became the first gay celebrity “divorcee”, when their 22 months civil partnership was dissolved on the grounds of McGee’s unreasonable behaviour. — Telegraph

Matt Lucas’s former partner Kevin McGee found hanged. The former civil partner of Matt Lucas… — The Times

A lover, a “husband”, a boyfriend, a companion, a partner, a civil partner? The language involving same-sex relationships is a political minefield. Is it because technically ‘gay marriage’ in the UK isn’t real marriage but a civil partnership? The difference being that a partnership is entered into as a contract when papers are signed and no formal ‘vows’ need to be said. Plus, ‘marriage’, for better or worse, has possible religious connotations. Potato, potaato.

Apparently so that gay marriage legislation could be passed with little hassle, the term civil partnerships was used. But, according to the BBC, a civil partnership “is to all intents and purposes a right of marriage for gay and lesbian couples.”

So what language should the media use when dealing with what is essentially gay marriage?

Sharon Dane, deputy national convener of Australian Marriage Equality says it’s up to the individual to decide the language of their relationship. “It’s really a personal thing, regardless of personal sexual orientation. Many civil partnerships prefer to use ‘husband and wife’. It’s a social label, there aren’t legal connotations with the terms. People who are seeking marriage equality often use husband and wife because of that connection with marriage.”

What terms should the media use if they aren’t familiar with the personal preference of the couple? “At the very least ‘partner’ or ‘spouse'” says Dane.

Just in case you were wondering, Gately has quite publicly used the word husband. “I’m a fabulous husband [laughs]! I love to cook and clean – I’m a bit of a house husband actually!” he proclaimed in an interview with Star magazine in 2007.

Gately’s sexuality may seem irrelevant when discussing his death, but it was his sexuality that brought him much of his fame. He was the first openly gay man in a choreographed dancing, matching suits and swelling ballads boy band. Boyzone were the first boy band to make a video clip that included a same sex love interest. He “was a pioneer in the pop world” says The Guardian and “a gay rights hero” says The Times.

It’d just be nice if they could figure out how to label his personal relationships.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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