Dear Richard Hammond
I don’t watch The Grand Tour, so I would’ve been unaware of the ‘ice cream’ comments you made if it wasn’t for the social media storm that followed. I’ve since watched the clip (where you said, ‘I don’t eat ice cream. I think it’s something to do with being straight. There’s nothing wrong with it, but a grown man eating ice cream, it’s a bit you know, it’s that way rather than that way…’) and read with interest some of the statements and articles which either slated or supported you in the aftermath.
Rather than add to the social media melee, I’m sending you my thoughts in a more personal way, with this open letter, in the hope that you might think more carefully before saying such things in the future.
I read that your comments might have been referring to an old Finnish TV advert, to entertain your Finnish studio audience. I think that’s irrelevant. Whether you were referring to the advert or not, the words you said and the expressions on your face would have had the same impact on your worldwide TV audience. The root of the joke isn’t relevant; it’s the butt of it that really matters.
I also read that your comments might have been scripted. I must congratulate you on your acting ability if that was the case; it came across convincingly that you don’t like ice cream because you’re straight and you believe that liking ice cream is a trait common to gay men. The expression on your face, as if you’d just got a whiff of something really bad, well, you captured perfectly the look that affects many young gay men on a daily basis, especially those who are hiding their sexuality because they feel ashamed of being ‘that way’. Or gay as I prefer to call it.
Whether you genuinely believe what you said or not, the impact of your words and actions remains the same.
Of course, many people argue that your comments have been blown out of all proportion, that we all have the right to make ‘harmless’ jokes and that nowadays we’re all too easily offended. The thing is, I agree that reasoned debate and sensible argument is being stifled. The extreme reactions from both sides don’t really help any of us in understanding why some of us support you and some condemn you. I’m not shouting at you and I don’t want you banned from the telly, I’d just like you to try to understand why your comments weren’t ‘harmless’ and hopefully encourage you - and your scriptwriter - to choose your words more carefully in the future.
People will always disagree about where the line should be drawn between ‘just having a laugh’ and ‘being offensive’. For me it’s pretty straightforward. When a joke or jibe treats, as something normal, the idea that some people are inherently worth less, or should be valued less, than others - simply by virtue of certain traits and nothing else - the line’s been crossed.
I think you crossed the line Richard.
I wonder how many kids during the past few weeks have been called ‘gay’, in a derogatory way, for choosing an ice cream pudding? And I wonder how many have refused an ice cream for fear of being called gay? And I wonder how many of those kids will have had it, yet again, reinforced that it’s safer to keep up the pretence of being straight as, yet again, he’s reminded of his shame by a popular male personality publicly recoiling at the very idea of being gay?
I don’t think you’re a raging homophobe. I just don’t think you understand the damage done by the sort of comments, like yours, that are unfortunately commonly shared in school playgrounds, classrooms, sports clubs, pubs, offices and round the dinner table. The sort of comments that pander to prejudice just for a cheap laugh. Shaming comments. They’re possibly more damaging than the diatribe that comes from openly proud homophobes. At least gay men know exactly where they stand with that kind of vile rhetoric.
People who have found peace with their sexuality aren’t so affected. They’ve survived the journey, probably not unscathed but better placed to hear the shaming comments. It’s the rest I’m concerned about. You should know that I don’t think this is about political correctness - though I’m very proud to be a badge-wearing, flag-waving campaigner! Clare Johnston said in her excellent recent article:
‘there’s only one way to counter everyday prejudice, and it’s not political correctness. Plain old kindness and consideration of others’ feelings is all that’s really required of us’. She, like me, is also of the opinion that what you said ‘helped no one and humiliated many.’
So, I guess I’m simply asking you to be kind. Consider the feelings of the many young people who are struggling with growing up in a culture that puffs up its chest and pats itself on the head because it’s gracious enough to allow same-sex marriage, but laughs out loud at bigoted banter. The homophobic innuendo adds to society’s drip-feed shaming and humiliation of people who are gay, especially those who are young and still exploring their sexuality.
I think of you as someone who probably values life more than most. I admired the way you spoke publicly about depression and how it affected you following your terrible accident. You have an awareness of how important our mental health is, and how easily it can be knocked off kilter. Feeling shame is one of the most common causes of low self-esteem and depression. It takes many to a point where they feel like suicide is their only option. Many young gay men take their own lives. Many of them do so because they can’t bear the pain any longer, they can’t live with the consequences of their shame. Many of them have never been overtly bullied, but they’ve been badly affected by that drip drip drip of those harmful ‘harmless’ comments.
It’s likely that many of the struggling young people who will go on to lead perfectly happy lives as gay men wont have spoken out against you. Not yet. Because they’re just at the start of their journey, struggling to understand why it’s deemed acceptable to mock them for who they are. They’ll hopefully come to realise, soon, that their value and worth in our society isn’t based on their sexuality, and they’ll soon start to love themselves as much as their families and friends do.
Until then Richard, you’ve helped reinforce the fact that silence feels like the safest option for those many young men and it’s up to people like me to use our voices to be their voice. I do hope you’ll choose to do the same in future, and not judge a person’s worth by what they like, or don’t like, to suck on.