The following interview with Judy Weider appeared in the April 1996 issue of The Advocate magazine...
Rock's most respected star on carrying the gay gene, being bisexual on film, psychotic homophobia and flirting with men...
"Really? Oh, who cares?" Sting says, pushing open the heavy wooden front door of his 400-year-old Elizabethan manor and walking out onto the 54 acres of rich English land it sits on. "Listen, if someone wants to say I'm gay because I kiss a man on screen, it's not something I'm afraid of."
The 44 year old songwriter-musician-actor is talking about his bisexual role in 'The Grotesque', a movie his wife, Trudie Styler, has produced and co-stars in with him. In the piece - a grim social comedy due in theatres this fall - Sting has two sex scenes with other men. "An interesting experience." he says with a grin.
Interesting experiences have pretty much driven the exotic life of Gordon Matthew Sumner. Born the son of a Newcastle milkman father and a hairdresser mother, he worked as a school-teacher before changing his name to Sting - friends said he looked like a bee with his trademark yellow and black sweaters. Then, joining his blond good looks with drummer Stewart Copeland's and guitarist Andy Summers's he helped to form the Police in 1977. After several platinum albums and Grammy awards, including one for 'Every Breath You Take', the restless Police chief dissolved the band at the peak of its powers in order to follow his own headstrong rhythms. Although fans hoped it was just a sabbatical, Sting's first solo album, 'Dream Of The Blue Turtles' (1985), was such a stunning success that it put to rest any dreams of a Police reunion.
Now, with his sixth solo album, 'Mercury Falling', already climbing the charts and a solo tour in progress, Sting's striking compositions have become an integral part of the American landscape. His signature vocals provided the perfect noir atmosphere for this years 'Leaving Las Vegas' sound track, just as his canny musicianship has frequently proved to be the key to the moods of other successful films, including 'Sabrina', 'Copycat', 'Someone To Watch Over Me', and 'The Three Musketeers'.
"I first met Sting when he asked me to play the part of his lab assistant in a film he starred in called 'The Bride'," recalls Quentin Crisp, who later became the subject of a Sting song called 'Englishman in New York'. The composition, which depicts Crisp's bravery in the face of brutal homophobia, became Sting's metaphor for his own feelings of isolation after moving to America. "He's very courteous," Crisp says of the multiple Grammy winner (Sting won another Grammy in 1993 for 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You'). "I don't mean to sound condescending, I just didn't expect a pop star to be so gentlemanly."
Being a pop star is the one thing Sting doesn't do well. Although he still has a home in Malibu, California, he hasn't been there in many years. Instead he, Styler, and four of his six children share a 14-bedroom home near Stonehenge that he calls Lake House. It was there in his Wiltshire mansion, with windows on all sides and the river Avon running past, that Sting composed 'Mercury Falling'. And it was in the Lake House library, with Styler occasionally joining in, that Sting spoke for the very first time with the gay press.
ADVOCATE: After doing 'The Grotesque', do you think straight actors should play gay parts?
STING: I was watching a gay TV show last night, and they asked that. They said, "There are enough gay actors to accommodate these roles." And the guy who was gay said, "Look, gay actors have been playing straight guys for years - Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift.
ADVOCATE: You're an activist. How aware of gay and lesbian civil rights are you?
STING: A lot of my friends are gay, so my knowledge about gay rights has come through them. But in our world gays are not terribly discriminated against.
ADVOCATE: What world is that?
STING: In the entertainment world, people don't hide the fact that they're gay - not in England anyway. It's something that is a matter of course.
ADVOCATE: Even though there have been English actors like Ian McKellen and directors like John Schlesinger who've been able to come out without much damage, for a romantic lead it's still the last frontier.
STING: I'm sure that frontier will be crossed, and I think that more straight actors playing gay is probably the way that will happen. The whole business of sexuality is very strange to me. I mean, we have all the gay gene, don't we?
ADVOCATE: We do?
STING: Yes, I think we all have this gay gene. That's how we interact. Men couldn't live with each other if we didn't have the ability to be tender with each other or the ability to love each other. We do have that ability, whether it's spoken or not. Male bonding is nothing but erotic behaviour. Football hooligans are homoerotic. Rugby teams are homoerotic. It's just that it's under a different guise - a disguise.
ADVOCATE: Were you aware of the gay following that you had when you were in the Police?
STING: No! (laughs)
ADVOCATE: You especially were considered quite the heartthrob. You didn't get letters from men?
STING: No, I don't think so, but I'm flattered - deeply flattered.
ADVOCATE: When you starred in the film 'Dune', your character was homoerotic.
STING: He was definitely that. The director, David Lynch, who's a strange man, had me in this costume, this flying-underpants-sort-of-wing thing, and it just looked like gay cabaret. Up until that point, the character was ambiguous, but after that he was gay, so I said, "OK, we'll go for it."
ADVOCATE: Have you worked with actors and musicians who are gay but closeted?
STING: Uh, well sure I have.
ADVOCATE: Do they tell you they're worried someone might out them?
STING: I think that's unfortunate, to be honest with you. I think people should out themselves when they choose to. I don't think it's fair to basically abuse people - to abuse people's sense of timing and their sense of pride by actually feeding them to the bad press, feeding them to the wrong instincts of society.
ADVOCATE: You mean, when gays out other gays?
STING: Yes, it's like gays who are doing the outing are saying "To be gay is bad. Look, we're going to punish you." I don't think that it's bad to be gay. People shouldn't be outed and punished because they are. People have a right to their privacy - gays particularly. So I don't like it.
ADVOCATE: Do you also see the other side: strength in numbers?
STING: I think the straight community has to own up and say, "Look, gays have provided all these services throughout history, and it's not just choreography and hairdressing, it's war heroes and caregivers; they've fought in the armed forces and been decorated heroes, and they're gay. Admit it." There are similar issues in society that people should be honest about.
STING: Drugs, for example. There a lot of people who use drugs recreationally or for more serious reasons, and their lives are perfectly fine. They're not falling apart at the seams.
ADVOCATE: Are you talking about yourself?
STING: I like to smoke pot, but this whole idea that to be the president of the United States you have to lie about your former drug habits is nonsense. It's a familiar issue.
ADVOCATE: Well, yes, in that you feel shame about something you do or are, and because of that you lie.
STING: Exactly. It's hypocritical, and that's sad.
ADVOCATE: You've always been candid about representing yourself as a very sexual person. I read how you do yoga to enjoy sex longer. Has your sexual appetite ever led you to a homosexual experience?
STING: No. I haven't had a gay relationship - although I do have very close, loving relationships with the men I work with, other musicians. It's a very tight community, a very close bond - and I love it. But it's not sexual.
ADVOCATE: How do you draw the line?
STING: Well, thanks to the gay community, we men can actually follow our feelings and demonstrate our affections for each other without being afraid. I'm perfectly willing to hug the people I work with. I do it all the time. I think the generation before us - our fathers - they would shake hands, and that would be it. There would be no hugging or affection.
ADVOCATE: Do you think you suffered by not having more affection from your father?
STING: I don't think I'm unusual for my generation. I don't think either of my parents really knew how to tactilely demonstrate their love for me, and I ably overcompensate. I mean, I'm constantly touching my kids, and they're constantly saying, "Leave me alone." (laughs)
ADVOCATE: I believe your son Jake has had a problem earlier in his life. He was in school, and no one understood what was wrong.
STING: He is what's technically known as dyspraxic. He had a lot of learning difficulties, despite having a massive IQ. He is very bright but found school-work to be totally impossible. He's much better now; he's receiving treatment for what is a clinical condition.
ADVOCATE: When you were first dealing with this, did it give you any idea of what it might be like for a parent who has a gay child who isn't quite fitting in?
STING: I don't see gayness as being something that's wrong with somebody. Jake had something that was wrong with his brain; it wasn't working properly. I'm not sure I would classify being gay as something wrong. I just think it's different.
ADVOCATE: But what is similar is that Jake had to deal with being different, right?
STING: Oh, I see. Yes, he was feeling very put down, humiliated publicly. Every day was a humiliation for him. And he went from being an incredibly boisterous and self-confident kid to being a little mouse overnight, just be being in the wrong environment.
ADVOCATE: If any or all of your children were to come to you and say they were gay, would you be supportive?
STING: (Wide-eyed) I love my children!
ADVOCATE: The number of kids who get tossed out of their homes over this is shocking.
STING: That's beyond belief to me.
ADVOCATE: It can't be any different here in England.
STING: But they're your children! They're a part of you.
ADVOCATE: Some people must not like that part of themselves. Have you heard the joke "Is he gay or just British?"
STING: I don't think of that as a joke. Did we invent camp, or did we not? I think the British gay movement was probably a pioneer. Noel Coward thought of himself as one of the stately homes of England - even though it was against the law until quite recently. Homosexuals have a place in society. I think the British have a great affection for them.
ADVOCATE: Have you ever had any of your gay friends or actors come on to you?
STING: No, I don't think so.
ADVOCATE: You don't think so?
STING: Um...(laughs) Well, maybe they have.
ADVOCATE: When you did your gay sex scenes in 'The Grotesque', did you feel anything for the other actor sexually?
STING: I think that's very dangerous, because the easiest way to portray someone in love or someone in lust is to be in love or in lust. That's a very easy thing to fall into. If you're making love to a beautiful man or a beautiful woman - it's a quite attractive idea to your body.
ADVOCATE: So, Sting, did you enjoy kissing the male actor or not?
STING: (laughing) OK. It wasn't entirely unpleasant.
ADVOCATE: Was that a surprise to you?
STING: Yeah. I mean, I've been conditioned like most people. The idea that there are taboo areas of the body. To kiss someone on the lips is one of those areas. It's a symbolic thing. So all right, I did it, and the actor I kissed was the same as me: He'd never done it before with a man. Now we both have. So I suppose we're gay now.
ADVOCATE: Definitely, that's all it takes.
STING: What I've learned from my gay friends is that there are all kinds of sexual relationships between gays. It's not just one thing, you know; it's a whole variety and intensity of sexual relationships that gays have. Gays are normally stereotyped for one act, and that isn't the only thing they do.
ADVOCATE: Which seems so strange to me. I mean, heterosexuals know there are all kinds of straight sexual acts.
STING: (gasps) There are?
ADVOCATE: (laughing) Never mind. Let's get serious. What did you think the first time you heard about AIDS?
STING: Oh God, that is serious! I was terrified. I mean, I was intelligent enough to realise that a virus wasn't going to limit itself to gay men - even if it began that way. And of course, it didn't begin that way, really - but that was the perception. My first thought was not Phew! I'm glad I'm not gay, I won't get this thing... I couldn't possibly subscribe to the idea that it's God's punishment for unnatural sexual behaviour. That's nonsense.
ADVOCATE: You knew people who thought that?
STING: They exist, sure. I think anyone with that mind-set should sit in a hospital room with some person in his mid-30's who is talented and vital and full of potential - and watch him die.
ADVOCATE: Did you do that?
STING: Yes. It's a human being. It shouldn't be happening. I think there obviously is a cure for AIDS. There's nothing in existence that doesn't have an antidote somewhere. I'm an environmentalist. I keep saying, "There's a cure for AIDS in the jungle. It's natures laboratory; the cure's there, we just have to find it." I keep hearing that there is a conspiracy to hold things back and into the hands of the people who can make money out of it.
ADVOCATE: Do you believe that?
STING: I believe it. There's so much money in the drug industry, and they're all fighting over patents. There's talk of plants in Africa and the Amazon that could hold this thing back. They're free, and you just have to find them. The whole idea of the drug industry and government bureaucracy all being hand in hand to keep this thing under wraps - it's wrong.
ADVOCATE: Have you ever written a song about it?
STING: No. I don't write about issues unless I can find a metaphor to express them. I'm not a propagandist.
ADVOCATE: There was a movie of yours - I think it was 'Bring On The Night' - and somebody in your band or the crew called somebody a faggot. Do your remember that?
STING: Yeah, Branford Marsalis said it, I think. I remember the incident, but it was very much Branford being silly and daft. I didn't get any personal flak from that. (laughing) But thanks for reminding me!
ADVOCATE: No problem.
STING: There's a difference between serious psychotic homophobia and the sort of stuff that's learned in school yards. There's a difference. This mightn't be much solace to the victim, but there's a difference. But it is an insult, either way. I have to accept that.
ADVOCATE: I understand that there's maliciousness and there's carelessness, and I certainly didn't expect you to stand up in the tour bus and say "Get out!" to him (String laughs). Also, that was a while ago, and I think there has been some evolution around this.
STING: It's just a matter of knowledge, you know, of education away from this stuff. I mean, you know, Branford's been called a nigger. So he knows. He knows.
ADVOCATE: Well I did an interview with Jesse Jackson, and h spent most of his time telling me, "Do not compare my struggle with yours.". A lot of black people think that there's more damage done to them because they can't pretend they're not black - forgetting that hiding causes other kinds of damage.
STING: Imagine being black and gay! I think they have a particularly hard time from all sides.
ADVOCATE: A couple of years ago, you and Trudie decided to get married after being together for many years. Gays can't make that choice.
STING: It's not legal for gays to marry?
STING: But there are ceremonies.
ADVOCATE: No, we make them up.
STING: Right, well, that's the best kind of ceremony.
ADVOCATE: Maybe from your perspective because you have a choice.
STING: That's true. Gays have a right to some kind of recognised legal state. I would support that.
ADVOCATE: What about another traditional activity for couples: raising children?
STING: Obviously there are gay couples that are fitter to raise children than heterosexual couples. You can't generalise either way. Who's going to be judge? See, the fear is that being exposed to gay behaviour will make you gay. But as Ian McKellen said: "I spent all my school life in English schools being given heterosexual literature, and it didn't turn me straight." So it's fear.
ADVOCATE: What is fear really about?
STING: I think prejudice has a lot to do with self esteem. People who are prejudiced have very low self-esteem, whether they are racist or homophobic. It's really about themselves and their own inadequacies and their own lack of confidence about who they are.
ADVOCATE: Jonathan Pryce, who played gay in Carrington, told me that he had a friend whose son had come to him and said he was gay. Jonathan said the father went ballistic, which made Jonathan suspect that the father might be gay.
STING: I think we touch on this in 'The Grotesque'. Alan Bates's character is very macho, and he's upset about his effete poet who has come to his house. Also he has a dream in which he's having sex with Trudie's character, and then it switches, and he's having sex with me.
ADVOCATE: Yes, if people are truly comfortable with their sexuality, they don't care much about what others do.
STING: With our own kids we have so many gay friends that we've explained it to them, and they seem to take it in their stride. (Styler joins the conversation. Sting addresses her). They're very natural about it, aren't they?
TRUDIE: I think so, yeah. I actually took them to see a film by a friend of ours called Trevor, about a boy discovering he was gay. It was a great, gentle way to begin the discussion about homosexuality.
ADVOCATE: What did they ask you?
TRUDIE: Jake said, "Do people that young have those kinds of feelings?" And I said, "Yeah, they really do." And he said, "How terrible to feel frightened about it." He really got it. (laughs) Then he went on and on about what a great actor the boy was.
ADVOCATE: From your perspective, do you think being gay is biological?
TRUDIE: I don't think it's a choice. You can't disguise your feelings. You can suppress those feelings. That's your only choice: to suppress or not to suppress them. But to actually have the feelings themselves is not a choice.
STING: A man cannot disguise his arousal. Nor can he fake it. Unlike a woman. (laughs) If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. (At this point Sting leaves the room for a minute).
ADVOCATE: Your husband says he's never gotten fan mail from gay men. Do you think that's possible?
TRUDIE: Who knows? I think he'd be oblivious to it. I think if people come onto you and you're not looking for it, you have no reason to really consider it. But it wouldn't surprise me if they wanted him. He's a beautiful looking man.
ADVOCATE: When you two fell in love, you were both with other people. I read that Sting said, "Trudie was the culprit and the saviour." What does that mean?
TRUDIE: I guess the "culprit" meant the other woman, you know? And the "saviour", if you use that word, could be a bit of a theatrical way to describe that he was not happy. We got together after a couple of years of struggling through his unhappy divorce, but that struggle was a good thing for Sting to do. Then our lives became blissful; we're very happy. But the British press aren't very forgiving.
ADVOCATE: Oh really? It was all in the press?
TRUDIE: Yeah. Huge. The tabloids were nasty for a while. The British press is known for its hypocrisy. I'd had a very good acting career up until the point that I met Sting, and when the press exposed me as the leggy blond who had invaded this seemingly happy household, my work took a severe nose-dive.
ADVOCATE: Trudie, when you produced the documentary 'Boys From Brazil', about transvestites in Brazil, did it cause you to wonder about your own sexuality?
TRUDIE: Well, because these are people who are marginalised, outcast, people of the night, it was more a human rights issue to me. I would think What can I take for them? What would they like? I found myself buying gold belts and jewellery for the boys, for the transvestites. I forgot that they were men, because they so identified with being women. And it gave me very strong feelings about myself you know? What makes me heterosexual? Why aren't I homosexual? Am I bisexual? Are we all?
ADVOCATE: Have you known any lesbians?
TRUDIE: I have a colleague who works with me in New York who's a lesbian. She's quite out. She flirts with me a lot, and I flirt back with her.
ADVOCATE: How do you feel about that?
TRUDIE: Great! It's wonderful. Whenever I'm going out, I say, "Hey Linda, how do I look tonight ? Does this do it for you?" And I feel great if it does.
ADVOCATE: Do you think that women are more affectionate and open to the idea of loving other women?
TRUDIE: Oh, yeah! It's OK for two little girls to walk around holding hands and kissing each other. I'm a great flirt; I'm a great flirt to men and women. I love that physical contact and affection. (Sting returns to the room). Hi, (laughs) I've just come out.
STING: Oh, good. So did I.
ADVOCATE: I'm sorry, but you really didn't.
STING: Really? No, I'm sure I did.
ADVOCATE: No, you said you felt a little something when you kissed the other actor.
STING: I thought you said that was gay enough?
TRUDIE: It's gay enough for me. But we shouldn't joke. Really, people are put through so much if they're gay, famous, and thinking about coming out. People are afraid of the consequences, so they suffer in silence. Ideally they should be able to come out and say, "This is what I am and how I want to conduct my life sexually. There I said it. You have it. Now, f*** off and leave me alone.
ADVOCATE: Oh, that would work!
STING: But I think it backfires. It backfires on the very people who have been victimised by the press.
ADVOCATE: What do you mean by "backfires"?
STING: The idea that if you're gay, you should support the gay community and come out and say, "I'm gay, and my life is this way, and society won't be ruined because of my behaviour" - it's a nice thought. But using the press as an ally is like holding a wolf by the ears. When you let go, it bites you.
TRUDIE: I think you illustrated it by dear Nigel Hawthorne, who the theatrical set has known forever is gay. He does a movie ('The Madness of King George') and becomes a big star overnight. He does an interview with The Advocate in which he mentions he is gay, and the tabloids pick it up over here and headline, QUEEN GEORGE. Poor Nigel's life is now coloured with that, because when he goes out into a restaurant to eat with a friend, they'll be outside waiting for their photo op. Its like what they said about my transvestite movie: "These people should be shot with something more lethal than a 16-millimetre camera". There's the glorious tabloids.
STING: The tabloids at their best.
ADVOCATE: But really, be honest. The tabloids may appal to our baser selves, but if you see some juicy headline, don't you go, "Ooh, wow, look!"
STING: (laughing) Oh, yeah. We were thrilled with the Hugh Grant story.
TRUDIE: We loved it! It was amazing.
STING: We heard it two hours after he got arrested. I thought it was going to be a man he'd been caught with.
TRUDIE: Sting thought she was a transvestite.
ADVOCATE: Maybe you two will wind up in the tabloids for doing this interview.
STING: I don't care, but I've never even had a gay man come on to me.
ADVOCATE: That can't be. You must have been asleep.
TRUDIE: (to Sting) But you know that someone like Franco adores you.
STING: Yeah, I flirt; I flirt a lot.
TRUDIE: He's very flirty. He's like me.
STING: And I'm not just a passive flirt either. I flirt with gays too.
TRUDIE: And you enjoy it too.
STING: Oh yeah, I love it. I have a great time.
ADVOCATE: Did this interview make you think about your sexuality in a new way?
STING: Yes, I was taken aback a couple of times, and I thought, I must consider this afresh. I think people are afraid that if they interact or flirt with gays, they will become gay by osmosis. It's ridiculous. It's so completely self-centred to imagine that you are the object of desire for all gays.
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