This band, up until very recently, tended to be used by certain spiteful and uneducated people in some fandoms (such as ours—One Direction’s—but also other closeted artists’, particularly those under Syco) to argue closeting by contracts was not real, or even, that Syco was supportive. “Sure,” they said, “you can be pressured against coming out, homophobia is everywhere after all, but they can’t possibly force you! Look at Union J!”
However, the truth about the members of Union J, who ended up fourth in the 9th season of the X Factor in 2012, is sadder and more complicated than what, for many years, it must have sounded like for the general public.
Jaymi Hensley, one of the band’s singers, came out as gay back in 2012. He highlighted how supportive Syco had been but mended it by clarifying he had seen many other musicians who were forbidden to come out for economic reasons such as not doing well enough in sales. And this is how, years later, we ended up having our Twitter notifications filled with untrue and out of touch comments.
It wasn’t until 2016 that another band member, George Shelley, came out in a YouTube video. Unfortunately, this was not entirely by choice: the tabloids assured they were releasing a story about George’s sexuality, and the only thing he could do was getting this private and personal piece of information out himself and on his own terms before someone else would.
“People knew, and then I started going out, Jaymi would take me to these clubs, and people would see me with these guys,” George declared to the magazine gaytimes. “I’d be kissing these guys on nights out like any other 20-year-old would do when you’re experimenting, and that’s absolutely OK. But because of the situation I was in – in the public eye selling records aimed at young girls – I feel like I was made to believe, and made to think, because of the things I was being told and the way I was conditioned, that it would’ve jeopardised the band’s career. And in turn jeopardise my own career.”
In his documentary in 2018, George goes deeper into how he was told that being in a band with already one gay member whose public was mainly teenage girls left no room for another member coming out. In fact, the use of certain verbs is incredibly telling in his interview with gay times. In this case, we are referring to “to be told” and “to be conditioned,” because they put emphasis on the role of outsiders telling George these things, and what is even worse, manipulating and conditioning him into believing them.
George also talked about how this affected his mental health and the anxiety such a difficult situation generates: “I spent four years being somebody that I wasn’t and it really, really f**** with your mind… and the anxiety and paranoia amplified.”
This way of proceeding is a classic move in the industry all over the world. We see boybanders being pressured into the closet due to their role selling records to young female fans and, likewise, girlbanders who are expected to keep a “family-friendly” image so as to not upset conservative parents and allow their straight female fans to relate to them and aspire to be like them, which has happened for as long as we’ve had singers (take, for example, New Kids on the Block in the 80s with Jonathan Knight, NSYNC with Lance Bass back in the late 90s, Auryn and Sweet California in Spain in the 2010s and, of course, One Direction, formed in the same place and by the same people who closeted George but two years earlier). The choice to let one member come out is not at all unfamiliar: it was actually a very intelligent move, given that in 2012 the company was facing strong rumours and accusations about closeting the One Direction members, Louis and Harry in particular, and having Jaymi stretch how supportive they were contradicted the closeting allegations, it suggested there was nothing going on behind the scenes and, even if there were, this would not be Syco’s doing, since a boybander from the X Factor had just come out and they had not stopped him.
The choice to come out as bisexual in 2016 (although in George’s case, this was not a choice at all) and gay two years later does not sound all that foreign either. “I’ve had girlfriends and boyfriends,” George said in the video, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. If you spend some time on the internet, you’ll most likely eventually come across old articles with ridiculous headings such as “Who is George Shelley dating?,” which may have been used as a promoting and closeting tool at the time, but that nowadays provides us with all the evidence we need. George Shelley, according to the media, was supposed to be dating Ella Henderson in 2012 and 2013, a 27-years-old British singer who rose to fame, all too conveniently, in the X Factor UK. Later in 2013, he was said to have had an encounter with Jesy Nelson, and in 2016, the same year he came out of the closet, he was in another staged relationship with Lilah Parsons.
It is the same thing Elton John did all of those years ago, he came out as bisexual first for contractual reasons, because not doing so at the time, for Elton, would have meant denying his lavender marriage with ex wife Renate Blauel. That is not to say we can’t discover ourselves with time and perhaps realise we were not who we thought we were, but in this context, it is way too convenient how many artists who have been in stunt and bearding relationships in the past come out as bi, pan, omni, queer and so on, and then as gay later in life, and particularly in George’s case, where there is a clear different between the declarations given before he left the band versus once he actually did.
It is also an unfair and invalidating move for queer people attracted to multiple genders who need representation in the media and have their sexuality invalidated way too often as it is. Precisely for this reason, because of how despicable it is to suggest someone attracted to multiple genders is confused, or will change later in life, none of us logically question these situations (nor should we ever do such a thing, since obviously we have no right to question anyone’s sexuality unless they were forcefully closeted and letting us know by blatantly queercoding, and besides, both scenarios can be true: an artist can be involved in a stunt or have a bear and be attracted to multiple genders or, if they come out as queer, willingly choose that’s what they are comfortable with in the public eye and even change their mind later in life).
The point is: having gay people come out as queer or, often, as bisexual to cover they were forcefully closeted or past stunts is a very convenient narrative for this reason, we are unable to suspect a thing unless they blatantly queercode the contrary or come out as gay years later, for many artists it becomes the only way to even make their queerness known if that’s what they want, and labels and management teams are aware it works quite well in protecting their backs.
Regardless, it is clear to me how similar Syco’s modus operandi was with all the artists under it. It becomes extremely obvious when you look into it, since we have quite enough artists who have spoken out against closeting and abuse and more than enough proof to conclude it was the same for all of those who made themselves known in the X Factor UK.
Union J is one more band among many others who suffered a poor and abusive treatment in the hands of an industry rooted by homophobia and, overall, set to respond to conservative values instead of fighting and contributing to societal change. Their apparent freedom was no more than an illusion, well thought to quiet every talk of possible closeting into a whisper, and it says a lot that the public and even fans grasp desperately to any narrative covering closeting and abuse when we are lucky enough to have so many artists speaking up about the topic right now.