Comedian Stephen Bailey and husband explain why they don’t feel safe holding hands in public
Comedian Stephen Bailey and his husband, employment lawyer Rich Taylor, are one of six couples putting their relationship to the test in BBC One’s new celebrity challenge show, Unbreakable.
Under the watchful eye of relationship experts, the couples take on challenges from bungee jumping to rowing to see which pair has the strongest bond. Eventually, one couple is crowned the ‘unbreakable’ winners.
While Stephen and Rich wanted to take part in the show to try something new and spend a bit of time together away from their hectic schedules, they also felt like they had something to prove.
“I wasn’t worried about [taking part] from the relationship point of view,” Stephen tells PinkNews. “I thought about it more like it’d be nice for us to show a different kind of gay couple than what’s normally on TV.”
Stephen Bailey thinks that while shows like Netflix sensation Heartstopper and Jack Rooke’s Big Boys are laying the groundwork for more TV programmes to focus on LGBTQ+ lives, it’s still rare to see LGBTQ+ people and their relationships normalised, rather than stereotyped, in mainstream entertainment.
“The biggest thing to drill home is that I do think sometimes we are still othered,” he says. While Stephen has been a regular on the comedy circuit for years, and appeared on shows from Would I Lie To You to Celebs on the Farm, this subtle homophobia is something that still infiltrates his work life.
“Sometimes I don’t get booked because ‘we’ve already got the gay one’, and I think if that’s still happening, I don’t know if we’ve moved that much further ahead,” he says. “I think there’s still lessons to be learned.”
While Stephen Bailey’s partner Rich Taylor had never so much as stepped foot in a TV studio before filming Unbreakable, he too wanted to present the normality and the mundanity of their relationship – snoring, bed hogging, and all. “I think one thing that we definitely wanted to show was that actually, as a couple we’re quite down-to-earth, fun, northern guys who have the similar issues that straight relationships have,” Rich says. “We’re just a normal couple.”
Overall, Unbreakable is warm, light-hearted television. The couples, which include Strictly Come Dancing’s Shirley Ballas and her partner Danny, and Loose Women’s Denise Welch and her husband Lincoln, all get along swimmingly. Alongside the physical challenges, there are mental conundrums too, with Rich at one point being quizzed Mastermind style on Stephen’s favourite topic – Girls Aloud. It’s a fun, easy watch.
There is time for real talk though. In one episode, Stephen and Rich explain how they no longer feel able to hold hands after enduring a spate of homophobic attacks, much to the surprise of the other couples.
“We can’t walk down the street holding hands and feel safe,” says Stephen. “I think a few of the others were a bit shocked by that because they thought: ‘It’s 2022, of course you can’, and it’s like, it’s easy to say, ‘of course you can’, but we actually can’t.”
A while ago, the pair were chased through a park and into a tube station in London, supposedly one of the most open cities in the world, for holding hands. A few days later, again in London, they were called ‘b***y boys’.
“We couldn’t believe it, because neither of us had ever really experienced anything [like this],” Stephen says. “And no one helped as well. That’s the other thing.”
Then, after filming for Unbreakable wrapped up earlier this year, it happened again.
“We were walking near where I live in Manchester and we got followed home and called ‘c**k-sucking f****ts,'” Stephen says. “The worry is you can’t say anything back because of how these things escalate.”
At a time when anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime is rising at unprecedented levels, having a space to share these experiences on a prime-time BBC One show feels particularly important.
It’s also refreshing to see balance, where these depressing realities are intertwined with such queer joy. Unbreakable highlights how the couple, who have been together for almost four years, are a heart-warming match.
A comedian and an employment lawyer doesn’t seem like the most conventional of couples, but it clearly works. “Our individuality is the thing that keeps us together,” Stephen says.
“I’d like people to see us as Heartstopper grown up.”
Unbreakable starts on BBC One on Thursday 6 October at 8pm.
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