On Tuesday the BBC aired a documentary titled “Is It Safe To Be Gay In The UK?”, exploring the issue of rising hate crime against gay people in the UK. The interviewees included James and Dain, a gay couple from Brighton who were set upon after a night out in Brighton’s gay village in May 2016; Becky and Alex, a lesbian couple attacked on a night out in Croydon in August 2016, and Jenny Raynham, whose brother Alex, who is also gay, died after being punched and kicked in Trafalgar Square in 2009. The question posed by the documentary was whether, with reports of homophobic hate crimes rising, it is safe to be gay in the UK in 2017.
The documentary was a hard watch, with graphic descriptions of both assault and the lived experience of being a victim of a homophobic attack. To outsiders, it’s not always obvious that nearly everyone in the LGBT community has some experience of homophobia, whether it’s having someone shout at you for what you’re wearing, tutted at (or worse) for holding hands with a partner in town, or being told that you’re not welcome to drink somewhere because you’re gay. Although assault is rarer, almost everyone has, or knows someone who has, been seriously assaulted at one time or another. But one common theme stood out to me: the paradox that the LGBT community has never had such legislative protection — sale of goods, equal marriage, hate speech — but that gay people have never felt so vulnerable.
I hear stories of friends who have been chased home after a night out by gangs of thugs waiting outside the gay village in Manchester (the irony being that many straight people now prefer to go out in the gay village because they have less chance of going home in an ambulance). Concerns about homophobia are routinely dismissed as “snowflake” behaviour on Twitter. A Western Carolina University study found that anti-gay and sexist jokes are a favourite of men looking to shore up their masculinity. Just this week a Labour councillor was suspended after describing Pride marchers as ‘evil’ on social media.
I hear white gay men who continue to throw those with less status under the bus, aided and abetted by the far right. I hear stories like that of Steven Simpson, an autistic, openly gay 18-year-old, who had homophobic slurs written on his body and was set on fire at his birthday party by Jordan Sheard, 20, who was sentenced to just three and a half years in jail. The retired rugby star Gareth Thomas says that Football risks “being left in the dark ages” unless more is done to tackle homophobia in the game.
I see endless revisionist history by people that seek to erase the Conservatives (and their current leaders’) dreadful record on LGBT rights over the last thirty years. I see the DUP, who are openly homophobic, being invited into government, with “assurances” being given that it won’t affect UK policy. What message does that send to the LGBT population in Northern Ireland? That a majority government is more important than their rights to marry and live free of religious bigotry?
I’m forced to look on at rehashed homophobic tropes on the front pages of the right wing media on a regular basis. As Michael Lovelock, Lecturer in Media at Cardiff University pointed out in a study of the right-wing media, when it’s not the “openly gay former Olympic fencer” frustrating Brexit, it’s the NHS decision to offer PrEP being denounced as a waste of scarce resources, with the Daily Mail calling potentially life-saving PreP a “promiscuity pill.” The Mail claimed that funding PrEP would deprive “toddlers with cystic fibrosis” and “deaf children” of life-saving care.
Lovelock argues that the idea that LGBTQ people represent some kind of threat has become a recurrent theme in the right-wing media. He cites MailOnline branding same-sex traffic lights in Trafalgar Square in London as “dangerous” to pedestrians, the Sun attempting to implicate George Michael’s partner, Fadi Fawaz in his death and the infamous “happily ever after” Jan Moir article about Stephen Gately’s death.
Mention any of this on Twitter though, and the accusations will roll in thick and fast about dramatising the problem. Why are you creating division, they ask, as though the current politics of harmony is serving us really well. Why does it take the very visible evidence of black eyes and homophobic bullying in schools for people to sit up and take notice of homophobia? Why was no-one talking about the spike in anti-LGBT hate crime, intimidation and violence over the last twelve months before this programme? And why do mental health issues and homelessness demand a “holistic solution” when the evidence shows that both disproportionately affect LGBTQ people? Why was Owen Jones shouted down for referring to Orlando as a homophobic terror attack, which it ostensibly was?
I’m tired of being told that I have all the freedom I want under the law, whilst constantly having to look over my shoulder. I can accept all stripes of people (God help me, even the bizarre “cult of masc” that has developed in the LGBT community over the last twelve months), but I am no longer willing to put up with feeling unsafe. I accept that some people have right-wing beliefs, but I am not prepared to be treated as a “threat” to the social fabric. And I am not prepared to think about whether I’m going to get beaten up for being gay on a night out. It’s 2017 and I should not have to.
What’s particularly galling though, is the backslapping that goes on around the legislative achievements on LGBT rights, when so much homophobia exists in the background. It’s not enough to be happy that LGBT people have the right to marry when LGBT people are being beaten up on the streets and left for dead. If “Is It Safe To Be Gay In The UK?” and the statistics on rising hate crime shows anything, it’s that homophobia can’t be unlearned through legislation alone, and that we must push harder until it is out of society for good.