On the decline of anti-gay sentiment in the UK…

The Guardian has an article today about the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in society that is worth a read: Without Prejudice. It’s generally a pretty well worked-through piece, even if it has a tendency to represent things in perhaps too cheerful and happy a way. Here’s one of the more randomly bizarre questions it asks:

But do these advancing levels of acceptance leave us in a position where it is easier to be gay in the UK than it is to be black, or even female?

The answer to which is patently no –on the whole – because (1) there simply isn’t a consistent experience of being gay in the UK (some areas / industries / cultures are gay-tolerant, some gay-positive, some are patently and overtly not), (2) gay teenagers are still some of the most at risk of bullying, homelessness and suicide statistics, and because (3) there is still a massive amount of institutionalised homophobia and stereotyping both from outside and indeed inside the ‘community’.

On the other hand things have got considerably better. When I was at University you could almost feel the tides turning – and turning quickly. But there is another aspect to this rapid change in cultural beliefs regarding homosexuality and gay issues that I think the Guardian has missed. I remember when I first noticed (around ten years ago) that the frequent reference to – and tacit acceptance of – gay issues in TV shows like Friends seemed to be having much more effect on the hearts and minds of people around us than any of the dedicated and necessary campaigning and fighting of the oppressive late eighties. It seems to me that the media won the war for us, and that’s troubling in and of itself.

And it’s not just who won the battles that is alarming (because there’s no guarantee that they won’t start reversing their position – particularly in the increasingly right-wing USA), it’s also the speed in which the battles were won. I think we have to be aware of the fact that political and social life doesn’t just naturally have a tendency towards liberalism and socially inclusive politics. A rapid social swing in that direction (while wonderful in the short-term) makes me concerned about the possibilities for an equally rapid swing towards more repressive and less gay-friendly ideologies. Let’s let these changes bed in a bit before we start saying the war has been won.

In the meantime, The Guardian’s article is a bit of a charter for complacency, because as the man said, “Rights have to be defended all of the time because rights are under attack all of the time”. And looking back on the last twenty years, perhaps the lesson is not that we are naturally destined to be accepted as equals, but that – in the future if not now – the media will be the battleground upon which all ideological conflicts will be won.

9 replies on “On the decline of anti-gay sentiment in the UK…”

Hmmm. I read it more as being slightly disappointed that the ‘gay community’ was accepted in a “now we can’t win liberal kudos by standing up for them” kind of way, regardless of whether the Guardian ever really did stand up for us/them.

Well, I’d turn that question on its head and say “is it now any harder to be gay in the UK than it is to be black, or female?” And from the dubious outsider’s perspective of a heterosexual white male I can honestly say: I no longer think it is. Of course it does depend on who you associate with and, frankly, what part of the country you’re in. I think that certain areas of the country have a lot of liberal attitude catching up to do compared to other parts of it (I’m not talking about the North/South divide here, because in my experience varying levels of homophobia and racism are dotted all over the bloody place). I still think that women/blacks/gays anywhere don’t have a level playing field with white heterosexual males. But the thing is, and I suspect I’m going to get shouted at for saying this: I’m not certain the questions bears valid comparison in the first place. Let’s not forget that it is unquestionably not your choice whether you’re born black or female, but it is, for the time being at least, a subject of great debate whether you are “born” gay or “become” gay. Neither can you successfully hide being black or being a woman, unless you’re in a Carry On film or something. So I guess black people and women have had to develop more overt, in-your-face methods of gaining equality than gays have, because until recently homosexuals could at least have the option of pretending that they weren’t gay, however emotionally tormenting that might be. Which is possibly a good reason why it’s taken longer for gays to progress in the march towards equality. Er, I’ll shut up now before Peter Tatchell comes round my house and beats me up.

The “Choice” argument, ignoring its obvious falsity (to a gay person, pretty well qualified to know about this area), is irrelevant to this topic. Religion is a matter of choice, and is still offered full protection under the law. So unless you advocate the repeal all laws protecting religious observance, it seems odd that you would bring it up for this one group.

I’m not siding with the debate on nature versus nurture or whatever – just acknowledging that the debate exists. All I was saying, in my own haphazardly roundabout way, was that because it’s possible to hide the fact that you are gay, and it’s not really possible to hide the fact that you’re female, or black, and maybe that’s at least part of the reason why we’ve seen more strident moves for female and black equality than we’ve seen for gay equality until recently. Pretty limited observation I know – but in my defence it’s nearly 8:30pm and I’m off to the pub. Not much of a defence, I know.

It’s difficult to explain the differences between being gay and being a woman or being black (except of course that being a woman or being black isn’t mutually exclusive with being gay), but I’ll give you one example that I think illustrates some of the qualitative distinctions and how the battles we fight differ in kind. Almost every gay man or woman is born into a family of straight people. That’s radically different from the experience of almost any other disenfranchised group – and leaves teenagers with – for the most part – absolutely no one to get support from. And I think that people still under-estimate how straight the world actually is and how difficult it can be to be gay in it – from not knowing many or any gay people through the normal channels of social exchange (ie. work / school / church whatever) through to working out whether you want to or how you intend to have children etc. etc.
Now of course, I don’t want to underestimate or trivialise the experience of other people. Being gay isn’t quite the terrifying, illegal, medicalised stigma that it was forty years ago – and obviously there are parts of life that are not necessarily as difficult and unpleasant for gay people as they are for other disenfranchised groups. For example, if you want to – or feel you have to – conceal your sexuality you can do so, although it isn’t necessarily a good thing for your mental health or quality of life to feel unnecessarily under threat or ashamed all of the time. That means that – for the most part – there’s no reason to not be able to have a career, no places that are unlikely to serve you and no greater experience of being patronised or glass ceilings than any non-gay person. That is, as long as you’re prepared to ignore the gay thing and not talk about it overtly. Because as soon as you do – in this country at least – you can still (in principle at least) be fired for being gay, experience regular discrimination for it as well as be ridiculed and ostracised for it.
I should point out that I am lucky enough to live and work in a highly liberal area in a highly liberal profession, so for the most part I’m unaffected by these kinds of discrimination. But I still had to go through the processes of feeling isolated from everyone around me, not having anyone to talk to, strained relationships with my family, anxieties about my future and whether I’d ever be able to be open. And I fear that these anxieties are still felt by pretty much every child that discovers they’re gay.

Without prejudice
The Guardian’s G2 section led yesterday with Without Prejudice, a light analysis of whether being gay in Britain is a non-issue these days. Unfortunately, yesterday’s Christmas lunch at my workplace prevented me from picking it to pieces to comment upo…

I wonder if one can draw parallels between being gay and being deaf. Almost every deaf child is born into a family of hearing people. And while most people wouldn’t view being deaf as something terribly bad, they would much rather their children not be – while some deaf parents might prefer to have deaf children. It’s not something that’s outwardly obvious, but has profound effects on the way you live your life. There is a strong deaf community, while those ‘merely’ hard of hearing have less support.

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