Gay Politics Politics

On giving gay people guns…

There are benefits and there are horrors to staying on people’s floors. Benefits include not having to pay rent, seeing more of your good friends and getting to know local geography. Horrors include continual exhaustion, sometimes uncomfortable bedding and making sure that you don’t upset anyone by being under their feet 24 hours a day. Tomorrow morning I am wandering up to Kentish Town to look at a flat before work. I’m not convinced that it is the place for me, but I’ll give it a go. I just wish I wasn’t so tired all the time.

One of my oldest friends, Gideon, told me about an article in Salon the other day, and asked my opinion about it. It suggests that gay people should arm themselves with handguns in order to protect themselves from anti-gay attacks. Gideon’s exact words on this one were: “an intriguing proposal by a journalist i know… any ideas? I can’t decide if he’s right or crazy”.

I read through the article carefully. As I read through the first page my immediate reaction was one of mild horror – what was this man advocating? Did he really want to start some form of gang warfare on the streets of American cities – to put a whole new meaning to the phrase “gay mafia”? But then, on the second page I came up against this:

“The abiding fact is this: Homosexuals have been too vulnerable for too long. We have tried to make a political virtue of our vulnerability, but the gay-bashers aren’t listening. Playing the victim card has won us sympathy, but at the cost of respect. So let’s make gay-bashing dangerous. We should do that for our own protection. But we should also do it because we will win a full measure of esteem from the public, and from ourselves, only when we make clear our determination to look after ourselves”

On rereading the article it seemed clear to me that the article wasn’t actually about arming gay people at all, but an appeal for an escape from the current politics of gay identity – a politics that defines gay people by their vulnerability – continually subject to name-calling, workplace discrimination, harrassment or attack. It wasn’t so much calling for violence to counter violence, but instead desperately scrambling for something to replace “Gay Man/Woman: Perpetual Victim”.

Queer as Folk 2, which recently aired in the UK, included some pretty startling scenes – a man taking on board all of the insults thrown against him in order to savagely expose the blackmailing attempts of his ten-year-old nephew, the same man blowing up the car of a woman who disinherits her estranged gay son (she called him to his father’s death-bed to ask him to sign the papers) and a full-on confrontation between a name-calling hick and a poof with a gun. Each one of these scenes inspired something proactive inside all the people who saw them – the desire not to have to “run to daddy” when something horrible happened. It’s the same feeling – the same discomfort with the idea of gay people as being weak and needing outside help to get them through their daily lives.

So what do I think? Do I think gay people should carry handguns? I don’t know. But I know one thing for certain – we should be doing something.

Gay Politics

On Homophobic Bullying

This post was added late in 2001 when I tried to get some of my older work online in a vaguely useful form. (neé Barbelith) was created on November 1st 1999.

In November, an inquest heard that a 15-year-old choirboy had been found hanged in his bedroom. Darren Steele had been left at home watching Neighbours by his mother when she went out for the evening. When she returned she found him dead. A note by his body explained that he had killed himself because of the bullying that he was suffering at school.

Darren had been bullied because other students thought he was gay. At the inquest, his friends explained that he had been regularly taunted as a ‘gay boy’ and a ‘poof’ because of his interests in drama and cookery. Over the previous five years he had been systematically punched, verbally abused and even burned with cigarettes by other students. He never told a teacher.

His mother’s statement reads: “I saw Darren kneeling on the far side of the bed. His face was blue. I went downstairs screaming ‘my son is dead’.”

According to gay campaigning groups, there is significant evidence that school-children are experiencing homophobia on an almost daily basis. A survey published in 1994 by Stonewall revealed that homosexuals under 18 are experiencing more violence than any other part of the gay community.

Half of the under-18s surveyed said they had been violently attacked for being gay and 40% of these attacks involved four or more attackers. 60% said they had been harassed, 40% had faced threats or blackmail, while 90% had been verbally abused.

Support organisations recognise the scale of the problem. “Children do get bullied because of their sexuality and name-calling and teasing can have a devastating effect on children’s lives,” said a spokesman for Childline. “They go home and they can still hear the jibes and taunts. And this can cause significant problems in self-esteem in later life.”

The Stonewall survey found that around half of attacks on gay children were perpetrated at school by other students. Amy Vickers has just completed her first year at University. However, there were times when it seemed unlikely that she would complete her GCSEs. She was forced to change schools twice after other children found out that she was a lesbian.

“I had dog shit and eggs put into my bag, abuse written across my locker,” she says. “Anything I didn’t put in my locker would be covered in graffiti. I had words spray-painted onto my jacket. I had kids telling me that they were going to beat my head in.

“I got into a couple of fights, and had bruises and cuts around my eye. I had a bottle smashed over my arm at one point. One day in the middle of a cookery lesson I even had knives thrown at me. But I never told the teachers why it was happening because they’d tell my parents. ”

The experience of gay teenagers seems to suggest that homophobic bullying in schools is not being dealt with because the pupils simply do not trust their teachers.

“Bullying of any type is totally unacceptable, but homophobic bullying – like racist bullying – is based on attacking someone for what they are,” says a spokesman for the NUT. “But the problem for teachers is getting the help of the person who is being bullied in identifying and sorting out the problem. Often these young people do not wish to talk to anyone else about it at all.”

But perhaps gay school children are right not to go to their teachers. Last year the University of London produced a report on secondary school teachers and their experience of homosexual pupils and bullying.

It found that 82% of teachers were aware of gay name-calling at their schools and 26% were aware of violent incidents that had been accompanied by homophobic comments. But while 99% of schools had a policy on bullying, only 6% had any policy targeted at young gay men and lesbians.

Lord Tope is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on education in the House of Lords. He has been investigating the bullying of gay teenagers. In a debate in October in the Lords he suggested that pupils were not the only people harassing gay children in schools. In his statement he said that some teachers were either ignoring the bullying or occasionally even joining in.

“An RE teacher in Scotland required by his enlightened school to discuss homosexuality in his classes told the whole class: ‘I’m sure nobody wants to know about the poofs apart from Ben’,” he told the Lords. “The tragic irony of this is that many of them have yet to have sex with anyone, let alone a relationship.”

David Allison of gay campaigning group Outrage agrees that educators must take some responsibility. “Many teachers, partly because of their own prejudices and because of the legislature, are unable to give support to their pupils. And bullied school children don’t have access to any other areas of support, such as the gay community. In fact they might not even know that such a thing exists.”

The roles and responsibilities of teachers of gay children has long been a controversial issue in the UK. Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988, prohibited local education authorities from “the intentional promotion of homosexuality” and “the teaching of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship”.

Stonewall believe that many teachers believe incorrectly that it bans them from discussing homosexuality. And next week they are launching a campaign to help inform educators about the legislation and the lives of gay teenagers. They hope it will go some way towards stopping deaths like Darren Steele’s.

“We see homophobic bullying as one of the key issues of the moment,” says a spokesman for the group, “and we are trying to get the Government to address it more fully.”

The government is already undertaking some preliminary actions to address the problem. It has announced its intention to repeal Section 28, although Stonewall fears the legislation will be dropped this session because of the government’s attempt to abolish hereditary peerages.

The Department of Education and Employment (DEE) is bringing out new guidelines on bullying for schools and local education authorities in the new year. The document, which has been welcomed by the NUT, will recognise that bullying can occur due to sexual orientation.

However, despite Lord Tope urging the DEE to ” tell governors and head teachers their anti-bullying policies must include specific plans to stand up to homophobic bullying”, no such measures have been outlined.

And teachers who make homophobic comments will still be subject only to the disciplinary procedures of their own school.

“The teaching profession is made up of human beings”, says a spokesman for the NUT. “Bad responses from teachers are much the minority – it is a caring profession. But in a profession of 1/2 million people (in England and Wales) you will get teachers who don’t care as much as they ought to.”

After Darren Steele’s death, the police arrested 11 pupils from his school in Burton on suspicion of harassment. The Crown Prosecution Service later decided not to prosecute them. Darren Steele’s Headmaster Michael York said of the death of his pupil – “The real tragedy is that Darren’s parents, the school and his grandparents were not aware of his suffering.”

Gay Politics

A 'Trauma' interview with Annie Vicars

This post was added late in 2001 when I tried to get some of my older work online in a vaguely useful form. (neé Barbelith) was created on November 1st 1999.

Amy Vickers grew up on the Isle of Wight. She was bullied and abused at school because she was a lesbian. She was too scared to tell her teachers or her parents. She tells her story:

“I had always been popular at school. I was sporty and considered clever, but I wasn’t a swot.

“I started having crushes on women when I was 12. I got really attached to girls in my year. They weren’t really good friends of mine, which is why I thought it was something different. It was all the really good-looking girls – the pretty ones.

“When I was about 15 I decided to come out as being gay to my best friend. She was great about it. I remember being so overwhelmed. Shortly afterwards I told some of my other close friends. They seemed fine, but were more cautious. They didn’t discuss it with me afterwards.

“I started to notice a change in attitude towards me at school. People kept their distance. Overnight there always seemed to be whispering around. Rumours started up that I was a slut – that I had slept with virtually every boy in the class – that I was weird – that I was a boy.

“When I was 16, a girl passed me a note. She asked me if it was true that I was gay. I was really surprised. I told her that I was, and she invited me to see a film with her.

“Over the next few weeks we saw a lot of each other. One day she told me she was bisexual. She grabbed my jumper and we kissed. That was my first kiss. It was wonderful, overwhelming. I had to leave, but I really wanted to stay. I wanted to sleep with her. I just wanted to do something.

“Everything was fine for a week but then people found out. I had written her a letter and somebody had found it. Lads started screaming at me in the playground. ‘You’ve kissed a girl’, they said, ‘You’ve had female saliva in your mouth. That’s gross.’ No one in the school would talk to me. The girl went into hiding. My best friend wasn’t at school. I was so scared of what might happen.

“Some people decided that I had made up kissing her because I was a ‘sick lesbian’. They said I was spreading nasty rumours because I fancied her so much. They said it was all a sick fantasy in my head. I had never been bullied before. It was really vindictive.

“I went to see the girl but she decided she couldn’t come to terms with it. She didn’t want her friends to find out. She didn’t want rumours spread about her. I couldn’t blame her.

“I had the most miserable Christmas of my life. I was so depressed and my parents didn’t know what was wrong with me because I hadn’t come out to them. I started drinking and I was cutting myself with razor blades. I felt so alone. My friends were no longer a protective wall – even they had stopped hanging around with me.

“It all came to a head in March. My motorbike was stolen and crashed down the road. I had dog shit and eggs put into my bag, abuse written across my locker – anything I didn’t put in my locker would be covered in graffiti. I had words spray-painted onto my jacket. I had kids telling me that they were going to beat my head in for all the ‘lies’ I was ‘spreading’.

“I got into a couple of fights, and had bruises and cuts around my eye. I had a bottle smashed over my arm at one point. One day in the middle of a cookery lesson I even had knives thrown at me. I never told the teachers why it was happening because I thought they’d tell my parents.

“One night I was on my way to see my cousin on the other side of the island, and I was so upset, crying and shaking, that I crashed my motorbike. I was bruised all over, and could hardly walk for a week.

“The accident made me wake up – I couldn’t cope with school any more. Without telling my mum and my stepfather, I started contacting schools around where my original father lived. Even my form tutor agreed that I should leave the school.

“One day when my father was visiting, I broke down in tears and said that I had to leave home. I couldn’t tell them why, so my mother thought it was her fault. She couldn’t stop crying.

“Over the summer no one called me. I rang up all my old close friends and told them that I was leaving to do my A-levels in London, and that we were having a goodbye barbecue. None of them came. The day that I left was the worst day of my life. I had to explain to my little brother, who was only five, that I wasn’t going to be coming back. I couldn’t stop crying. I was leaving my home of ten years, my friends and my family.

“Things got so much better when I enrolled in a 6th form college in London. It was so liberating. I had no problems with my sexuality at all. I passed my A-levels and I am now at university. When I found out that there was no support for gay people I set up a society and became the Lesbian and Gay Officer. Since I have been here, I have come out to my family and we are getting on really well.

“I know that there are people who have had similar experiences to myself. I want to be here to support those who wanted to come out. Through the work we have done here many more people now know that it is OK to come out, and OK to be gay.”