'Imagination will take you everywhere'
There are 78 countries around the world where it is illegal to be gay. In five countries it carries the punishment of death. In comparison, Britain seems to be a bastion of equality.
London is renowned as one of the most diverse, tolerant and buzzing capitals of the world. Tomorrow the city will come alive with rainbow flags, music and festivity as over 30,000 people parade through the streets for Pride in London 2015. An annual celebration of the LGBT community which has attracted thousands of people to the city since it was formed in 2004. But once the weekend is over and the carnival atmosphere dies down, does London live up to its reputation of equality and acceptance?
For Alex Thorn, President of City University’s LGBT Society, it was being in London which gave her the confidence to come out to her parents. “The only real time I opened up to the gay community and started going to gay clubs, bars and hanging around with other gay people, was when I came to London,” she said. Thorn comes from a close-knit community in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, so being in London made her more accepting of who she was.
Osh Gantly, Labour Councillor for Highbury East in Islington, is in agreement. When he decided to come out as transgender, he became the first trans* elected politician in the UK. Gantly believes London is a warm and friendly place that welcomes LGBT people. In his words; “Trans* or otherwise, smile and London smiles with you.”
This may be true for a middle-class, middle-aged, white man, but Nigel Harris, Director of the Camden LGBT Forum, urges us to think about the “intersections of equality”. Harris says it is the minorities he worries about; “The person who’s never come out to their Somali family, someone who is being sent on a forced marriage, or someone who is disabled and doesn’t feel encouraged to fit into mainstream groups.” It is these LGBT people who are the most vulnerable in our society.
Gantly believes the solution is positive visibility. He says; “The problem lies in reaching cultures where LGBT is not accepted. Role models from minority communities can be a great help in this regard.”
But visibility brings greater risks of discrimination.
Westminster, the borough which is home to the gay hotspot of Soho, is one of the worst boroughs for homophobic crimes – with 158 cases reported in the last 12 months, a 31.7% increase from last year. Furthermore the overall statistic for homophobic crime in London has increased by 36.5%.
This might be partly because of growing confidence in reporting crimes, however statistics suggest otherwise. In 2013, a YouGov survey for Stonewall revealed that one in six LGB people in Britain have experienced hate crime based on their sexual orientation.
Harris thinks every borough needs an initiative like the Camden LGBT Forum. It is made up of LGBT workers – independent of the council and authorities – who take Camden’s LGBT residents through the process of reporting a crime. He says; “Even if the local police force is first class, some people will not utilise those officers because they want a third party group and that is what’s going to change things.”
The common cases that the Camden LGBT Forum deal with are public order offences – mostly verbal bullying in the street. However in areas of deprivation, Harris says; “It tends to be attacks on housing by neighbours and we get a lot of people who feel they can’t live in their premises anymore. Quite often people are homeless or living in difficult rented accommodation and it terrifies them because they don’t know where else they can move to.”
Islington in particular is an area of contradictions, with multi-million pound townhouses nestled with council estates. In 1970, the UK’s first gay rights protestors marched through Highbury Fields – today there is only one remaining LGBT venue and no local LGBT charity. This puts a lot of strain on the Camden LGBT Forum, which usually ends up dealing with the majority of cases. Harris says; “There are still pockets where hate crime happens quite often (in Islington) and there are geographical areas of communities where LGBT is so hidden that it’s like we’re still in the Victorian period, and if you don’t have a group to big these things up then it remains invisible.”
At the root of the problem is the attitude of the younger generation. The word ‘gay’ used to mean happy. Now it is an insult casually thrown about in playgrounds and classrooms up and down the country.
In 2012, 90% of all students referred to something wrong or broken as ‘gay’ according to the Stonewall School Report 2012. Thorn used to hear it a lot at secondary school, phrases like; “Oh that’s so gay”. She says that if you came out at that time then you would probably be called names like “faggot”. She recalls that one girl who was disliked, was often referred to as the “fat lesbian”.
Immaturity is a key reason. Thorn notes it is mostly “young, immature lads” who tease and name-call. She suggests; “A lot of the time people aren’t necessarily scared of gays – as the word ‘homophobia’ implies – it’s more ignorance half the time.” Thorn calls it the “high-school mentality”, when students think; “They’re gay, they’re different, we shouldn’t interact with them or we should take the piss out of them.”
It was this judgemental attitude among her peers, which prevented Thorn from coming out earlier. “I was about thirteen when I started having those feelings,” She continues; “I kept it in for a very long time and it does eat away at you a little bit, because there’s this whole other part of you that nobody else knows about and you just have to keep it hidden, otherwise be open to scrutiny.”
Despite living in our supposedly free-thinking and diverse society there is still discrimination against individuals who simply don’t fit with the stereotypical ‘norm’.
One wonders if the small but determined gay community of London in 1970 – upon brandishing their banners to stage the UK’s first gay rights demonstration – would ever have thought that in 45 years’ time there would still be underlying homophobia within our society.
Originally published on St John Street News.