The world changed for ‘people like me’ fifty years ago today. Not that, at the time, there were parties in the streets. Things changed legally with the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, but, even then, it was really only the start of decriminalising homosexuality, and culturally, socially, no more than the tiniest crack in the egg of mainstream social acceptability.
Fifty years later, have LGBT people cracked it when it comes to mainstream social acceptability?
Well, yes and no. We’ve undoubtedly come a long way, there’s no question of that. According to YouGov, 54% of people in the UK supported gay marriage in 2013. According to ICM, only 5% of Brits think homosexuality should be illegal, while (also according to YouGov), nearly one third of Brits think being gay is choice (and, if you think homophobia isn’t rife, just look at the comments under that link).
In fact, surveying the comments under the web pages for these findings, two words frequently repeat: ‘choice’ and ‘normal’.
The notion of choice is really interesting. You can see how this gets the homophobic so riled up. After all, if you believe being gay is a choice, and being gay is wrong, then the perversity of someone choosing to be gay must be totally mystifying. The choice itself is the act of provocation, and everything that comes after is deserved.
For them, being gay is the equivalent of tattooing your face or growing a mohawk – you’re just trying to get attention, you’re just trying to provoke, you’re just asking for trouble.
What I’d like to know is why they think people would choose to be gay. And, in my suppositions on this, I think there are some clues as to what really drives homophobia. My theory goes like this. If you thought being gay was a choice, just as some people (particularly some suffers) argue that something like anorexia or alcoholism is a lifestyle choice, surely you’d have nothing but pity for these lost, misguided souls?
What you think is a choice is an illness. You need help.
Of course, there are people who do think like this. There are those religious conversion groups, trying, misguidedly, in the face of all scientific evidence, to help the ‘lost souls’ that have made this fatal life decision.
But these people are very few and far between when it comes to mainstream, Western, secular, homophobia.
You see, the mystery to me when it comes to homophobia rests on a very simple question: why do you care?
I come from a ‘straight’ family; I have lots of straight friends; I live in a straight society – but I can honestly tell you, the amount of time I’ve ever spent thinking about heterosexual sex could be counted in seconds. Now, sexual politics among my friends, yes, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about that, but I don’t give much thought to it beyond their tales of the agonies and ecstasies of heterosexual courtship.
I never understand why straight people are so obsessed with gay sex.
How likely, in all reality, are you going to encounter it? Even in Central London, it’s still pretty rare to see gay PDAs (public displays of affection). Unless you live in an enclave of gay bars and saunas – all shutting down anyway in the hook-up app age – if you want to be offended by gay people, you’ve actually got to go out and look for them.
No – I think a big driver for homophobia is envy. I’m not talking about vitriolic closet-cases here (though I suspect there are plenty of those). And I’m probably concentrating my thoughts on acts of homophobia from straight men (in my experience, straight women’s homophobia tends to be a lot more covert).
Gay men look like they’re having all the fun. Some gay men. Probably the ‘gayer’ ones. But it’s worth remembering there are as many straight men in the cage of trying to be ‘straight-acting’ as there are gay men (more so, if you do the numbers).
In the Commons on 27th July 1967, Lord Arran (who had proposed the changes to the law to decriminalise homosexuality) stated, “I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful…”
Since then, I think it’s fair to say we have seen quite a bit of ostentatious behaviour from the gay community, and, increasingly, quite a bit of public flaunting too. Quite right, too. But these actions have also driven stereotypes of gay men that, from a straight man’s perspective, do look quite enviable.
How many gay men trade their reputation on the easy availability of consequence-free sex? Who brag of their multiple weekend conquests, always find time to go to the gym, always seem to know what to wear, and get all the attention from the girls in the office. Who seem to enjoy living by a different set of rules, an alternative lifestyle increasingly celebrated, increasingly a driver for stories in the media, the stories played out in TV dramas.
If you don’t look beneath the surface at the mental health issues, substance abuse issues, poverty of opportunity and general poverty that affects LGBT people, being gay does look like a passport to endless partying, promiscuity and preening.
Who wouldn’t choose to enjoy that? All that freedom. The muscles, the moves. The lack of social-norm constraints.
You might, if it were a choice – only, what might hold you back is that notion of it not being ‘normal’. Boy, do people love normal.
I guess you’ve got to believe being gay is a choice if you think it’s something you can promote, something you can advertise to a non-plussed audience and convert into ‘sales’. The first question to ask of the homophobic is “So, do you think you could be converted then?”
Over the years, I’ve had quite a few very open-minded straight men and women friends who have explored their sexuality only to find they are, indeed, straight as a die (rather than, as hoped, exotically bisexual).
I’m left-handed (a genetic variation thrown out with almost the same frequency as homosexuality). I no more chose to be left-handed than I chose to be gay. Were I to have had the choice, I think I can happily say I would have chosen to be gay; I’m not so sure about being a lefty – I have terrible trouble with self-service tills.
The world isn’t designed for left-handers. Being left-handed isn’t ‘normal’.
Were I to be a teacher, would I be promoting sinister left-handedness by writing on the board in front of my students? Would I convert perfectly normal right-handers into southpaws?
No, I wouldn’t. And I would have no more success as a gay teacher converting students to my sexual orientation.
I see the two things the same. People were burned at the stake for being left-handed. We’ve evolved that view. Mostly. We’re evolving the view on LGBT people too. Sometimes rapidly, or so it seems. Despite so much progress, we’ve not cracked the egg yet. In fifty years time, we might even be starting to realise there’s no such thing as normal. The only normal people are those you don’t know very well.
Until then, today is a day worth celebrating. It’s also a day to remember those who suffered under the discriminatory British laws of the past, and to campaign for those still suffering the same discrimination around the world today.