by Alex Powell
CW: mentions homophobia and homophobic abuse
Last week marked 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act 1967 entered into law, in the first step towards the decriminalisation of homosexuality. There’s been a great deal of coverage of this milestone in British media, including some brilliant, informative TV programming (I highly recommend the BBC’s drama ‘Against the Law’). But it is Owen Jones’s recent Guardian column ‘Hatred of LGBTQ people still infects society. It’s no time to celebrate’ that seems to have been most prominent. Jones’ arguments are certainly justified, but commentary like his risks misrepresenting the situation that now faces LGBT+ people in this country. It’s not all bad.
I hope to present a more nuanced, more positive picture of the prospects facing some members of the LGBT+ community today, using university spaces as a case study. Mostly those people are young, white gay men – people of colour and other LGBT+ folk continue experience multifaceted forms of more severe oppression. The big picture is certainly not rosy. Nonetheless, the ever-repeated mantra that gay men are oppressed and have so many problems is itself oppressive and problematic, and does a disservice to young gay men growing up in modern Britain. A one-sided, homogenous, negative narrative tells them that they will never be accepted, that they will be subject to discrimination at every turn, and, essentially, that they should live in fear. But for most gay men of university age, the evidence simply does not support these ideas.
This is not to say that incidents like the awful assault that took place in Peckham recently don’t happen. I too have been subject to homophobic abuse while holding hands with my boyfriend. However, these anecdotes, horrific as they are, are not indicative of a wider trend. Evidence such as the 2013 YouGOV survey commissioned by Stonewall shows that on average less than 10% of all LGBT+ people had been a victim of hate crime within that year. Cross-referencing government figures on sexual orientation hate crime in 2015-16 with statistics of the LGB-identifying population and total UK population at that time, it seems that average remained around the same level over the last three years for which we have data. Now, I totally agree, this figure is far far far too high, and the fact that anyone has to suffer hate crime is unacceptable. However, as figures like these show, the vast majority of LGBT+ people do not experience hate crime.
The effect of this is that young LGBT+ people grow up with feelings and fear and shame that reality simply doesn’t justify
Our media outlets always prioritise the bad news. You’re never going to see a headline which reads ‘Gay couple walk down street holding hands every day and are not assaulted’. As criminologist Marianna Valverde has argued*, media presentation of crime narratives results in a belief in an ‘ever rising spiral of crime’, when in fact changes in statistics are the result of higher rates of reporting and authorities taking crime more seriously. I see a similar phenomenon in the reporting of homophobic incidents, with most media outlets more interested in producing a good headline than offering any accurate representation of the situation. The effect of this is that young LGBT+ people grow up with feelings and fear and shame that reality simply doesn’t justify.
As another way of marking the anniversary of the Act, YouGOV recently produced a new survey, asking whether people thought gay sex was ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’. Predictably the results were reported in a tone of shocked outrage, with focus being pointed at the fact that “Four in 10 British People believe gay sex is ‘unnatural’”. But it went relatively unreported that 78% of respondents between 18 and 24 feel the opposite way. For those of university age and below, the existence of gay people is a normal, unproblematic, everyday fact of life.
Recent research has even claimed that within certain university contexts being gay can be seen as a form of social privilege. Predictably, this research was met with a less-than-fair reception in a number of outlets. However, the full piece presents a compelling argument which shows how the possession of certain types of knowledge (cultural capital) typically held by gay students, and relationships with certain groups (social capital) which gay students have access to, give those men opportunities to enrich their lives that their fellows of 50 years ago would never have had.
My own university experience was consistent with this more positive picture. I was a part of certain friendship groups as a direct result of my sexuality, which opened opportunities that would not otherwise have been available to me, enabling me to form contacts and relationships I wouldn’t otherwise have formed. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that were it not for these opportunities, I would not be about to embark upon a funded PhD. Aside from these benefits my sexuality has brought me, I have had a very typical university experience. I have never been the victim of any large-scale discrimination, and people have mostly accepted me for who I am. This is increasingly the experience of gay students today. As far back as 2008, Dr Richard Taulke-Johnson documented the positive side of gay male students’ lives and argued for “a more inclusive, comprehensive, fuller and richer understanding of their lived experiences at university”.
There is still a great deal that is terrible about the conditions LGBT+ people have to put up with in this country. But presenting the bad things as the entirety of the story helps no-one, and indeed can be harmful for young LGBT+ people. Young, white, male, gay students represent only a small part of the community, but the vast changes that particular demographic has experienced in the last 50 years make for an encouraging example of what has gone right. In many everyday contexts, being gay can enrich the lives of young people, something that was nigh-unimaginable in 1967. So, 50 years on from the Sexual Offences Act, can we just take a moment to acknowledge how far we have come?
*Valverde, 2011. ‘Questions of security: A framework for research’, Theoretical Criminology 15, issue 1. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1362480610382569 (paywall)
Featured image credit: Sebastian Hesse
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