“At least you can hide it.” This response was given to me when discussing homophobia recently, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. What are the implications of this tiny phrase? Does this imply that being gay is something that can and should be switched on and off, depending on which social situation you are in? Or that, if you are a victim of homophobia, maybe you didn’t hide your homosexuality well enough? When I go out with my boyfriend, there have been times when family members have warned us against holding hands in public, in case we get attacked. I think that there is, to some extent, an expectation that we should be compromising to others by not being “too gay”.
According to Stonewall, 52 percent of LGBT people experienced depression and 1 in 8 LGBT people aged 18-24 have admitted that they tried to take their own life in the last year.
This is what ‘hiding it’ does.
When this person told me that I could ‘hide it’, they didn’t use any homophobic slurs against me. They didn’t say that it’s morally wrong to be gay. My issue with the phrase is that it is harder for people to understand the problem. With blatant homophobia, there is a clear issue. However, a phrase such as this is subconscious homophobia, where there may have been no malicious intent, but it assumes that gay people should still expect to have to hide their sexuality. It is too reminiscent of a time when homosexuality was illegal, and so gay people were forced to be discreet. This idea that hiding it is easy is harmful for LGBT+ people, leading to an array of mental health problems from insecurities about themselves.
Subconscious homophobia is something which many gay people are familiar with and anticipate in social settings. For example, when my boyfriend and I are introduced as a couple to new people, sometimes the person introducing us is lost for words. I can see their mind whirling, trying to find the right word to link our names. Boyfriend? Partner? Friend? There is sometimes hesitancy, which is never present for when straight couples are introduced – it would never cross their mind to say ‘friend’.
It has become normalised to be treated differently to straight couples. Gay couples are often somewhat of an accessory or delegated to being ‘the gay ones’ instead of a respected relationship. Any attempt to educate offenders about this usually results in abrasive denial instead of listening. Because they did not use homophobic language, they cannot see how their actions make gay couples feel lesser than straight couples.
Aside from the subconscious homophobia, today’s society is shallow when it comes to general equality – equality on a larger scale than small, isolated events. We believe that, as long as everyone has equal rights, then surely equality has been achieved? However, there is a chasm between legal equality and social equality. An instance of legal equality was achieved, for example, when gay marriage was legalised in 2014. This does not bring about social equality, which will be achieved, for example, when people no longer complain about two men kissing on a Crème Egg advert. More than 35,000 people signed a petition to ban the advert, which aired seven years after the legalisation of gay marriage in the UK, but is there as much heated discussion about a straight couple kissing? As long as people still squirm at the thought of two men getting married, homophobia is still alive, regardless of law.
More recently, in the Queen’s Speech, the government set out plans to ban conversion therapy. The prospect of this barbaric practice being outlawed was a huge step forward in the LGBT+ rights movement. And yet, since the announcement, there is further evidence of a society reluctant to change. According to Jayne Ozanne, the former government adviser on LGBT issues, there is a loophole in the proposal, where coercive conversion therapy may be banned but verbal therapy could be used. The fact that there still is a loophole is dangerous, potentially fatal, to all the LGBT+ people who are at risk of depression and suicide attempts, continually being told that their identity is wrong.
None of this is to say that I do not appreciate how far the LGBT+ rights movement has progressed in the last century. I know of the struggle which LGBT+ activists went through to make it possible to write this, to fly a rainbow flag and to identify openly as gay. But do schools teach the history of LGBT+ activists like Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson and Mark Ashton? No.
When I was at school, our sex education classes never mentioned LGBT+ education. At the end of one sex education talk, there was a box in which we could write anonymous questions, which the teachers promised to answer. My question was “Does this information still apply to LGBT+ people?”. This was the only question which the sex education teachers saw, scowled at, and threw straight into the bin. In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced Section 28, a law which declared that schools “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality”. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, so why did it feel as though it was still very much alive?
Homophobia manifests in a multitude of forms. One in five LGBT+ people have experienced a hate crime in the last twelve months, according to Stonewall. In addition to this, there are comments and exclusions which LGBT+ people face on a daily basis, purely due to their identity.
Why is there an expectation for us to accept ‘subconscious’ homophobia out of respect for someone else’s opinion? When will my boyfriend and I be able to hold hands in the street without fear of being attacked? Just because we are nearly at equality does not mean that we should stop at nearly.