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Hand in hand without fear of reprisal

Public views of gays and lesbians lag behind progressive legal advances argues Steven Allen.

Being gay in Britain these days is pretty amazing, compared to 30, 10, or even five years ago. Section 28, the final bastion of outright homophobic legislation on the statute books was finally repealed last September. The Employment Equality Regulations in relation to sexual orientation came into force in December last year, making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexuality at work. And the Government is actively pursuing a ‘Civil Partnerships Bill’, aiming to place committed homosexual relationships on a par with their heterosexual counterparts, ensuring gay couples have most of the same rights as straight married couples. Even the Tories are holding gay summits!

You can barely switch on the TV without coming across ‘gay’. Gay is chic, gay is cool, and gay is certainly in. With personalities such as Will Young breaking into pop music, Graham Norton taking over chat show TV (even breaking into America!) and virtually every home design programme hosted by a flamboyant homo with design tips to turn even the ugliest homes into palaces, it’s virtually impossible to get away from gays on the telly. Big Brother would be nothing without the loud, brash and ever-so-self-(un)conscious-bigger-than-life-size gays with more than a point to make. You’re almost lead to feel that a gay mafia have planned and executed a massive coup that no-one will quite admit to.

But before we get all dragged into the maelstrom of the ‘cool gay revolution’, big hair and all, let’s take a small mince backwards and survey the scene a little bit more.

For all the public commitment to their gay supporters, the Tories are clearly not being as truthful as we would all like. For one, they believe that the burgeoning problem of obesity in our society is directly linked to the Government’s support for more liberal, gay-friendly laws. Lord Tebbit on obesity: “[it is because of the] attack being waged on the family. We don’t have an epidemic of obesity, we have a huge problem of Aids, and this Government’s attitude is to do everything it can to promote buggery – knowing that the two are intimately connected.” Need I even bother to dissect the homophobia in that one?

On the more social side of life, gay as a lifestyle is being promoted ceaselessly. ‘Gay’ is slowly moving away from a classification of sexuality and is becoming more of a style preference or a programme classification. Gay is being promoted as a particular set of characteristics (camp, bitchy, razor-sharp wit, fashion conscious, etc) and the thing that actually defines homosexuality – the sexual preference – is being ignored. And this, I feel, is a particularly dangerous development.

Young people growing up and identifying themselves as gay these days are being bombarded with a million and one images about how to be gay and how to gain acceptance. Not only having to look perfect, but having to show your uniqueness to everyone can put a lot of unnecessary pressure on young people who want to fit in but also want to be seen as cool. Just because a boy grows up fancying other boys, he is also being faced by a multitude of other personality aspects that go together to create the ‘prefab gay’. And what if he doesn’t want all that?

Which brings me onto girls who like other girls. The sad problem at the moment is that lesbians still do not exist in the shared public awareness.

Lesbianism is still seen as taboo, long after gay (for boys) seems to be have been mainstreamed, and female homosexuals have few positive role models that share their sexuality. To compound this, a worrying discrimination is grabbing hold of certain sections of the male gay community which almost borders on misogyny (“it IS misogyny” says a close lesbian friend), a fear and distrust for a community that logically and historically has been the closest ally.

OK, so it’s not all doom and gloom, but there are significant social and political problems for us to overcome in order to ensure that gays have a true equality to the rest of society.

We need to aim for a day when coming out is not met by the response ‘I have loads of gay friends, really I do’, and backed up by a preconceived conception of homosexuality emanating from the mass media. No gay man or lesbian woman can walk down the street hand-in-hand with someone they love without fear of reprisal. We need to ensure that both of these forms of discrimination are ‘designed out’ of our society.

It will take time. It is incredibly positive that legal changes have made real differences for the estimated five million gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the country. But we must make sure that these changes are supported by a parallel effort to shift public perceptions of homosexuality to ensure that true equality is gained. I personally can’t wait for the day I can be a scruffy, not-particularly-sharp queer who is happy with who he is and can walk down the street holding hands with his boyfriend, reading a gay magazine without worrying about who might see. I wait with bated breath.