What's behind the authorities' obsession with outing homophobia?
There are warnings of a rising tide of homophobia on both sides of the Atlantic. When a gay man was recently murdered on London’s South Bank, newspapers grimly reported that there has been a 20 per cent rise in homophobic attacks in the capital over the past year. The re-election of George W Bush in America, and the sweeping rejection of gay marriage in state ballots, has sparked predictions of a ‘new era of intolerance’.
The head of the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, Matt Foreman, called Bush the most anti-gay president in modern history. But it seems to be historical amnesia, not homophobia, that is the issue here.
Is Bush really worse than Dwight D Eisenhower, who in the 1950s cracked down on the incipient gay subculture that was emerging in postwar American cities? Gays and lesbians were barred from all federal jobs, with many state government and private corporations following suit; and they were the targets of an FBI surveillance programme. Homosexual behaviour was a criminal offence, and until the late 1960s police forces would regularly raid gay clubs and cart off their occupants.
Gays have never had it so good. Thirty-five per cent of the American public support civil unions for gay couples, including the president himself. It was gay marriage that the states rejected, not the legality of gay sex – and the marriage question wouldn’t even have been up for debate a few years ago. At the same time that Bush was elected, Dallas County, Texas voted in a lesbian sheriff, hardly a sign of growing southern intolerance. And one of those worrying about a new backlash was ‘Jonathan Katz, professor of gay history at Yale University’, a title that speaks volumes about the status of gay issues.
There is no evidence that homophobic violence is on the rise. Yes, there has been a 20 per cent increase in incidents in London this year, but as a spokesperson for the gay community safety charity Galop told me, this ‘is misleading’: ‘incidents fell last year, so this was only a return to the level the year before last.’ The tally of 1344 incidents isn’t huge for a city of seven million people, especially given the nature of many of the incidents. The Metropolitan Police takes a broad-brush definition of homophobia, as: ‘any incident, which is perceived to be homophobic by the victim or any other person (that is directed to impact upon those known or perceived to be lesbians, gay men, bisexual or transgender people).’ (1)
An analysis of homophobic incidents recorded by the Met in 2001 showed that the largest proportion – some 35 per cent for men, and 50 per cent for women – involved threats rather than violence; another fifth involved criminal damage or theft. As a Galop spokesperson told me, a threat could include ‘somebody shouting “dyke” in the street’, or graffiti insults on a wall: ‘the police are interested in hearing about all of it. Graffiti should be taken very seriously.’ And there were some odd anomalies in the Metropolitan Police stats: four per cent of the perpetrators were a partner or ex-partner, and some of the attacks involved sex.
This might be explained by the fact that it seems that almost anything bad that happens to a gay person can be defined as ‘homophobic’. Galop told me that it is handing on reports to the police of cases such as ‘a man being robbed on a cruising ground’, because this is about ‘exploiting a weakness, a perception of gay men’. Another example is a man being picked up at a bar and assaulted – apparently this can be seen as homophobic because ‘sex is about power’. But surely rape and theft are crimes in their own right; just because the victim is gay doesn’t make it a hate crime.
While the police once raided gay clubs to arrest people, today they cruise them to encourage the reporting of homophobia. Merseyside has seen a 49 per cent rise in homophobic hate crime, mainly due to the hard work of its officers. A spokesperson for Merseyside police told me that initiatives include: ‘A police surgery at a gay club every fortnight, to build relations between the police and the gay community’; ‘meetings every three months at gay venues, to enable better access’; ‘a self-reporting pack, so that you can report homophobic crime anonymously’; ‘the Merseyside “Shoutline” where those who have been a victim of crime because of their sexuality can speak to someone, or report the crime, in confidence’.
While employers used to discriminate against gays, today they are called upon to serve their imagined particular needs. In a Department for Trade and Industry-supported briefing paper, the gay rights organisation Stonewall warns employers about the hefty responsibilities they face in order to comply with new equal opportunities legislation. ‘Almost every aspect of employment policy and practice throws up specific problems in relation to LGB [lesbian, gay and bisexual] people’, it says. It recommends that employers set up gay ‘networks’ for their workers, for mutual support and ready recourse if discrimination occurs. And there are warnings about the pitfalls of ‘indirect discrimination’, which could even involve something like a free crèche: ‘statistically [gays and lesbians] are less likely to have children than heterosexuals’, ergo the crèche discriminates against them (2).
It is still uncomfortable to be the only gay in the village, but in cities where most gay people live, real prejudice is negligible. A Stonewall survey found that only 6.8 per cent of people expressed public prejudice against gays or lesbians, compared to 14 per cent against travellers or gypsies (3). Gay couples can walk hand-in-hand in many cities without drawing a second glance; they can invite their partners to works drinks without putting their job in jeopardy. Sporadic attacks do happen, but they are mercifully rare. And all this is to the good.
What isn’t so good is the way in which gays and lesbians have become shock troops in the campaigns of the new elite. The promotion of the issue of homophobia by everybody from the Metropolitan Police to the Tory Party, and the supposed remedy of re-education, marks the changing of the political guard.
At a time when traditional institutions and values are suffering from something of an identity crisis, the gay issue is a shorthand way in which institutions can distance themselves from the past and show that they’re ‘with it’. Hence Tory Steven Norris’ support for a gay museum in London, or the party’s gay and lesbian summit for young people in March 2003. It’s not so much that gays are naturally taking their place in the mainstream, as that they are being pushed on the stage by an insecure elite.
Features of gay culture that developed in backstreet ghettoes and underground cellars, and expressed the community’s marginalisation, are now celebrated across the board. Camp, as cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote in 1964, is a ‘love of artifice and exaggeration’; camp is ‘disengaged, depoliticised’, and sees everything in inverted commas (‘not a lamp, but a “lamp”’) (4). Symbolised by the rise of Queen Graham Norton, with Elton John as Queen Mother, camp has become chic in a culture that revels in irony, disguise and frivolity. Rather than gays getting out of the ghettos, the whole of society wants to climb in to join them. When there is no ‘inside’ that believes in itself, everybody wants to be an outsider.
As Jennie Bristow noted on spiked, much of the support for gay civil partnerships is driven by disillusionment with marriage and heterosexual partnerships. While marriages are seen as restrictive and riven with domestic violence, gay partnerships are trumped as ‘caring, non-threatening affection’ (see Gay is the new straight, by Jennie Bristow).
The new elite doesn’t believe in much, but ‘tolerance’ is one of the few things it can hold to. According to its brand of illiberal liberalism, anything goes except for pariah views about sexuality or race. The campaign against homophobia is an attempt to discipline the public (particularly the white working-class male section of the public) and re-educate them out of their ignorant ways. One Stonewall publication on prejudice recommended that officials ‘target marginalised areas of white majority society’, explaining that ‘young white unemployed men are more likely to act out their prejudices through violence’ (5).
The term ‘homophobia’ suggests an unnatural psychological perversion, requiring a similar treatment to any other phobia. While sufferers of arachnophobia might need forced exposure to spiders, homophobes apparently need exposure to the exuberances of gay culture – the ‘gay and proud’ marches, and initiatives such as the London gay museum, or London mayor Ken Livingstone’s plan to educate the capital’s schoolchildren about gay and lesbian lifestyles.
If there isn’t so much prejudice now, there might well be once Livingstone has done his worst. This sexual correctness onslaught is far more likely to breed problems than is the gay couple living next door.
Whatever the changes for the better, there are new barriers to gay equality today. Gay rights organisations urge employers to make special allowances for gay workers, and cry homophobia every time a gay man has his mobile snatched. Instead of free and easy equality, gays and lesbians have become a drag act cheered on by authorities that no longer believe in themselves.
(1) Homophobic violence, Metropolitan Police
(2) The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, Stonewall
(3) Understanding prejudice, Gill Valentine and Ian McDonald, November 2004
(4) Notes On ‘Camp’, Susan Sontag
(5) Understanding prejudice, Gill Valentine and Ian McDonald, November 2004
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