The moral panic over homophobia
It simply isn’t true that gay people face huge levels of harassment and violence.
Once, there were moral panics over homosexuality. Now there’s a moral panic over homophobia. Consider the way in which the grotesque attack on a lesbian couple on a London bus has been used to promote the idea that LGBT people live in a state of existential danger. It comes straight from the moral-panic and crime-panic playbook: one nasty, shocking crime is used to depict society as a hotbed of rough, unenlightened beasts whose backward attitudes – in this case on homosexuality – threaten to tear apart the social fabric itself. A horrible incident carried out by five people becomes elevated into a symbol of evil that society as a whole must organise itself against. This is not a good way to treat any crime, including this one.
Everyone was horrified by the assault on Melania Geymonat and her partner Chris on a bus travelling towards Camden Town. It took place last month but was only publicised last week. The photo of the two victims, their faces bloodied and bruised, caused revulsion around the world. The crime made international headlines. That’s understandable. What’s less understandable, or rather less justifiable, is the swiftness with which the assault was turned into an advert for gay vulnerability. There is something nauseating about the way in which gay-rights groups and political observers held up this crime as typical, as an ordinary event in a society like ours that is apparently riddled with homophobia. As one campaigner said, ‘there wasn’t any element of surprise’ in relation to this attack. In short, anti-gay brutalism happens all the time.
But this isn’t true. And it’s important to say that it isn’t true. Some of the claims made following the revelation of this attack and the publication of the shocking photo have bordered on hysterical. ‘Homophobic violence more common than people realise’, said a headline in the Independent next to the photo of the two battered women. This kind of ‘harassment and violence is a daily struggle [for gay people]’, its report said. This is something people ‘face every day’, said Kim Sanders of Stonewall. Lesbians, in London, face vicious assaults every day? Really? A spokesperson for the LGBT Foundation said ‘there wasn’t any element of surprise’ for gay people when they heard about this attack. A Guardian writer wonders if this assault means same-sex couples will have to ‘hide our relationships’. Apparently, ‘we live in a society that finds the idea of two men or two women kissing to be…. worthy of a violent reprisal’.
Here, commentary on one particular crime crosses the line into outright crime panic. The idea that Britain in 2019 is a society that sees same-sex kissing as deserving of violent punishment doesn’t stack up on any level whatsoever. Commentators will point to statistics that apparently demonstrate that the UK is unsafe for gay people, but such stats are alarmingly unreliable. In 2017, a news headline declared that ‘attacks on LGBT people’ have ‘surged’ by almost 80 per cent over the past four years. Ask yourself if this seems like a reasonable claim. If it is feasible that in a society where acceptance of homosexuality is at all-time high, where gay people are widely celebrated in popular culture, where discrimination on the basis of sexuality is illegal and where same-sex marriage has recently been legalised, there has been a massive surge in violent hatred against gay people. I’m calling BS on this.
And indeed, if one looks at the stats in more depth it becomes clear that violence and discrimination against gay people hasn’t increased – rather, the definition of what constitutes an ‘attack’ on a gay person has changed, and changed in a dramatic, very cynical way. So the vast majority of that alleged 80 per cent surge in ‘attacks’ on gay people – which comes from a Stonewall / YouGov survey of 5,000 LGBT people in Britain – were instances of being ‘insulted, pestered, intimidated or harassed’. Nobody deserves to experience such rude behaviour, but let’s be honest about what such a broad, verbal-based category of ‘attack’ could include – everything from being called a name on Twitter to being pestered for a snog by some drunken idiot in a bar. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents said they had been pestered or insulted, while 11 per cent said they had been physically assaulted. Even this, however, is contradicted by a far larger survey of LGBT people carried out by the government, which involved 108,000 people, not just 5,000. The results were published in February. They suggest that two per cent had experienced physical violence, while 26 per cent had experienced verbal harassment, including ‘hurtful comments’.
Every act of violence or discrimination against someone on the basis of their sexuality needs to be taken seriously. But the conflation of hurtful comments with physical violence is not helpful at all. Everyone receives hurtful comments for one reason or another. And given that opposition to same-sex marriage is now considered bigotry, and saying that men cannot become women has been rebranded as transphobia, it is very likely that many of these hurtful comments or insults involved people merely expressing a particular political, moral or religious opinion about gay lifestyles or transgender issues. It is the redefinition of the meaning of homophobic abuse, and the trawling for evidence of homophobic abuse, that leads to hysterical claims about Britain experiencing a historically unprecedented surge in violent hatred for gay people. Indeed, as Stonewall’s 2017 survey admits: ‘Greater awareness of hate crime and efforts to improve recording of hate crime are thought to have played a role in the increase in recorded hate crimes in recent years.’
This is a fancy, PC way of saying that what we are witnessing is a classical example of ‘crime construction’ – the inflation of statistics to give the impression that a particular kind of crime is out of control. It used to be people on the right who did this, with their carefully constructed moral and crime panics about football hooligans or black muggers. Now it is increasingly done by people who are ostensibly on the left, who see hate crime everywhere, who think homophobia is rampant, who think speech is bigotry and sometimes even criminal, and who think Brexit has unleashed unprecedented levels of anti-social violence. In all these instances, crime has been overblown in order to construct an elitist, moralistic message about the vulnerability of certain identity groups and the wickedness of the uneducated, un-PC, dangerous throng. Identitarian groups might benefit from inflating their claims to victimhood – because that is increasingly the way in which people win moral recognition and social resources – but the broader social impact of this new, left-leaning crime construction is likely to be dire.
The spectre of the homosexual was a key figure in nasty 1950s moral panics. This warped man will corrupt your children and maybe even use violence against them, people were warned. Now it is the spectre of the homophobe that exercises the middle class’s fearful, moralistic imagination. They see this hateful figure everywhere, in every street, on every bus, on every discussion thread. It’s an inaccurate and even unstable view of the world. All it does is foster even more identitarian division and make gay people feel unnecessarily fearful. Let’s be honest: gay people have never had it so good, and that’s a good thing.
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