Although gay marriage may be moving UK society closer to equality for the LGBT community, Robert Angus argues we still have some way to go to tackle homophobia in Portsmouth.
Many people in the UK don’t think about how they walk, how they talk or how they look at their partner in public. Yet for the minority of us that are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) these questions are all too often in our minds: Am I walking too ‘gay-ly’? Do I look a bit queer today? Is that person going to shout at me?
Same-sex marriage is legal now, but how have things changed in the past 10 or 15 years for the LGBT+ community in the UK?
For me, things seem safer. I don’t often feel I’m being stared at for the way I’m standing or for smiling at my boyfriend. But then, neither of us particularly like public displays of affection, they always make me uncomfortable because they bring safety concerns. We don’t want to attract attention; we just don’t want the bother.
Late last year reported there was an increase in the number of homophobic hate crimes reported to the police, with a dramatic surge in incidents in some areas of the UK. Some fear that rising reports of homophobic hate crimes could indicate an increase in their incidence, while others believe the rising figures show that victims are getting more confident about coming forward.
Police efforts to encourage the LGBT community to report hate crimes seems to be working. A part of me certainly wants to believe it; the police force is an institution that historically has not had the best of relationships with my community (and at times still doesn’t).
Yet the Crime Survey for England and Wales in 2012-13 reported that approximately 39,000 homophobia related incidents happen in the UK each year. By contrast, the Equality and Human Rights Commission reports that in 2014 only 4,000 (or less than 10%) homophobic hate crimes were reported to the police. This is a lower rate than the reporting of domestic violence nationwide, another crime we know is notoriously hidden from public view.
When I read these statistics, I hope that this is the storm before the calm, before things really get better, before the numbers really fall. But some of my own experiences and those of my friends tell me we have some way to go.
Perhaps having someone shout ‘fag’ at you in the street as they drive past in a peach coloured Renault Clio doesn’t seem like something you need to report to the police. Perhaps it seems like something that the police need not concern themselves with. Perhaps you didn’t see the number plate, so why bother? Perhaps being shouted at is just what happens to gay people. It’s not so bad, it’s better than being punched. It’s better than someone forcing you to drink bleach. It’s better than being murdered.
But for policing to reflect the needs of the public equally, homophobic crimes must be reported. Without hard evidence the police won’t be able to prevent it and it goes on. We in the LGBT community will still be harassed for sounding camp, for the way we walk or dress, or for not liking football.
I have been the victim of two homophobic incidents, both of which took place in Hampshire, including one right here in Portsmouth. The incident of being shouted at by a passing car mentioned above was one of these and I reported it. But the other was a far scarier incident which I didn’t report.
I was 16, I’d said goodbye to my boyfriend at the station with a hug, and perhaps we lingered too long. I boarded the train, found a seat and looked up to find someone had taken offence to my overt display of homosexuality. He started shouting, calling me every homophobic name possible, before leaving.
Everyone else in the carriage was deaf and blind. Not one person looked up or said anything.
I’m not sure I would have in their situation either.
I wasn’t physically injured, but my friend James was not so fortunate.
‘He pushed me down, kicked me in my stomach, chest and face. That is about all I remember,’ he told me after being brutally attacked in a homophobic assault. He was mostly bruised, and needed a few stitches to his forehead, but the mental toll was far worse.
‘I didn’t go out for a long time” he told me. ‘I convinced myself it was my fault, I said something that set him off. I didn’t want to do it again.’
It took James a year of therapy to finally get back to his old life. He lost friends, he lost confidence: he lost everything in a few minutes.
These stories are sadly not as unique or rare as one would hope in a European, mostly secular nation which has legalised civil partnerships and now same sex marriage. Surely these are the kinds of things that happen elsewhere. But the sad truth is that homophobic hate crimes like this happen every day, many times a day – in our schools and workplaces as well as on our streets.
As you read this, someone in Portsmouth is being victimised for being who they are.
Talking with my friends, we know it is revealing that we count ourselves lucky when we are ‘only’ the victims of verbal abuse. ‘At least it wasn’t physical,’ we say with a smile as we share our stories. ‘He called me a faggot and a batty boy, it happened only a few times’ my friend Julian tells me. His experience probably reflects those of the majority of the community: the ‘lucky ones’.
‘It could have been so much worse,’ we say, and it could. We count our blessings but it doesn’t make it better. It doesn’t empower us or make us safer. Instead every incident adds to our fear that perhaps one day something worse might happen, to us, to one of our friends.
So now we have gay marriage, now that the world beings to speak of LGBT ‘equality’, do I feel like things are really better or safer? Perhaps not, perhaps we have just won enough space within our communities to enjoy the tiniest piece of freedom just to be.
Whenever I am a victim of something I look for ways it could have been my fault. I don’t know why I do it. My wallet is stolen, I should really not leave it on the table when I go to the bar. But like all hate crimes, homophobic attacks do not work like this. We are not at fault for the way we walk, for the way we talk or for the way we look at the ones we love.
We like to think things are better for the LGBT+ community in the UK, but they aren’t, not yet. Things are just starting to get better, but we must stay aware of how far we have to go. Providing equality legislation is no guarantee of equality. We must fight on to be seen – and treated – as equals.
Photography by Sarah Cheverton.