WHEN I FIRST went to an LGBT social group in Bath in my late 20s, I met an older generation of gay men who would speak in code to each other to avoid ‘outing’ themselves to others who might overhear them.
For example, when discussing another man and wondering if he were gay, they would say ‘Is he on our bus?’ The meaning was clear to those in the know, and obscure to others within earshot.
Some were old enough to remember when same-sex relationships were criminalised in English law (pre-1967). Others lived through the moral panic around AIDS, the ‘gay plague’, in the 1980s, and at the time, the UK Government imposed restrictions on local authorities ‘promoting’ homosexuality and teaching ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ (the infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988).
So it was understandable that theirs was a world they felt they had to hide in.
I count myself as very fortunate that my generation and those who come after us in this country are increasingly free of the shame and fear that these laws and attitudes created.
For the last 10 years, I have lived in Liverpool as an openly gay man, and worked for organisations that have been accepting, inclusive and affirming. I have also been responsible for promoting that culture in the LGBT youth group I have worked with for the last eight years. We have seen an increase in young people coming out during adolescence, even while still at school, which was rare ten years ago.
The pace of change in law has been extraordinary. The age of consent between men was lowered from 21 in 1967 to 18 in 1994 and equalised at 16 in 2000. The ban on gay men and women serving in the armed forces was lifted in the same year. Civil partnerships for same-sex couples became legal in 2005, and marriage for same sex couples is now possible, and likely to take effect in mid 2014.
But changing attitudes is a slower process – it’s not something to taken for granted or be complacent about. In 2006 Liverpool City Council published a report on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Safety in the city. It showed that a reasonable proportion of the LGBT community, especially younger people did ‘not intend to remain in Liverpool long term, specifically on account of the perceived lack of safety within the city’. Much work has been done since then in partnership between the Council, the Police, and LGBT community organisations and individuals to challenge and change that perception. One of the outcomes of this was the city’s first official Pride festival in 2010, sponsored by Merseytravel, the region’s public transport provider (see the advert at the top of the page). Liverpool Pride is now the largest free LGBT Pride festival in the UK outside London – more than 6,000 people marched through the city and 60,000 attended the one-day event. In November 2011, Liverpool became the first city in the UK to officially recognise its Gay Quarter with rainbow street signs. Then last year the UK Statistics Authority revealed that Liverpool was the second safest city in the UK.
So we could be forgiven for thinking that – as an ordinary gay couple – we would be fine to get on a bus after a night out in the city centre. Not so.
On Friday night, around 11.15pm, my civil partner and I got on a bus for the ten minute journey home after a pleasant evening with his cousin and her husband celebrating our birthdays this month.
We sat in the second row, and chatted about the evening. Then I became aware of one of the men in front of us moving away to the other side of the bus, and announcing in a stage whisper to the other man in front that he was sorry, it was not about him, but he was moving because he ‘did not want to sit near the homosexuals’.
He was drunk – not a judgement, just a fact – we’d also had a few beers.
When I realised what he said, I challenged him. He seemed surprised that I responded, and said: “I’m sorry, I’m not homophobic but I didn’t want to hear you talk about gay stuff.” I was stunned – I don’t recall exactly what we were chatting about, but it was no more ‘gay’ than any other couple chatting about a night out in a regular bar with their family. I thanked him for saying sorry, as he should be, because he was homophobic.
He claimed our conversation was offensive to him because he didn’t want to hear about ‘what two men do together’ (except less polite). I called him a liar, as we had not mentioned anything about our private life on a public bus. He said he did not want to be on the same bus as us – I said that, in that moment, the feeling was mutual. He said he was getting off at the next stop – to my surprise, at least one other person on the bus spoke up. A woman said ‘Good, get off! We don’t want you either!’ accompanied by murmurs of assent. The man who had been sitting next to him also turned round to acknowledge me – he works at another children’s charity in the city, so I knew he was an ally.
The next stop was ours – we were worried that he would get off at the same stop, but he didn’t. As I got off, I apologised to the driver for the conflict, but said I refused to be spoken to that way. The driver apologised to us for what had happened.
It could have been worse – much worse – and I don’t experience this anywhere near as often as some people I know. But as I feel able to speak up, so I do, not just for me, but for all who experience this kind of prejudice.
While I was angry and shocked by what happened, I took heart from those who were prepared to speak up for us too. In that moment I responded to his desire not to be on the bus with us by wishing to exclude him in return, and at least one other person echoed that. But, on reflection, I know that demonising those who would demonise doesn’t really change anything; it just reinforces the fear of and prejudice against the other who is different from me.
I don’t wish him any harm, I just don’t want him to harm others, verbally or otherwise, with his ignorance. I was able to speak up and challenge him – others may not. I prayed at church today that he would be free from the fear and shame that leads him to feel and behave that way.
There is reputable research to indicate that homophobic men may be suppressing unwanted homosexual desire, and that male children sexually abused by male adults may confuse the trauma of that experience with what it means to be gay. This man may have experienced either or both of those, causing him to project his self-hatred onto us. While it may explain, it does not excuse. I am pleased that the Merseytravel network is a member of Stop Hate UK, a national hate crime reporting scheme, so incidents like this are taken seriously.
Earlier that day, I shared a link on Facebook to my blog post about a documentary on the history of LGBT Liverpool, and wrote: ‘Sharing on my blog so more people can hear this amazing story from a diverse and resilient city’. I still believe that, but it was a wake up call to remember that cultural change takes time, and some people may never be ready to accept it.
We can’t create a society where we segregate those who are different from us, or who challenge us because of difference (theirs our ours). Rosa Parks showed the futility of that, and has become a human rights hero because of it. Her refusal to give up her seat simply because of the colour of her skin was a fine example of the power of non-violent resistance. Many of the young people I have worked with in the LGBT youth group have mentioned her as someone from history they would like to meet, whose example they aspire to follow. This gives me hope for the future, that although we may never be completely free of fear and prejudice because of difference, enough young people will know the need to challenge it that they will look back at older generations and wonder how they put up with it, just like I did with the older gay men who spoke in code to avoid being identified.
If you are, or anyone you know is, affected by hate crime because of identity, don’t suffer in silence. Speak up, to the police, or to a community group that can help you report it. We can work together to make our communities safer for all. While it’s sad that incidents like this can still happen, the more people speak up and say “It’s not OK!” the more those who live with ignorance and prejudice will start to learn what it feels like to be in the minority, and maybe that challenge will give them empathy and the desire to open their hearts to change and difference.
UPDATE: The Guardian Witness website published a version of this post in February 2015:
Not on our bus, Or, We don’t need no segregation