This LGBT History Month marks the seventh anniversary of the abolition of Section 28, which prohibited schools from discussing LGBT issues. This denotes a stark contrast to the climate today, whereby LGBT people are more equally regarded than ever. Not only are civil partnerships now in place, last year a Christian registrar lost her appeal against a ruling which saw her disciplined for refusing to conduct same-sex ceremonies. Most recently, Parliament has introduced laws to criminalise speech that incites hatred and violence on the basis of sexuality.
However, just as homosexuals begin to enjoy equal rights, violence against them is increasing; recorded homophobic attacks in London have risen by 18% and in Merseyside, they’re up by 40%.
Modern Britain presents a cruel limbo for gay people; whilst a 2007 survey indicates that 90% of the population support laws prohibiting homophobic discrimination, there were four suspected homophobic murders in London last year alone.
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has likened this scenario to that of the US in the sixties, when the civil rights movement provoked a rise in racist attacks. He considers the rise in homophobia to be a backlash against equality legislation and the greater visibility of gay people – with greater prominence comes greater risk. The sad reality is that increased tolerance feeds intolerance and breeds violence.
This merciless irony presents a terrifying prospect, one that forces us to ask some difficult questions. Should the Christian registrar have been permitted to refuse to officiate same-sex unions? Whilst gay people should be free to marry, does denying the registrar her freedom of religious conscience intensify her own homophobia and perhaps that of others who may be driven to violence?
When legislation banning speech inciting homophobic hatred and violence reached the House of Lords, an amendment was passed allowing criticism and discussion of sexual conduct or practices in the interests of free speech. Some welcomed this as a “victory for common sense” – the example of a grandmother who was visited by police after her complaint regarding a gay pride march was considered “potentially hate-related” being cited during the debate – but gay MP Chris Smith opposed the amendment on the grounds that if the signal sent is that “it is all right to be intolerant”, homophobic hate crimes will continue to rise.
However, statistics suggest that such rigorous equality laws provoke such attacks, so criminalising mere intolerance is unjustified, not to mention ethically questionable. As Lord Arran, a proponent of the Bill that decriminalised homosexuality in 1967, stated, “no amount of legislation [can] prevent homosexuals being the subject of derision”.
Stonewall also recognises a link between gay equality and the rise in homophobia. Of particular concern is that many antagonists are in their late teens, suggesting a link to school, where homophobic bullying is three times more prevalent than racism. Perhaps this is where the problem lies.
The campaign group claims that, in the shadow of Section 28, many schools feel ambivalent towards addressing homophobia, despite research indicating that two thirds of young LGB people have experienced homophobia that, studies show, decrease by up to 60% when a zero policy stance is adopted.
It seems clear that more energy needs to be invested, not into more legislation, but in educating the adults of tomorrow. If attitudes are not challenged so that they can be taught to value one another, individuals will continue to carry their intolerance on into adulthood where it will entrench itself. Homophobia is not going to vanish overnight but I believe this is the way forward; we must not allow this recent surge in attacks, this desperate grasp of homophobes to cling onto the last twitches of intolerance, to peak and provide a bleaker tomorrow. To quote Stonewall’s slogan: “Some people are gay. Get over it!”