29th March 2019 saw the fifth anniversary of the first same-sex marriages in England and Wales. Over the past 20 years, with the repeal of Section 28 in 2003 and the historic moment of the first same-sex marriages in 2014, the lives of LGBT+ people have changed immensely and positively. As the government asserts, the UK has been recognised as one of the leaders in LGBT+ rights in Europe and discrimination against people of the LGBT+ community has drastically decreased in recent years. Yet despite the progress, it is important to stress that the fight for advancing LGBT+ rights is not over.
The National LGBT Survey published in July 2018, of more than 108,000 people, reveals that homophobia and prejudice continue to be prevalent phenomena, significantly restricting LGBT+ people’s involvement in public life. This online government survey (the largest of its kind in the world) examined certain categories within the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, pansexual, and intersex people, such as life satisfaction, safety, education, health, mental health, and workplace experiences. Results show that while the life satisfaction of the British population lies at an average of 7.7 out of 10, that of gays and lesbians lies at 6.9. Trans women and non-binary people, however, are even less satisfied, scoring 5.5 out of 10, and trans men have the lowest score of 5.1. Furthermore, over two thirds (70%) of all respondents with a minority sexual orientation reported that they had concealed their sexual orientation for fear of a negative reaction – these scores being the highest for asexual people (89%), queer people (86%), and bisexuals (80%). Similarly, more than half of all respondents with minority gender identity kept it hidden in all contexts – these scores lie at 76% for non-binary people, 59% for trans women, and 56% for trans men. This comprehensive survey captures the ways in which heteronormativity (the promotion of heterosexuality as the normal and preferred sexual orientation) impacts our society and the LGBT+ people living in it. Prejudice is more than just hate crime, it pervades every aspect of life.
More seriously, 40% of all survey respondents had experienced more negative experiences of harassment, insults, hurtful comments, threatening, physical violence and/or sexual violence in the year preceding the survey. One respondent, a middle-aged gay man from London, explained: ‘I still wouldn’t walk down my street holding hands for fear of attack, or kiss on public transport. Simple things that heterosexual people take for granted.’ Moreover, a pansexual transgender woman, aged between 35 and 44, from the South East, gave the following statement: ‘I often will change what I wear so that I blend in more, and walk fast, and wear headphones in the street, so that at least when people are transphobic and insulting to me I don’t hear it. (I know it still happens because when I don’t do this, it does regularly happen.)’ These are just two examples that demonstrate how prejudice continues to impact the lives of those who identify as LGBT+. Homophobia cannot be viewed simply as an opinion that someone is entitled to, not when the effects of this prejudice are made blatantly clear. One person’s ‘opinion’ can create another person’s living hell.
Belonging to the LGBT+ community remains difficult due to stigmatisation and fear of negative reactions. Studies that have researched the overall extent and impact of stigma on LGBT+ and other minority groups have found that the stigmatisation faced by LGBT+ people on a daily basis reduces their life expectancy. A 2014 study revealed that sexual minorities living in communities with high levels of homophobia die an average of 12 years earlier than those in less prejudiced communities. As part of my own research, I spoke with several homosexual students at Durham University last year. The students highlighted how being in a student town they felt free to express their sexual orientation and gender identities. However, upon going home they are self-conscious, changing their behaviour and clothing to conceal their identities. A lesbian student revealed, ‘when I am home I always wear my appropriate, straight outfit, which means that I dress more femininely than how I would normally do. It makes me more comfortable, as I know I look straight.’
Following the results of the National LGBT Survey, the government set out to improve the lives of LGBT+ people. They launced the LGBT Action Plan in July 2018, which provided £4.5 million of funding to public, private and voluntary sector organisations to tackle the problems LGBT+ people face in the healthcare system, schools, public, the workplace, etc. More than 75 commitments were made, among which are the goals to tackle health inequalities; homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in schools; to end conversion therapy; and to put more weight on the evaluation of hate crimes. The British government’s contribution to supporting and advancing the lives of the LGBT+ community is certainly remarkable, with initiatives like the LGBT Action Plan having a twofold impact, improving the lives of LGBT+ people both directly and indirectly. The plan aims to tackle the most important problems LGBT+ people face, and in turn, start the conversation to challenge the stigma against them, encouraging people to consider and re-evaluate their perceptions.
The main aim of the No Outsiders Programme in Birmingham was to open discussion and teach children about diversity, tolerance and inclusion when it comes to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion. Parents, however, repeatedly protested against these lessons, claiming them to be promoting gay and transgender ‘lifestyles’ and as a result hundreds of children were pulled from the classes. Although these lessons were approved to be age-appropriate by the person responsible for supervising education, a primary school in Birmingham suspended the programme indefinitely.
As this example illustrates, the views and actions of the general public have a big impact. While the actions taken by the government are crucial, they can only act as a catalyst. To create an inclusive and egalitarian society, citizens themselves need to be involved. This means more than silently accepting that other people will act differently, it means actively showing support for minority groups. Allies and people who do not belong to the LGBT+ community also have the right – duty, even – to challenge homophobic views. So the next time you hear hate speech, stop for a minute and ask yourself, do I have the responsibility to step up against hate speech? The answer is yes. The Marriage (Same-Sex couples) Act may have been passed in 2013, but marriage equality is not enough to achieve genuine equality for all sexual orientations. We still need the public to take responsibility and overcome their prejudices so LGBT+ people can be free to exist and love without fear of the consequences.