Are we as pink as we think?

Britain loves gay culture. It's everywhere, including the pop charts and on our television screens - proof, apparently, that we live in an inclusive society. So why has there been a dramatic rise in reported attacks on gay men and lesbians? Why do we tolerate reggae artists who call for homosexuals to be shot and burned? As MPs prepare to debate civil partnerships, Philip Hensher asks, are we more homophobic than we'd like to believe?
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The Independent Online

Homophobia, like racism, is something all right-thinking people claim to oppose. To protest against it has travelled remarkably quickly into common culture. It is not so long since a complaint against even the most blatant homophobia was routinely described as "political correctness run mad"; not so long since the term itself was greeted by absurd bickering over its meaninglessness; not so long since commentators stuck firmly to their "right" to deplore homosexual culture.

Homophobia, like racism, is something all right-thinking people claim to oppose. To protest against it has travelled remarkably quickly into common culture. It is not so long since a complaint against even the most blatant homophobia was routinely described as "political correctness run mad"; not so long since the term itself was greeted by absurd bickering over its meaninglessness; not so long since commentators stuck firmly to their "right" to deplore homosexual culture.

But homosexuality has, it seems, been absorbed into the general culture. Pop stars, both well-established, such as Sir Elton John, and newcomers - Will Young - talk easily about their homosexuality, and it does them no harm commercially. Television sitcoms about homosexual characters, such as Will & Grace, have a wide popularity. The BBC's olympic coverage was fronted by a lesbian, Clare Balding, and nobody seemed to mind. A gay man and a transsexual have won Big Brother, and that at least must be a fair representation of the opinions of young people. They apparently don't see anything wrong with it, and a series of gay men of traditionally screaming camp demeanour have been given their own television shows, particularly in the area of home improvements. Graham Norton, who made his reputation as an ostentatiously gay chat show host, has a contract with the BBC to front Saturday teatime television.

Homosexuality appears acceptable to a large part of the population. Unthinking homophobia, at least, is on the decline. So when people express bigotry and hatred now, it is fair to assume they know what they are doing.

The murder of David Morley is the most extreme recent manifestation of homophobic violence. He was extremely unlucky, you might think, to be murdered in central London last Tuesday. But many heterosexual people will have been surprised to learn what all gay people know: that simply being gay can make you a target.

Plenty of friends of mine have been attacked by complete strangers. I never have, but I'm certainly familiar with the quickening pulse when a group of teenagers are approaching my boyfriend and me in the street, and suddenly, the word "battyboys" is hanging in the air.

And it isn't just a matter of delinquents in the street. There was the editor on a supposedly respectable newspaper who, losing her temper with me over some professional negligence, suddenly came out with a stream of disgusting homophobic abuse. There was the apparently nice lady at the dinner party who said to me, "Why do you go to Florence so much?" I said, "Well, my boyfriend lives there," not elaborating. Afterwards, I heard that she'd complained to the host that she didn't mind homosexuals, but didn't know why they had to go on about it all the time.

Homosexuals, we have to admit, in some respects have never had it so good. The battles over equal rights, the armed forces, the age of consent are now won, without any of the predicted catastrophes ensuing. Shortly, parliament will debate and hopefully pass the civil partnerships bill, giving vital and equal protection in matters such as next-of-kin and pension rights, apart from the fundamental civilising gesture.

But there remains the death of David Morley. If we ask where such a crime emerges from, there is a huge body of hatred waiting to be tapped. Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, for example, has called gay people "satanic". Far from being a distant voice, his opinions are taken seriously by many Anglicans who seek to deny gay men the right to be priests or, as with Canon Jeffrey John, bishops.

The cultural defence of even the most disgusting homophobia is everywhere. The implication is that homophobia is an intrinsic part of someone's body of beliefs, and it is an impertinence to interfere with it. This was said even about the Jamaican dance-hall artists, such as Elephant Man, Beenie Man and others, whose lyrics explicitly advocate murdering gay people. None has offered a proper apology; plenty of commentators have suggested that it is just part of the Jamaican style, and that we are all being a little bit too sensitive.

When Rocco Buttiglione, who regards homosexuality as a sin, was forced to withdraw as an EU commissioner, many commentators made the point that his views were those of a large number of people, and an intrinsic part of Roman Catholic faith. In reality, considering Mr Buttiglione for a post with responsibility for equal rights was like proposing a public member of the BNP for the post of permanent secretary at the Home Office.

Infuriatingly, homosexuals are rarely permitted to voice opinions on homophobia or indeed homosexuality. Much of the commentary on whether any of the examples above were unacceptably homophobic came from heterosexual writers, who often didn't see the offence. Television news editors make a particular point of covering stories about racial minorities with a black reporter; the BBC assigns reporters with disabilities to cover stories about disability; but a gay story will be covered by a straight woman. And often, the subject is as a consequence strangely skewed.

Homophobia is becoming one of those unpleasant, quiet English prejudices, like anti-semitism, only admitted behind closed doors, or apparent in small, sour comments over the dinner table. Comments by people hiding behind the supposed integrity of their culture, whether Roman Catholic or Jamaican dance-hall, have an unpalatable tendency to burst out, as they did last weekend for David Morley. If we could have just one request after so horrible a murder, it would simply be this: don't presume to tell us when we may complain about bigotry and hatred. It's directed at us. We know more about it than you do.

The policeman: 'A lot of officers are quite macho' Dan Adams, 27, Sergeant in the Metropolitan Police

Joining the police was something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. When I first went to training college at Hendon I didn't say anything about being gay - I didn't know how it would affect things. But we had to write a biography, so I mentioned that I was gay and lived with my partner.

My partner at the time was very supportive, but my parents were a bit concerned - they thought I would get bullied for being gay. When I started there were little things that I noticed about the way I was treated. A lot of officers are quite macho. In the locker room they would stand in a different aisle so that I couldn't see them getting changed. Some of them thought I was a plant from the complaints department trying to catch them out to see if anyone was homophobic. But as they got to know me they got really interested in what being gay was all about. They had never known anyone who was gay before.

Some people on the streets realise I'm gay and give me abuse but then every officer gets abuse - mine's just different. The perception of gay police officers has changed, both internally and externally. Internally, staff are supported a lot more; on the street it's getting better too.

Homophobic crime is still largely under-reported. It's a perception that we are not going to take it seriously. Gay people are not protected in the law the same way as other minorities are. Until the law changes the gay community will still have issues about coming forward. It's very sad.

The wedding planner Gino Meriano, 41, Organising Britain's first Gay Wedding Show in Brighton next weekend

My partner and I were looking for information for our own ceremony and we simply couldn't find anything. So we set up a company that does it. We found suppliers we were comfortable with, gay or gay-friendly - celebrants,churches and other places.

There are differences between being a gay wedding planner and a straight wedding planner. We arranged one recently for two women who both wanted to walk down the aisle and be given away by their fathers - so we created two aisles and gave them both a share of the limelight. We launched our own range of invites, which say it's a commitment or partnership ceremony.

Over the past 12 months we've done more than 300 weddings, from small intimate occasions to big lavish affairs for 250 people. Originally we were getting 30,000 visitors to the website each month. Now, it is 15,000 a day. We've got 150 weddings confirmed for 2006, but there are more than 3,000 couples on our database who want to arrange a wedding once the Civil Partnership Bill goes through. There are other gay companies but now there are lots of straight companies offering the same services. As long as they are providing what the couples want, great.

The home owners Vicky, 28 and Judith, 27, Have just bought a flat in London after eight years together but have no plans for a civil union

Vicky: A civil partnership is not something we'd want to rush into. In some ways the biggest commitment we have made to each other was buying a flat together.

I did have problems getting life insurance. Being in a same-sex relationship triggered a whole series of additional checks into my medical history. This can be quite a common experience for gay people and I'm not sure that changes to people's partnership rights will resolve this. The other area where there are problems is pensions. I'm in one of the public sector pension schemes where married spouses are automatically covered for death benefits and widows' pensions, but unmarried partners are only covered if you make additional payments. Since gay people do not have the option of marriage, they are in effect having to pay extra to have the same rights as married couples.

I'd say we've been very fortunate not to have had any bad experiences such as attacks. But the fear that it could happen to you does put some restrictions on your behaviour; things like not holding hands or showing affection in public. The most serious incidents get press attention, and rightly so, but there is also a more general low-level homophobia which affects gay people's lives all the time.

Judith: It is not illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services, so a hotel could legitimately turn a same-sex couple away or a pub could refuse to serve someone who was gay. Changing the law in this respect would give gay people a lot more confidence, knowing that their rights were protected.

The commentator Jane Czyzselska, 35, Editor of Diva, "the magazine of lesbian life and style"

When I heard about the murder of David Morley I did think, 'That could have been me and my partner.' A friend said to me, 'Well you shouldn't be so demonstrative in public,' but I refuse to live my life according to other people's prejudice. Heterosexuals take it for granted, so why shouldn't we? I have felt afraid that I might be attacked. I get verbal abuse on an almost daily basis, usually when I'm with my girlfriend. People shout, "Fucking lesbians!" or "You're disgusting!" or "Who's the man?" You just have to tell them to get lost or ignore them. It's a constant presence.

The Civil Partnership Bill shows a genuine acceptance that lesbian and gay relationships must be given parity. But a lot of people need to catch up with the legal changes. I mean, there are laws against racism but people don't necessarily keep up with those either. I get letters from readers all the time about homophobic experiences. Generally there's still a lot of homophobia.

I think the Bill will change things in terms of legal protection for lesbians and gay people; in most respects they'll have parity with heterosexuals. But the sticking point for a lot of people is that it's not actually called marriage, which devalues the whole idea because it doesn't have the same social value. That seems to be the Government's way of operating: "We'll nearly give you something, but we don't want to encourage you."

I think it's the beginning. When people started campaigning for equal pay for women all those years ago it had an effect, but we've seen the statistics, we're still not there yet. With some people, prejudice goes very deep.

The politician Chris Bryant, 42, Labour MP for Rhondda

Ten years ago the mere mention of gay and lesbian rights would attract the charge of being "loony left". This year the Civil Partnership Bill will sail through the Commons (though not yet the reactionary Lords) with fewer than 50 MPs opposed. The legislative record is also impressive - gay adoption, the abolition of Clause 28, an equal age of consent, the abolition of 18th-century laws against gay sex - all in seven years of a Labour Government. But the horrific murder of David Morley brings one up short. Violent homophobic attacks take place week in week out, although many remain unreported because the victim is afraid of publicising their sexuality. Homophobic bullying that goes way beyond simple name-calling is still a fact in many schools. It is little surprise that young gay men are more likely to commit suicide and to drink and smoke to excess. Many Tories like to talk as if, like a rather unnecessary rash, gay men and lesbians are to be "tolerated". I don't want a tolerant society, I want an inclusive one. The media colludes in this. Programmes like Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy perpetuate lazy stereotypes.

The victim Rob Dean, 29, Advertising manager from Walthamstow, north London, attacked in Brighton

I left one of the city's biggest gay venues with my partner and a friend at about 2am. I was a few metres behind the others. A group of lads, smartly dressed, were coming in the other direction but they didn't seem threatening. The attack came from nowhere. I found myself on the floor. I could hear voices but I had my hands round my head trying to protect myself. There were about three guys kicking me in the head.

I don't know how long it lasted - it seemed very quick. My partner came running back, but the guys kicking me just ran off. My face was badly bruised. My left eye was just filled with blood.

My partner rang the police. He explained how badly I had been beaten and told them it was a homophobic attack. The police promised they would be there in five minutes but they didn't turn up. Later they said it would be the morning after, but nobody responded to the call at all. The only way it got reported was by us going to the police station the next day and making a complaint. The line of questioning made me angry - it was as if it was my fault.

The engaged couple: 'It's about being recognised as a couple. And I love him' Ian Edgar, 37 and George Blair, 33, Social worker and care assistant, having a partnership ceremony in Glasgow in January

Ian: When George proposed I was very taken aback because it was something I had never considered. Not because it wasn't legal, it was just something I hadn't ever thought of. He went down on one knee and everything. He even got a ring. It's about being recognised as a couple and having a day when all our friends and family get together. And of course I love him and I might get lots of presents!

I'm running about like a chicken with no head trying to get it all planned, though. We've got to sort out who we are asking, where we're going to have it, all sorts of things. I might wear my kilt - George might do the same. We're still trying to decide whether we have a celebrant to hold a ceremony or if we make it informal. I've only ever been to one wedding in my life - I've never been to a gay wedding. We're starting from scratch with no prior knowledge. It's all very new to both of us.

The most important thing is that it will be about people recognising our relationship. I'll probably spend about £1,000 - George better put in the same amount! We haven't even thought of a honeymoon - we'll be skint.

I've not had a non-approval from anybody and lots of people are excited. But some just say, 'Right, okay' - I can't gauge what they're thinking. If they disapprove that's not my problem. If nothing else it is an excuse for a party.

The priest Rev Anthony Braddick-Southgate, 34, Vicar of St Antony's, Nunhead in south London

When I was ordained the bishop knew I was gay and had a partner. We have a different bishop now. I have been told by diocesan staff that they tolerate the fact that I am openly gay, and it is only because I have the support of my congregation that they put up with it.

The most explicit and nastily homophobic attacks I have experienced have been within Christian circles. I've been spat at by other Christians, and been told I am going to hell, and it was a Christian who told me they thought people like me ought to be gassed. There are Christians who struggle, heroically, for justice and equality, but they are in the minority. Others tell me not make an issue out of my sexuality.

As a member of the borough's anti-homophobic group I would put an awful lot of the rise in recorded attacks down to more people being prepared to report what has happened to them. I'm not sure I feel any more threatened on the streets of London than I did before.

Society is more inclusive than it was. We're moving in the right direction, although we do live in a state that allows institutional homophobia: I know teachers who tell me they can't be out, for example, because parents or governors might be uncomfortable; and when I went along to give blood I was told I couldn't because I was gay and there was a risk of HIV infection. I was outraged.