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For every Hitzlsperger, there's a Holyfield: Silencing homophobic views won't do anything to solve the problem of homophobia

There are still so many people who hold these opinions deep down

What a long way we’ve come. In less than a decade the standard response to coming out has gone from being sneered at in disgust to being cast off as boring. Yes, we’re now so achingly okay with the gays that the fashionable response is increasingly to bang on about how you wish gay people would shut up because of how little it matters.

This week, former Aston Villa player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay. The response was overwhelmingly supportive. Yet the usual suspects couldn’t help themselves: out they crawled, across Facebook, Twitter, offices and dinner tables with the same old lines. Who cares what you do in the bedroom? Yawn! Why is this news?

A few days earlier, heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield sat in the Big Brother house, discussing gay sportspeople. Holyfield asked a question which actually has a pretty obvious answer – namely, what would be “good” about having more openly gay sports stars? That obvious answer is not, as a fellow housemate said: “it’s just how some people are born”. Holyfield responded with what is probably a perfectly logical extension of the argument, to a homophobe:

"It don't make no difference. If you're born and your leg were turned this way, what do you do? You go to a doctor and get it fixed back right."

It’s not hard to explain why he’s wrong (for a start, you get your leg treated because it’s painful or inconvenient, not because it isn’t “normal”). But although insisting homosexuality isn’t normal and could be cured is homophobic, it wasn’t actually Holyfield who chose to make that the crux of the issue.

For too long, our equality narrative has been that being gay or bi is okay because it’s “normal”, that you can’t discriminate because it’s “how we are born”, and that we should be “tolerated” because we can’t help it. This may all be true, as far as it goes, but it’s not the point. Lots of things aren’t “normal” – including being a heavyweight boxing champion – but so what? I don’t care if bisexuality is “normal”. And I wouldn’t choose differently if it was a “choice”, either.  

Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay this week

Channel 5 reprimanded Holyfield because, they said, people might be “offended.” I’m used to my opinions, even carefully researched and considered ones, being minimised as me being “offended” but it’s still tedious. Positioning homophobia as a matter of hurt feelings is missing the point in a big way.

Ofcom is now investigating the show for broadcasting the “offensive” sentiments. We’ve reached an odd situation here; society mostly accepts homophobia as A Bad Thing, so we encourage homophobes to word their homophobia more carefully, to avoid causing “offense.” Powerful, educated people continue to write neatly worded columns, often working from an equally problematic premise, couched in the correct terminology. We end up with angry homophobes feeling censored or silenced as they there sit murderously grinding their homophobic teeth, while everybody else thinks homophobia is over and we should all shut up about it, because it’s boring, and by being bored, they’re somehow above it.

To lambast Channel 5 for broadcasting homophobic comments in a show like Big Brother only makes sense if you believe homophobia is about hurt feelings. Evander Holyfield isn’t an official running the country, or a policeman, or a teacher. Channel 5 didn’t validate his homophobia, or present it as an authoritative, credible viewpoint. Making out that this is about people being “offended” – and that the problem will solved if no-one has to hear homophobia expressed out loud – ironically plays into the “if you don’t like it, ignore it” narrative which is so often used to silence dissent. It reduces homophobia to a matter of nasty words, like swearing before the watershed.

When everyone is so polite, it’s easy to forget how many people do still hold these views deep down. And if people are thinking it, I’d rather hear it expressed honestly. After all, it serves to remind us that sneering at the need for the modern LGBT movement and pretending it’s a great big yawn when a footballer comes out doesn’t make you clever. It makes you willfully naïve. And worse, it makes you part of the problem.