Owen Jones: Gay people have come a long way – but hatred is still out there

Outright bigotry is in retreat, but a substantial chunk of the population still has a problem

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When it comes to homophobia, it's fair to say that ex-Everton football player Michael Ball doesn't mince his words. "That fucking queer," he tweeted about Coronation Street's Antony Cotton. "Get back to your sewing machine in Corrie, you moaning bastard." His aggressive antipathy towards gay people is shared by Jason Gibbs, a former Brighton teacher who called his students "poofs" and "batty boys", warning one class not to "go into the shower because this group will start bending you over and do you up the ass".

Both episodes are unpleasant reminders that anti-gay hatred hasn't gone away. But they also offer hope, too, about just how far we've come. Ball's bigoted tirade landed him with a £6,000 fine from the Football Association on Tuesday – the highest the body has ever imposed for homophobia; the same day, Gibbs was banned from teaching indefinitely.

There was more evidence of progress in how the media reported the 60th birthday of veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell on Wednesday. Throughout his tireless campaign for gay equality and dignity, he has been pilloried, demonised, and marginalised; but this week, journalists patronised him as a "national treasure". It's a fate which befalls radicals who are no longer regarded as a threat: iconic left-winger Tony Benn, who has been transformed from the "most dangerous man in Britain" to a kindly grandfather figure, is another classic example. But in Benn's case, it was because the left was beaten; Tatchell is no longer a threat because the gay rights movement has vanquished nearly all before it.

There has undoubtedly never been a better time to be a gay man in Britain, and that's down to the courageous sacrifices and struggles of activists like Tatchell. Anyone aged over 45 was born into a country where having sex with another man was sufficient grounds to have you locked up.

In the 1980s, pioneering politicians like Ken Livingstone were dismissed as "loony left" for their support of the gay rights agenda, and Margaret Thatcher shamelessly tapped into homophobia with the introduction of Section 28. It's difficult to overstate how much things have changed in such a relatively short space of time. Although there's much to criticise about New Labour, it presided over the historic near-total legal emancipation of LGBT people. Gay men and women can now legally confirm their love for each other, adopt children, have sex at the same age as everyone else, and hoteliers can no longer turn them away in disgust.

Sure, the battle for legal equality isn't completely over: the right to same-sex marriage remains unfinished business. The passions aroused in Scotland by this final battle for civil rights underlines the fact that opponents of equality are still not total pariahs. Although polls suggest 57 per cent of Scottish Catholics back the right of gay people to marry, for example, the Catholic Church has led an uncompromising campaign against it north of the Border.

 

In a throwback to the rhetoric of a more bigoted era, clerics have described gay relationships as "exceptionally hazardous". The Reverend James Gracie, a Minister of the Free Church of Scotland, took to the airwaves last month to call homosexuality a "lifestyle choice" comparable to paedophilia, polygamy and theft. But when even David Cameron, who leads the party of Section 28, has thrown his support behind gay marriage, it's clear that Gracie and other bigots are all but defeated.

The battle for gay rights is almost won; but the struggle for social acceptance has a long way to go. When Lord Arran co-sponsored the 1967 Act which decriminalised homosexuality, he was resigned to the fact that gay people would never really be accepted. "Lest the opponents of the Bill think that a new freedom, a new privileged class, has been created," he told a predominantly homophobic House of Lords, "let me remind them that no amount of legislation will prevent homosexuals from being the subject of dislike and derision, or at best of pity."

His pessimism was unwarranted – there is no reason why all prejudice cannot be overcome – but it is undeniable that, despite all the changes on the statute books, gay people remain far from being treated as equals. The best indicator is the "holding hands in public test": the brutal truth is that to show public affection towards someone of the same gender is to put yourself at considerable risk of abuse. On Saturday night, my friend was subjected to homophobic taunts as he walked through Brixton holding hands with his boyfriend. Sadly, many gay people simply accept such abuse as a fact of life, and avoid anything which could be construed as a tender moment in public with their loved one.

Although outright bigotry is in retreat, a substantial chunk of the population still has a big problem with gay people. The latest Social Attitudes survey revealed that 29 per cent of people in England and 27 per cent of Scots thought same-sex relations were "always or mostly wrong". It's less than half the figure recorded 30 years ago, but it still amounts to more than 12 million grown-ups who, to some degree, would prefer it if gay people did not exist.

Growing up as a gay teenager remains tough and often frightening: according to Stonewall, nearly two-thirds of LGBT teenagers have experienced direct bullying, and practically all have heard homophobic language tossed about the playground. It has an impact on straight boys, too: all those who fail to conform with the stereotypical image of masculinity risk being lumped in with the dreaded "gays". That a heavy stigma still remains is demonstrated by the offence practically all men take at being innocently asked if they're gay: it remains the ultimate affront to masculinity.

The pressures of homophobia have contributed to a mental health crisis among the LGBT community: gay men are twice as likely to attempt suicide, and a University College hospital study has found "significantly higher" rates of mental illness among gay people.

Thanks to the struggle of gay people, the law no longer writes us off as lesser human beings. It's a tremendous accomplishment that was achieved at great cost. But the struggle for "normalisation" – to be gay without anyone even raising an eyebrow – may have decades to go.

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