I don’t think many things could be more sickening to read about than the attack on two gay women on the top deck of a London bus. Melania Geymonat and her partner Chris were heading to Camden when they were suddenly rounded upon by a group of young men who, having realised that the pair were a couple, proceeded to make sexualised comments and insisted that the two kiss. Melania and Chris tried their best to ignore the men, but were then robbed and physically assaulted.
Reading news like this is immensely saddening. It is the sort of thing that makes you despair for society at large, not just because of the terrible violence it evidences, but because of the questions it raises about London; a city that most of us like to think is heavily cosmopolitan and liberal-minded.
Because this attack is not something that has happened in a space that is disconnected from the liberal values that seemingly prevail in the UK today. In fact, what this attack demonstrates is that the predominance of liberal values is illusory.
I often discuss the importance of not being complacent about progress. The UK is broadly characterised by the liberal values which form the basis of its laws. Yet when we pigeonhole it into this ‘liberal’ category, we ignore the very real elements of violence, hatred and intolerance that simmer throughout its societal fabric.
While senior political figures were quick to condemn the attack on Melania and Chris, we must remember that it was not until 2008 that it became a crime to promote homophobic hatred. It was not until 2003 that a ban on ‘promoting homosexuality’ in schools was reversed.
So although gay teachers no longer have to be silent about their sexuality, and although we do not currently live in a society where there is legal tolerance for homophobia, these were the nevertheless the conditions that many adults today grew up with.
Even though I was just five when the ban on ‘promoting homosexuality’ in schools was overturned, not once throughout my education did I encounter a teacher who was openly gay within the school setting. And the sad thing was that I knew that some of my teachers were openly gay outside of school. But where other teachers would discuss their personal lives, they would stay silent and awkwardly deflect even the most harmless questions about what they did at the weekend.
Just like many of the pupils in my school, gay teachers did not feel comfortable being open about who they were. And in an environment where even authority figures felt uncomfortable about being openly gay, what hope was there for younger and more impressionable pupils? Being gay was not normalised throughout my schooling.
If this was the case in my school, how many other schools experienced the same environment? How many young adults and teenagers, who have supposedly grown up in more tolerant times, have seen the consistent marginalisation of homosexuality throughout their formative years?
The people that attacked Melania and Chris were young adults. When they came up to the pair and asked them to kiss, they did so not from repugnance at and ignorance of gay people, but because they have grown up in an environment where homosexuality is ostensibly accepted, but has nevertheless often been Othered. It was clear that these young men had fetishised gay women, and were treating them as curios by whom they were entitled to be entertained.
This marginalisation of homosexuality as something “not quite normal” is continuing to happen in our society today. The protests at primary schools in Birmingham against teaching children about gay relationships rage on, and are even supported by supposedly mainstream political figures such as Labour MP Roger Godsiff. Many of the protesting parents claim that they feel their primary-age children are too young to learn about homosexuality. And yet by protesting so vociferously, these parents are making it impossible for their children to remain unaware of homosexuality. In fact, the scale, disruptiveness and bitterness of the protests is perhaps ensuring that these schoolchildren grow up with only negative views of the LGBT+ community.
Because anyone who believes that a four year old should be ‘sheltered’ from the fact that some children have two mummies or two daddies simply wants to ensure that however much being gay is seemingly accepted by society, it is always seen as less normal and palatable than being straight.
And that attitude is exactly what underpins the terrible attack we saw last week. The marginalisation of gay communities in society is what many young adults have grown up with, even if we’d like to pretend that this was not the case. And this still happening. We cannot have people pretending that homosexuality is something to be tiptoed around and hidden, because these are the attitudes that go hand in hand with violence and hatred towards LGBT+ people.
Tackling politicians like Esther McVey and Roger Godsiff, who believe that the marginalisation of gay relationships is acceptable, is absolutely vital. When they say that parents should be allowed to ‘shelter’ their children from knowledge of gay relationships, they are espousing homophobia. Though they have not directly attacked gay people, they have acknowledged a readiness to see gay people’s existence marginalised. Make no mistake, they are contributing to an intolerant and dangerous society. Because unless homosexuality is truly accepted across all society, we cannot guarantee the safety of gay people. And I’m not sure I want to live in a society that cannot do that.