Last Friday, while trying to enjoy my first drinks party of the season, I was approached by a chap I had met only briefly, once before, while campaigning in the general election. For once there was little small talk at the party. In fact the only subject under discussion seemed to be the latest scandal to have hit Westminster.
After we had shared anecdotes concerning Kevin Spacey – seems everyone I know has at least one up their sleeve – agreeing that it would have been far preferable if he had simply come out as an alcoholic lacking all self-control, rather than conflating his allegedly apalling behaviour with his sexuality, we parted company.
Some time, and several trips to the free bar later, our conversation picked up where we had left it. “Have you ever been sexually harrassed?” my new pal asked. “No,” I lied, as I put my coat on to leave. “Would you like to be?” he asked, before throwing his head back and guffawing at the brilliance of his own quip. I could have reacted in several ways. Like Julia Hartley-Brewer I could have threatened violence, I could have chucked a drink in his face (but by now the bar had closed and I hate waste) so instead I questioned his non-too subtle homophobia.
He looked genuinely aggrieved. “I’m the very last person you could accuse of homophobia,” he insisted. So I accused him of it a second time. Would he, a straight man, I asked, have cracked the same joke – if that’s what it was – in the face of a straight friend?
Everyday homophobia, just like everyday sexism, is not only real, but prevalent: in the workplace, in schools, on the BBC, even in your local supermarket, as a gay couple discovered when they were asked by an employee to leave Sainsbury’s in Hackney after they committed the crime of holding hands in the aisles.
In fact everyday homophobia is so common that most incidents are not even acknowledged, by either party, let alone reported. There is an assumption that unless you are actually physically assaulted the best thing to do is simply walk on by and ignore it.
That’s certainly the advice a friend of mine gave me (sadly, after an argument had already broken out ) on the pavement outside a favourite drinking den the other day. Of course, it was easy for him to say that. He’s heterosexual. And indifference is a privilege afforded only to those who are not judged as requiring special measures.
Despite the vast leaps forward in LGBT equality (never let it be said that Tony Blair was all bad!) daily life for gay men and women in the UK (it remains far worse for transgendered people) is interrupted by a constant stream of homophobic slights ranging from the merely annoying to actual physical violence. I realise that there are degrees of unacceptable behaviour, just as I realise that life for me, as gay Londoner who has never had to “come out” – I was never “in” – is much easier than it is for the gay friends I left behind in the countryside, but not to confront homophobia wherever you find it, allows abusers to continue thinking their behaviour is ok.
It’s not. Just like laughing along with a racist joke gives confidence to the racist joke teller, brushing off, or ignoring insulting or derogatory behaviour, however exhausting it becomes to challenge each and every misdemeanour, is akin to accepting we should not just endure it, but worse, even expect it.
It’s all about context, defenders of everday sexism (and racism and every other ism) claim in their defence. Well I’m afraid that until even my closest straight friends (and most of my closest friends are straight) have the ability to see inside my head I’ll be the judge of context, thank you very much.
If you happen to be gay and working in Westminster, (or Sextminster, or Molestminster) you are open to the twin evils of both sexism and homophobia. And more often than not they are one and the same thing. Sexually harrassing someone is bad enough. Persecuting that person knowing full well they are in no position to defend themselves for fear of revealing an aspect of their life they would prefer to keep hidden, is doubly insidious. While ParliOUT, the LGBTI network in the Commons, can offer advice and support, it is only of benefit to LGBTI staff who are already “out” at work.
It is not just victims of sexual harrassment who suffer from homophobia. It is the wrongly accused too. At least one male MP about whom rumours of inappropropriate behaviour, including groping a woman, are circulating, is widely known to be homosexual. For reasons of his own, he has so far kept his counsel, allowing potentally career-threatening rumours to persist. It seems that in some far-flung rural constituencies, being accused of a crime is still preferable to being “accused” of homosexuality!