Is Britain More Homophobic Than We Like To Admit?

A recent survey found that 1 in 6 people in Britain think gay sex should be illegal.
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A recent survey found that 1 in 6 people in Britain think gay sex should be illegal.

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Britain: a country of democracy, fairness and liberal-minded people. A country in which you can visit an atheist church if you so choose, where there’s a political party dedicated solely to reforming policies about Internet privacy, and where one can dress up in a gimp suit made entirely of raw chicken and use public transport if you fancy it.

But before we all go off popping champagne and congratulating each other on how accepting and nice we all are let’s pause for a moment and consider a recent survey which exposed the fact that 16% of people in the UK think gay sex should be illegal. That’s almost one in six. Apparently this number is actually less than it was in 2008 (when the same survey was last done), but forgive me if that fact fails to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Interestingly, it’s in the South East and London that this rejection of homosexuality is highest – in these areas it’s one in five who think that two people having some good, naked fun together should actually be against the law.

Other pretty dispiriting stats included the fact that 37% of British people are clearly put out that same-sex couples can still get married and a pretty staggering 39% think that it’s not right for a gay couple to adopt children. I remember reading the chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s story of his struggle to become a gay parent with his partner Karl and being shocked by just how long and arduous the process was – it ended up taking them five years. At one point he recalls thinking: "Just think how easy it is for every sordid straight couple to do this. They go to bed at the right time. End of story."

As a spokesperson from the Stonewall charity told me: “It’s sad that anyone would think that a loving relationship should be illegal just because of a person’s sexual orientation. These figures show that homophobia and prejudice still blight too many lives in modern Britain and remind us that there’s no room for complacency.” But is this survey really representative of gay people’s experiences living in the UK – do they feel that every sixth person they come across are secretly thinking that their sexual preference should actually be against the law?

“One in six seems almost disproportionate but I don't know much about the demographic of readers for the Observer. There must be a lot of twats,” 25-year-old Jack rather eloquently puts it. “There are so many different views on gay sex, even some gays don't like it (me not included), but really I don't see why anyone would care if it's not involving them, so for anyone to think it's bad enough to be illegal - I am a bit surprised.” I asked if he’s ever encountered any problems himself. “As an adult my experience has been bloody great, as a teenager at a very Christian school maybe not so much. My head of year pulled me into her office to chat about me 'declaring my homosexuality' only to make sure I wasn't friends with the other out bisexual guy in case we became more than friends. A couple of years before me two guys secretly went out together and a vicious rumour went round that one split the others bum during sex, and the parents got wind of it and called in to complain. One mum called the head to moan about seeing them holding hands in school uniform, which obviously doesn't uphold Christian values.” And it gets worse. “Most of my mates were fine, but one of my 'best friends' brought in this paper he’d found online about gay-to-straight special places in America. Oh, and a Year 7 graffitied the toilets saying something like ‘Jack likes it up the batty’. That made me feel like a celeb.”

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“I have always grown up with people who don't mind about gay people – I don’t think it would have been a problem if I had come out at school,” Alice told me. “But I was surprised by my mum's reaction, which brought home that there is still massive prejudice, though it might be a NIMBY (not in my back yard) thing. Last weekend some guys shouted, ‘Fucking lesbians’ at me and my girlfriend when we were out in Dalston, but I chased them down the street. They ran away saying ‘Yeah, but are you Christian?’ – which made it clear they didn’t have a clue what they were talking about and they seemed quite embarrassed not to be able to substantiate it.” She also made the interesting point that actually it may be harder for gay men compared to lesbians. “In my opinion people tend to think they know exactly what men do in bed and can be a bit squeamish about it and have much less idea of what women do - aside from porn - but it's much less invasive.”

The results of the Observer’s sex survey are thus surprising but seemingly not actually reflected in the everyday experiences of gay people. Whilst they accept there will always be people who hold their prejudices, thankfully most of them have the good sense to keep them to themselves. As Jack pointed out, despite his formative years not exactly being a walk in a park for him, they have done nothing to dent his outlook: “London is obviously amazing and it’s so rare to experience actual homophobia. Although I can imagine it would be more of a struggle if I went round looking like Conchita Wurst.”