In My View
I rarely agree with the Guardian journalist Owen Jones. In fact, we have had very public fallings-out on Twitter. If you Google my name, Steve Topple, one of the first things that comes up in the autofill is Owen Jones.
However, I sat dumbfounded on Sunday night watching the Sky papers review – because it encapsulated the dangerous complacency which now surrounds bigotry against the LGBTQ+ community. And I thoroughly agree with Owen’s stance.
The discussion between himself, journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer and presenter Mark Longhurst was surrounding the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
Mark Longhurst stated:
There is a question of whether something is a hate crime, or something’s being done in the name of religion.
Owen’s response was:
The conversation then continued, with Owen drawing the comparison that if this had happened in a synagogue it would be classed as an anti-Semitic hate crime. Longhurst stated that it was “something that was carried out against human beings”.
He then pulled an almighty straw man out of the hat by asking:
You cannot say this is a worse attack than the one that was carried out in Paris?
Owen was not saying this at all. As he pointed out, he had said it was the worst mass attack on LGBTQ+ people in the West since the holocaust. Longhurst responded by surmising it was, in fact, an attack:
on the freedom of all people trying to enjoy themselves.
This I think for Owen, and for myself, was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
You could then see what was going on behind the scenes. A producer was obviously screaming in Longhurst’s ear to draw the discussion back to the point Owen was trying to make, as the former then backtracked to a comment from Stonewall. Owen spotted this, saying “Oh, you’re now going to have an LGBT voice talking about it. Interesting.” It was after this he walked off – and I thoroughly understand why.
“Normalisation” is the social process through which ideas and actions come to be seen as “normal” and become taken for granted or “natural” in everyday life.
This is exactly what was happening on Sky, on Sunday night. Hartley-Brewer and Longhurst were ignoring/dismissing/being complacent about the nature of the terrorist attack in Orlando – that it was “normal”, and not a hate crime.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not implying any terror attack is “normal” and I’m not implying Hartley-Brewer and Longhurst were, either. However, their unwillingness to acknowledge the importance of it being an LGBTQ+ nightclub, and that this should have been the central point of the debate, was infuriating. As I could see Owen felt.
I came out as bisexual last year. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and I have no shame in saying when I did it I wept with relief.
When you live a lie for nearly twenty years of your life, finally “owning up”, if you like, can be extremely difficult for some people. I was frantically concerned as to what my ex-partner, my family and my friends would think. Terrified, in fact, that they wouldn’t accept me. In the end, everyone was very understanding, and I am now nearly comfortable in my own skin.
My coming out was for the second time, however, as I’d been living as a gay man for 12 years. That threw you, didn’t it?
Therefore, I understand the LGBTQ+ community, and I “get” what Owen was saying. The debate on Sunday was almost “Well, it’s the gay community. That’s irrelevant.” When it is, in my opinion, one of the most pertinent parts of the story.
A dangerous complacency
Hate crime against the LGBTQ+ community rocketed by 22% in 2014-15 in the UK. 5,597 cases were reported. While this may be an indication of the willingness of individuals to report such attacks more readily, it is still a very sorry state of affairs that in the 21st century these incidents still occur. A quarter of LGBTQ+ people alter their behaviour to hide their sexual orientation to avoid being the victim of a hate crime, and two-thirds of those experiencing a hate crime or incident did not report it to anyone.
There is a seeping complacency sinking into society that the “gay issue” has been dealt with. That everything is now fine. That it is, finally, “normal”. We have just witnessed the worst act of violence against LGBTQ+ people since WWII. Things are not fine. It is, in fact, as if we are moving backwards without realising it – and I believe this is what Owen was trying to say.
As a bisexual man, I still felt a sense of nervousness kissing my ex-partner in public. I’m still conscious of dressing too flamboyantly for fear of abuse. Therefore, “safe spaces” are extremely important in the community – because not everyone has the gumption to openly be themselves.
In Orlando this safe space was decimated, which for many in the LGBTQ+ community will be an extremely upsetting and worrying thing. It was a terrorist attack but also a hate crime, specifically targeting people because of who they are. As Owen said, “It’s both” – and the complacency of the two other people sitting with him was extremely troubling.
I also, as a side-note, take great issue with Julia Hartley-Brewer’s repeated use of the word “lunatic”. As someone who suffers from mental health problems, this archaic use of language should have been eradicated a long time ago. For a prominent journalist to use the term is wholly irresponsible.
But there is another important point that needs to be raised. This horrific incident cannot be used as an excuse for bigotry and hatred against the Muslim community, either.
Donald Trump was quick to jump on that bandwagon in the aftermath, tweeting: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!”, followed by “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning. Our leadership is weak and ineffective. I called it and asked for the ban. Must be tough.”
The irony here is stunning, and can be seen across the Republican party in America. The very same senators who tried to legislate against gay rights will now be offering their condolences as an excuse to target the Muslim community.
This must not be tolerated, and the LGBTQ+ community should also stand firm on this – because we know all too well what discrimination and oppression feels like. I have never been targeted because of my sexuality by anyone other than white males, and I’ve lived in towns and cities up and down the UK where there are large Muslim communities.
The majority of Muslims do not hate gay people. I repeat. They do not. And it’s all too easy to ignore the fact there are Muslims who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as their own.
For the LGBTQ+ community not to support the Muslim one would be hypocrisy in the extreme – and completely play into the hands of the bigotry of some of the far-right, and their heinous agenda. An agenda which, because of, in part, the media, is beginning to come to a certain extent “the norm”.
“The norm” is also the problem for LGBTQ+ people.
Sexuality is now perceived and portrayed in the media as no longer so much of an issue. Openly gay characters are on every soap going. Pop stars come out, and society generally shrugs its shoulders and says “and?”. People even have “coming out” parties.
This is huge progress, undeniably – but are we now seeing a regression?
The challenge is that because of the (quite correct) normalisation of diversity, people who have an abhorrent and inherent dislike for anyone they deem as “different” no longer can be so open about it. Therefore, it foments until it bursts out.
Myself and my ex-partner were assaulted on several occasions. I still have the scars to prove it. But to flip an old phrase on its head, “Queers can bash, too”. We never walked away, and the perpetrators of the attacks always left with their tails between their legs. But many do not have the strength or resilience to do this. I know countless people who still struggle with their sexuality for fear of what family, friends and society more broadly may think of them. They have to still fight a torrid, tumultuous battle – and we live in 2016.
This is why the point Owen was trying to make is so important:
People know this, who are gay – there are people out there who are sickened and repulsed by our very existence.
Hatred, prejudice and phobias against the LGBTQ+ community still exist, albeit bubbling quietly, but menacingly under the surface. We must not become complacent – nor must we back down.
If anything can be taken from the horrific events in Florida, it is that the world needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and again reassess its attitudes.
Because while a huge march forward has been made, if we’re not careful steps back will be taken. And that must not be allowed to happen.
Not least, for the memory of the 50 innocent members of the LGBTQ+ community who were murdered because of who they were, in Orlando.
“Pride” needs to be reclaimed. And quickly.
Join one of the vigils in memory of the victims.
Support the Albert Kennedy Trust – helping vulnerable, young LGBTQ+ people.
Featured image via @swansmayor/Twitter.
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