You know what I’ve never done? I’ve never walked down the street holding someone’s hand.
It’s a little thing. Something you see couples doing all the time. And yet in all my many, many years on this planet this tiny, innocent, unconscious pleasure has been absent.
OK, mostly because I’m permasingle.
And OK, strictly speaking I have done so once or twice, but usually (a) late at night and (b) after one or two drinkies, and they (c) don’t count.
But setting aside my personal foibles, and by jeebus I wish I could, you don’t see same-sex couples thusly entwined that often – even in liberal, academic, geeky, absent-minded Cambridge. The section of my memory devoted to people-watching has only a small shelf devoted to such sightings, in a lonely corner of the barely used east wing (which does, however, benefit from a southerly aspect and could be converted to luxury apartments for the buy-to-let market).
Occasionally while pottering through town I spot two men exchanging a glance or briefly touching in a way that to the trained eye telegraphs GAYS!, and so pleased am I at recognising this ping on my gaydar I often have to stop myself bellowing the word out loud. To the unknowing crowds barrelling along with their 2.4s to their 4x4s, this momentary intimacy is invisible.
Like wizards, gays are subtle and quick to anger. But long beards are right out.
What’s stopping more of us from showing affection in public? Habit I guess. The fear of prejudice. Is that fear real? Not in the centre of Cambridge, in daylight. When I have seen gay couples hand in hand in town on a Saturday afternoon – often tourists – nobody has batted an eyelid let alone brandished a baseball bat.
But in the same location at night when the pubs muck out? Or further out of town, say in the wilds of Arbury? Not so easy to answer. “Better safe than sorry” seems a wise approach. The fact is that despite plenty of evidence to the contrary some people still think we’re an unnatural abomination (possibly because their imaginary friend said so, or at least a man claiming to represent their imaginary friend said so).
I wish more people would refuse to be lectured to about sexuality by an organisation that covers up known paedophiles in its ranks rather than exposes them. Or, for that matter, that prays for the poor while exhibiting in its museums (with an entry fee) the priceless riches it has gathered and hoarded over the centuries.
Gordon Brown’s recent apology to Alan Turing and to all those similarly abused by the law and the misguided thinking of earlier generations is long overdue (and, I think, honest albeit with a dash of politics). However, despite Brown’s fine words we don’t have true equality under the law today. We have an equivalence, but not equality. While a few men in robes preaching selected lines from ancient, poorly translated story books have a veto on our freedoms, saying – in effect – that we are not worthy, that we are to be pitied – then thugs and morons are given licence to prejudge.
The reality is that people are still beaten and killed for being gay, even in this country, even when homosexuality is legal, even when two men or two women can be all-but married, even when openly gay men and women are virtually in charge of the country (Mandelson) and ever-present in the media (Barrowman).
Last Friday night, apparently, smokers outside the Bird in Hand received homophobic abuse from some passing twats in a taxi. Knowing some of those smokers I’m sure they gave as good as they got. But a few months ago one of them was spat on – in the mouth, delightfully – by someone pretending to ask for directions. And around the same time the ladybouncer decided that one particular threat was sufficiently worrying to convince the landlord to shut the pub early. (Why yes, a fair was in town. Funny that.)
Homophobia happens even in Cambridge. Liberal, academic, geeky, absent-minded Cambridge.
But this is homophobia-lite, paling in comparison to the treatment literally and figuratively given to Turing, or to gay people in Iraq post-Saddam (hey, thanks W!), or to gay people in Jamaica, or to Matthew Shepard in the US. We have it easy by comparison.
There’s no time for complacency, however. Despite great progress across society, much of it thanks to Tony Blair’s government, some parents still throw out and disown their children on discovering their sexuality. Some employers still find a way to discriminate – the church has legal permission to do so. Some current MPs voted for, or against the repeal of, Section 28 (David Cameron PR MP now apologises for this). Some current MPs voted against an equal age of consent (hello David Blunkett and John Redwood), a law finally enacted only when the government used the Parliament Acts to force it through after the House of Lords rejected it too often. And some broadcasters (such as Chris Moyles) can get away with just a rap on the knuckles after making jokes about sexuality that, had they been about race, would have resulted in instant dismissal. (Reminder to broadcasting companies: you don’t tolerate Jim Davidson’s 1970s routines any more.)
I don’t believe I’ve experienced any direct prejudice. But then, I’ve never walked down the street holding someone’s hand. My sexuality is effectively invisible. Yeah, tell me about it.
Visibility is, I’m convinced, key to changing attitudes. As many have said – but often just in the context of new technology – through the eyes of a child, everything is normal. Segregate children by race or by religion and they see those barriers as normality: and myths and divisions and prejudice perpetuate for another depressing generation. It is only by talking, by integrating, by demonstrating that gays and straights can be equally exciting, talented, tedious, clever, arrogant, funny, shy, loud and camp, and all the other wondrous adjectives that can describe this lucky species of ours, that the prejudice that remains will begin to evaporate.
It’s happening. There are high-ranking, confident, visible gays everywhere in people’s lives: much more so than in previous generations. In the technology world sexuality appears entirely irrelevant; a gaytopia, the Emerald City that many of Dorothy’s closest friends seek. In my current and previous jobs I was certainly not the only gay in the office – and both relatively small offices too.
That barometer of British attitudes The Sun has gone from shock-horror “EastBenders” twenty-odd years ago to tolerant and jokey “Elton Takes David Up The Aisle”. The Daily Mail is a little behind, still reeling from the onslaught of Elvis and pop music, and probably needs another couple of decades (if it’s still around).
One huge, yawning gap remains: sport. There were only two openly gay men at the Beijing Olympics: Matthew Mitcham and Mathew Helm. There are no openly gay Premier League footballers, and while football retains its thuggish reputation it’s unlikely that gay footballers would be willing to come out and endure the vitriol from crowds that would undoubtedly result (look at what happened to Sol Campbell).
But change is happening in sport too. Next year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver is making an effort, albeit a slightly bonkers one. You can bet that London 2012 will take things further, Boris and the ancient ones of the IOC permitting. The FA? Don’t hold your breath; I think they’re still in two minds about the whole “referee” thing.
I give it another ten years or so. By 2020 there’ll be at least one openly gay footballer in the Premier League, or whatever daft name it’ll have by then. He’ll be abused but it’ll be no different to the abuse players receive now when they switch clubs – abuse that mysteriously disappears as soon as they put on England shirts. He’ll be a shirt-lifter but when he scores goals he’ll be their shirt-lifter.
True homophobia won’t be eliminated – there’ll still be a Pope, after all. But it’ll follow the pattern of racism: racist attitudes commonplace in the 1970s, such as monkey chants at football matches and worries about house prices when “the coloureds” move in, are now seen as breathtakingly offensive, at least in this country. So it will go with homophobia: people will gasp at the blatant bigotry and incitement to hatred seen as acceptable by some today.
To get to those big gay sunlit uplands, we start from here, helpfully. I would hold someone’s hand in the street right now, had I a someone and had he a hand. In fact, starting on September 26th, the last Saturday of each month is being designated “same-sex hand-holding Saturday“. It’s all about increasing visibility, reprogramming “normality”. I hope it gains some support: I’d love to see it succeed. And maybe, eventually, I’ll take part.