Since the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts between men, homosexuality has gradually become an acceptable part of society. In spite of this, the multi-faceted ‘gay community’ is still riddled by the powerful and prevailing stereotype that is solely home to limp-wristed, Minogue-worshipping eternal teenagers.
These major misconceptions surrounding the LGBTUA (lesbian, gay,bisexual, transsexual, undefined and asexual) community are still on display across the media; for example they are apparent in Jan Moir’s controversial article about the death of Boyzone star, Stephen Gatley. Whatever the intention of the article, the underlying prejudices and homophobia are very apparent in Moir’s bold and unsubstantiated assumption that his homosexuality had something to do with his demise.
Moir’s article does not stand alone and must be viewed in line with the media’s interpretation of sexuality as a whole. When Stonewall conducted the survey, ‘Homophobic hate crime and hate incidents’ this year, it found that 85% of the people surveyed believed that the media relies too heavily on clichéd stereotypes of the gay community. TV shows and films may be instrumental in bringing gay characters into the public consciousness, but they also portray these characters as larger than life, mincing and bitchy queens, a-la-Mark from Ugly Betty. It could be argued that the media’s attempt to represent this group as a whole, is flawed, manoeuvring between the two stereotypes of the camp gay man and the butch lesbian.
Discrimination and isolation are still issues faced by the LGBTUA community. When we surveyed 100 Warwick students at random, 72% of students overall felt that discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation is still an issue, whilst 100% of students who classed themselves as gay or bisexual said that it was an issue. We spoke to a range of LGBTUA students to see how they felt. Lev Taylor, a 3rd Year Politics student who is also President of Warwick Pride and the Union’s LGBTUA officer says that he’s found it extremely difficult being openly gay, both at school and in further education, ‘Even at my Year 11 Leaver’s Assembly, my Head of Year awarded me “most likely to have a sex change”. So yes, I’ve certainly experienced discrimination. Here at Warwick, aside from a few run-ins with the odd homophobe, it has generally been a very inclusive and accepting campus.’
Not everyone has had an easy time of it whilst at Warwick, including the Welfare Officer for Warwick Pride, Amy Townsend. Amy spoke of feeling ostracised in halls and was bullied by her fellow students, resulting in her having to take the matter to the university, eventually leading to her moving to another set of halls. In spite of her difficulties at Warwick, Amy says that attitudes on campus are certainly much better than at school or in the outside world yet she acknowledges more can be done. Amy is now working on a poster campaign to deal with homophobia in halls which will form part of Pride Week. The designated week will involve talks from people outside the university; all geared towards raising awareness about the issues LGBTUA students face. We asked Amy and Lev what their views were on Warwick Pride’s role within the Student Union, asking whether they thought that the SU does enough to promote LGBTUA liberation. Lev says that over the past couple of years they have had some very strong Welfare Officers who are working towards equality and have instigated some queer-friendly policies, ‘We now have gender-neutral toilets, ‘safe space’ training, good funding for our campaigns and a whole host of welfare provisions, including easily access to safe sex materials.’ Lev is clear that there is still some way to go, highlighting the need for ‘queer-specific counselling services, ‘We’re also currently campaigning to get a queer-designated space on campus, where people can go to feel free from discrimination and fear.’
There have been criticisms levelled at Warwick Pride, with some students suggesting that it encourages division by catering for one distinctive ‘group’. Lev replies, ‘We are here to counterbalance the fact that almost every other society, every other bar and every place on campus is dominated by and works nearly exclusively for straight people.’ He describes the society as inclusionary and says that it recognises the fact that it needs to do more in order to reach other social groups, particularly ethnic minorities, ‘some of the biggest social barriers are faced by queer people of African, Asian and Latin American descent. We’re always working to do more to involve such people.’ Lev admits that Warwick Pride cannot aim to cater for everyone, ‘Pride probably can’t ‘cater’ for every sexual orientation simultaneously, but that’s not what it’s there for. The issues we face are so interconnected that we’re much better off learning from each other and acting under the same umbrella.’
One of the biggest issues LGBTUA people face is in dealing with misconceptions about themselves. These misconceptions range from the ridiculous, that all gay people have HIV to claims that LGBTUA people are somehow ‘different’ . The media endorses this stereotype by portraying heterosexual couples as the norm; a majority of adverts, TV programmes and publications pay homage to that idea. For some in the public eye, and especially for sporting figures it is almost unthinkable to come out as gay. Whilst there are some prominent gay figures, there are still certain areas of entertainment which are no go areas for the gay community, with OutKast’s Andre 3000 saying, “One of the worst rumors I heard about myself was that I was homosexual.’
Despite society’s rather frosty relationship with homosexuality, many admit to having experimented with the same sex, often as a joke or drunken dare. In fact we found that 40% of Warwick girls who described themselves as ‘straight’, had experimented with the same sex (including kissing). Perhaps sexuality in the 21st Century has outgrown constraining labels. There are many who now believe that sexuality is fluid and lies across a vast spectrum and it is becoming more common for heterosexuals to admit to considering experimentation. When we asked Warwick students to put themselves in the most appropriate category, several refused, with one describing himself as Queer, a label which indicates that their sexuality changes over time and another thoughtfully saying, ‘I don’t know…all the cool kids are trisexual now.’ The new buzz words in sexuality include ‘tri-sexual,’ as in, ‘I’ll try anything once,’ and Omni-sexual, as in ,’anything goes’. It is rapidly becoming harder to group together certain groups into one all encompassing label.
Sometimes discrimination is brought upon by a fundamental underlying belief that homosexuality is wrong. In the Stonewell survey, 60% believed that religious attitudes are responsible for public prejudice towards the gay community; an issue brought to the forefront of media attention by the Pope’s remarks about homosexuality last Christmas. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that, whilst homosexuality is not a sin in itself, homosexual acts are. People are free to believe what they want and to share their opinions, but it is immensely worrying when the figurehead of a prominent religion puts forward such a provocative and clearly discriminatory statement. The Pope described behaviour beyond traditional heterosexual relations as “a destruction of God’s work” and added “The tropical forests do deserve our protection. But man, as a creature, does not deserve any less.”
Of course such views are not necessarily shared by other Christian institutions. As soon as the Pope’s remarks were publicised, the chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Rev Sharon Ferguson remarked, “When you have religious leaders like that making that sort of statement then followers feel they are justified in behaving in an aggressive and violent way because they feel that they are doing God’s work in ridding the world of these people.” Lev acknowledges the difficulty in challenging people’s core beliefs; despite attempting to bridge gaps between various religious societies and Pride, he admits that, ‘unfortunately queer people and religious people are often arguing from incompatible premises. I believe that, if there is a solution, it is greater communication, but we also have to be realistic and accept that there are some battles we just can’t win.’
Yet in order to fight further battles, there needs to be an effective political platform from which to target homophobia and hate crime at large. Another report by Stonewall unveils that 87% of gay people believe they would face barriers if they were to run as an MP for the Conservative Party, which has also recently allied itself with a homophobic Polish Political party in the EU Parliament. New Labour has done a lot to promote gay inequality and huge improvements have already occurred, such as the legalisation of Civil Partnerships and, the freedom from discrimination in workplaces. It is still questionable whether serious equality has been achieved, as social stigmatisation continues in the form of hate crime in various avenues of society from the School playground to the local GP surgery. It can also be seen that the LGBTUA community have issues that they themselves need to address, such as the high percentage who admit to using illegal drugs. A recent NHS survey showed that 25% of Warwickshire’s Lesbian and Bisexual female population have used some sort of illegal drug in the last year. When entering into such a debate we need to look at why people take drugs, sometimes for
fun, but sometimes it’s driven by a need for escapism, perhaps brought upon by the bigotry some people face on a daily basis.
Despite the ongoing challenges, both the LGBTUA community and the wider public should feel proud of the steps that have already been taken towards achieving equality. Through our investigation into sexuality, most students recognised that a there is still work to be done in terms of raising awareness, to reach what seems to be the most inaccessible of human rights, equality. But we have found that most Warwick students were surprisingly receptive and willing to talk about sexuality.
It is to be hoped that students’ acceptance of the sexuality spectrum will lead to a new age of empowerment and understanding in the future. This was evident when we asked students about whether they believed sexual orientation was a matter of nature or nurture, with most stating that although this is an interesting scientific issue, it did not ultimately matter. One stated, ‘What if it was neither nature nor nurture? What if it actually is a choice? If it were a choice I’d still want to defy the heterosexual lifestyle. ‘ That, it seems, is the message most LGBTUA want to put across; we found students empowered rather than bitter about the discrimination they face, unapologetic in their own lifestyle choices and willing to fight to give others the opportunity to make those same choices.