Article originally published on NewShaft, 23rd July 2015
To other LGBT people, we can’t get complacent just because things are good for us. We are indebted to those who fought before us, through much, much harder experiences.
With equal marriage being passed across the UK, in Ireland and even in America, it’s easy to think that equality has been reached. For those looking at it objectively it now appears that LGBTI+ people have all the same rights as heterosexual people. But there’s a huge gap to bridge before we can even see equality on the horizon.
Earlier this year Scotland was named as the best place to live in Europe if you are gay. This is an incredible achievement based on 48 criteria created by ILGA-Europe including equal marriage, tackling hate crime and recognition for transgender people. Scotland scores 96% on these criteria.
However, a report this week by the Equality Network found that 9 out of 10 LGBT Scots believe that there is still a problem of acceptance in Scotland. A lot of these reports come from rural communities, and a lot of abuse and homophobic bullying happens in schools, so these issues are not at the forefront of our minds on a daily basis, especially those of us living in more open minded cities or urban areas, and for whom school is a distant memory. But the issue still exists, and its effects can be devastating on young people across the country.
I consider myself to be lucky to have grown up in Scotland. Lucky, not entitled, not special, just lucky. I came out when I was in my 20s and had already moved to Edinburgh. I was lucky that as a young gay person I found my friends and family incredibly supportive.
The worrying thing is though, I consider myself to be lucky that I have only experienced verbal abuse, rather than physical abuse. I consider myself lucky that there are areas in Scotland I am happy to walk hand in hand with my girlfriend. But actually I should probably rather wonder why there are areas I cannot. And I should wonder why I genuinely fear that physical violence could occur – and have witnessed it myself amongst friends. I used wonder what stopped me from coming out until I was in my 20s – but that now seems clear; I thought it made me a weirdo. Without anyone ever really bullying me, without anyone guessing that I was gay and tormenting me for it, I never thought it was acceptable for me to be gay. You never heard of people celebrating that their friend or family member had come out, homosexuality always came with negative connotations. I’d like to mention that this has nothing to do with my family – they’ve always been supportive and open-minded. It has everything to do with the stigma still attached to being “different”.
It has a lot to do with language and the way in which we discuss homosexuality. For example I never campaigned for “gay marriage”, I campaigned for Equal Marriage – if you’re going to call it gay marriage you may as well not bring it in at all, because it’s still defined as being “different”. In our schools, certainly in my time, sexual health education was all about heterosexual relationships, then you’d get that one class when you discussed being gay and how it was okay to come out – but it was always a special one off class and then we went back to the “normal” stuff.
Whilst it’s easy for me now, living in Edinburgh and happy to go out for dinner, to concerts, to sporting events, hand in hand with my girlfriend, I find that I need to remind myself every now and then that it’s not that easy in other places – and it’s really not that easy for young people.
The Life in Scotland for LGBT Young People: Education report by LGBT Youth Scotland found that “education is the location where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people feel they face the most discrimination, with schools rated as the worst experience of all institutions.”
69.1% of all LGBT respondents had experienced homophobic, transphobic or biphobic bullying in school. But 45% of respondents stated that, regardless of whether or not they had personally experienced bullying, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia had had a negative impact on their education.
One of the most memorable campaigns for me was the “It Gets Better” project. This was a brilliant campaign, which saw people all over the world record messages to LGBT youth stating that things will improve – the bullying will end. Life as an LGBT adult is far simpler than life as an LGBT young person. But that is a really sad fact. It does get better, but being young is hard enough – seriously, being a teenager today with social media is a terrifying prospect to me.
But how do we attack the stigma attached to being gay? Well for starters we can encourage our politicians and lawmakers to stop treating gay people as being “different”. It’s because of this that comments this week (or lack thereof) by the new leader of the Liberal Democrats bother me. Tim Farron refused to answer the question of whether or not he thought homosexuality was a sin, several times. The closest he got to answering was to suggest that everyone is a sinner. Yes we all have the right to hold religious beliefs, and we all have the right to hold personal moral beliefs. But when you are the leader of a liberal party and you refuse to answer that question you are effectively saying homosexuality is a sin. You are reinforcing the notion that people shouldn’t be gay, that it’s somehow a “choice”, that it makes you different or weird. You chose to sin.
When suicide attempts amongst gay men are 4 times higher than their heterosexual peers we need to stop attaching further stigma by suggesting that being gay makes you different. Even subtle suggestions that your “lifestyle” is wrong, without direct bullying, will have a long-term psychological impact.
Coming out is terrifying. You 100% expect everybody to hate you, to treat you differently and to shun you. For a lot of people this doesn’t happen, but for many it still does. Yes, it gets better. But that shouldn’t have to be the message; it shouldn’t be so bad in the first place that it has to ‘get better’.
I was lucky because hundreds of people before me campaigned for equal rights, it’s now time for us to campaign for a new language. To other LGBT people, we can’t get complacent just because things are good for us. We are indebted to those who fought before us, through much, much harder experiences. Through persecution, ridicule and social isolation. It’s far too easy to sit back and think that things are great because we have equality in the eyes of the law, but prejudice still exists.