On the bus today I watched as a young straight couple two seats in front of me kissed and laughed so unselfconsciously it was as if there was no-one else in the world but them. The immediate warm, fuzzy feeling I felt at their oblivious mutual affection was quickly replaced by a rush of envy – could I ever feel so free to display affection in public towards someone I love?
A recent spike in attacks on gay couples has confirmed that ancient gay-person fear of reprisal from displaying any overt sign of your sexuality in public. Why tempt fate? Better to hide it, keep it behind closed doors.
As a demographic we are tolerated at best, hated at worst. Whether it’s the straight man’s fear of his own homosexual side or an incel-inspired rage projected onto the women who prefers women, gay people bring out some strange reactions in people. Thankfully it’s the tolerance that usually prevails, the hatred dampened down, casually expressed in banter between friends: ‘that’s so gay‘ or the arch, promiscuous gay best friend fetishized in movies. Whilst the day to day lives and rights of gay people have improved over past decades, homophobia is sadly alive and well, perhaps less raucous, but driven underground where it festers.
Until it comes out in an ugly, inexplicable rush of homophobia and misogyny as with the lesbian couple on the bus in West Hampstead this month, goaded into kissing for the titillation of teenagers, left with blood-stained blouses when they declined. Or what about the mostly Muslim parents in Birmingham furious at their children being taught that we exist, insisting on passing the torches of ignorance and intolerance to the next generation? That’s not to mention those Muslim/Jewish/Catholic children who will turn out to be gay – what chance do they have? I’ve seen those children as adults – it destroys them.
We are not all hiding in the shadows: there are many men and women in gay partnerships who feel able to display their sexuality and relationship in public, particularly millennials and generation Z who seem to possess more confidence and carefree defiance than those before them. Whenever I see it though, I cynically see it as a show for others, taking a brave stand rather than enjoying a spontaneous interaction like the couple on the bus. Most gay people I know, through life or work, are far more self-conscious, refraining from affection in public, or only after a quick glance left and right as if crossing a dangerous road before kissing the person they love.
For me (and most), this can be traced back to school, where, in the vulnerability of my burgeoning sexuality, affinity with the female sex and quiet, sensitive nature, I was pushed around and teased, not as badly as some, but enough to dampen down certain instincts, creating an ambiguous, masked persona in which my sexuality might not be immediately apparent (which I would take as the highest compliment, before realising what self-sabotage this is). At the gym, which I assume I took up, like many gay man, in an effort to distance myself from the stereotype of the weak gay man in mastering my muscularity (if not emotionality), I would never reveal my sexuality with the other guys there, some I’d known for years, preferring to blend in, avoid any rejection or even danger that being myself could bring.
You would think that we gay people would band together, like Attenborough’s penguins for warmth in the storm, but you only have to spend an hour on a gay dating app to see a snapshot of the internalised homophobia on the inside: rampant racism, fat-shaming and fem-bashing: a case of the bullied becoming the bully. Not only do gay people not feel safe, merely outliers in society and often excluded from their own gay community, but after a lifetime of rejection they turn this hatred inwards where it manifests as depression, anxiety, self harm or worse. The hatred therefore comes from all sides, within and without; a pink prison.
It’s not all gloom: London is one of the safest places on earth to be a gay person for the most part (the stories I hear from other places where we are brutalised make me weep and rage). But you find ways to covertly express affection with your partner in public – a glance; a brush of the hand; a squeeze of his bum when no-one is looking, which can be exhilarating – but seeing that couple on the bus today and their easy affection opened up a deep sadness in me. Straight couples don’t even need to think about their day to day interactions, but gay people come with a built-in hypervigilance.
So how do we change this and protect a new generation of vulnerable gay people? We can start by introducing young people to the fact that we actually exist.