17 May 2012

Reflections on LGBT youth in Britain - for Amplify's LGBT Blogathon

On the one hand, Britain can seem like a really progressive place for LGBT youth. There are visible gay teen characters on television in programmes like Skins and Shameless, and these are portrayed realistically and with sensitivity - not as caricatures. All the main British soap operas have had gay and lesbian characters in them. It is no longer illegal for teachers to talk about homosexuality in a positive light since the homophobic piece of legislation Section 28 - introduced by the Conservative government in 1988 - was repealed in 2003. In big cities with thriving gay scenes such as London, Manchester and Brighton, there is a high tolerance for all sexual orientations, and a wealth of support groups and resources for LGBT people.

However, there is still a culture of homophobia in Britain. The beer-swilling, football-watching macho culture that pervades the UK means that you still wouldn't want to be a gay person walking down certain streets, entering certain pubs or clubs, or seated in the middle of a football stadium. 'Queer' 'Faggot' 'Batty boy' and other homophobic insults are still terms of abuse among men, and lesbianism is little better understood, although there is a particularly distasteful double standard whereby men who condemn male homosexuality claim lesbianism is fine because they find it erotic - what they're really referring to is the faux lesbianism of models on the cover of 'lads' mags'. Real gay women still receive abuse, especially from heterosexual men who take their sexuality as a personal insult/rejection, or see these women as trangressing gender boundaries and encroaching upon male culture (I know a gay woman who has been abused and even punched by straight men in public spaces). When Steven K Amos, a British-Caribbean comedian, interviewed groups of black teens about their attitudes to homosexuality, he uncovered deeply homophobic attitudes amongst his community.

Politically, the UK has improved a great deal for LGBT people and hopefully by the time LGBT youth are adults, it will have improved even more. Although homosexuality was legalized in 1967, it took til 2000 for the gay age of consent to be lowered to 16, in line with the heterosexual equivalent. Civil partnerships for gay couples were legalised in 2005, but do not have the same status as civil marriages which are still reserved solely for heterosexual couples.

In comparison with other countries, the UK is doing reasonably well by its gay youths. The Conservative government has realised it has to evolve or dissolve when it comes to gay rights, and there is no way Section 28 would ever get past British lawmakers today - social evolution since the anti-gay Thatcher government reigned in 1988 has been massive. That said, I still recognise that as a heterosexual woman, I've had it easier than my gay counterparts. The girls I know from school who now identify as gay - and there are more than I ever realised when I was at school with them - wouldn't have dared come out at school for risk of bullying and ostracisation. Accusing a peer of being gay is still one of the favoured methods of abuse amongst teen boys, and there is great pressure to be constantly reaffirming one's heterosexuality at every turn - pressure heaped on by our (heterosexual) sex-obsessed tabloid media and worship of footballers and celebrities. Just like you don't find polar bears in the jungle, you'd be very hard pressed to find a gay footballer in the UK. Or at least, an out one.

British attitudes towards trans people, especially young trans people, are lagging behind when it comes to society's evolution. As with the homophobic abuse directed at gay men, there seems to be particular hostility from heterosexual men who feel deeply uncomfortable with a man who dresses as a woman, or feels that his true gender is female. Jokes about 'trannys' and 'chicks with dicks' aren't uncommon, and Female-To-Male (FTM) transgender folk are largely absent from conversations about trans people. However, visibility and positive attitudes increased greatly with the 2011 showing of My Transsexual Summer on one of the UK's main TV channels - this was a sensitive, funny and informative documentary following 7 transgender people with their transitions. The deluge of supportive tweets which followed each episode was heartening to see.

I hope the evolution of British society's attitudes towards LGBT people continues to be positive. I'd say it's definitely getting easier to be a LGBT teen here - but that doesn't mean it's easy yet.

Written as part of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia Blogathon, in celebration of International Day Against Homophobia (May 17th).

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