Jonathan Charlesworth, author of ‘How to Stop Homophobic and Biphobic Bullying’ talks about why our society is still catching up following law changes around gay marriage and homophobic hate crimes and what schools can do to for future generations of gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
I always take heart when I see corporate advertising or a promo for, say, a television channel where a same-sex couple is presented in a straightforward, ordinary way. I was going to avoid saying normal there. But that’s what I meant. In a normal way. Just like heterosexual people are perennially used to advertise everything from holidays to house sales. Christmas presents to pensions. Current examples include the women, kept apart by one of them marrying a man, who find their way to their ‘forever’ relationship via the vehicle (aherm…) of a Renault Clio or the (albeit implausibly good-looking) gay dads promoting BBC children’s babysitting TV. It’s important because in order to normalise or mainstream same-sex relationships within society we need to get to the point where it isn’t remarkable that we see two gay fellas ecstatic to be investing jointly in a building society ISA or those two women kissing in a Renault Clio.
I’m heartened because outside of soap there remain few times when one sees any, let alone positive, representations of same-sex couples or come to that single lesbians or gay men. In fact soap is arguably leading the way in representing same-sexuality in a normal way (I’m going to keep using it) and contextualises gay men and women in storylines reflecting a reasonably accurate version of real life (as far as soap can really be regarded as imitating real life with its non-stop murder attempts, bumpings-off, improbable affairs and spontaneous combustions). In the 80s, 90s, the noughties and still largely today lesbian and gay people, someone with a disability or anyone from an ethnic minority who isn’t Caucasian, and robots pretty much always die ‘in the movies’. I know a robot cannot ‘die’ but I’m picturing the decapitated android Bishop from ‘Alien’ burbling whilst white ‘blood’ gurgles from his mouth. He’s certainly not going to be strolling into Sainsbury’s again.
These people (work with me as the robot being a person for this) are so often used tokenistically. Their characters rarely developed. Think Colin Firth’s character, Harry Bright in Mamma Mia. Timely since we’re all about to endure “Mamma Mia: I Can’t Believe We’re Dragging This Out To A Third Film”. His entire character suddenly implodes into a shotgun ‘self-outing’ when he reveals at Sophie’s wedding (oh, did I just drop-bomb a spoiler there?) that he’s gay and ostensibly in love with a Greek heartthrob young enough to be his son. It’s gay characters yet again imploding into an insignificant dwarf star. Nothing’s really changed since Rupert Everett in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”.
Too often gay and lesbian characters are used pretty much solely to propel a plot supporting a film’s protagonists: customarily led by a handsome, white, able-bodied, heterosexual man and a beautiful white, able-bodied heterosexual woman. Now I’ve no issue with mainstream films’ protagonists being white, heterosexual, able-bodied men and women. But wouldn’t it help all those children and adults out there who’ve facial disfigurements, disabilities, who are brown, black, yellow or any shade in-between, who are gay or trans (or think they might be) to see a version of themselves portrayed positively on the silver screen?
Unless a drama has an overtly gay or lesbian storyline like ‘London Spy’ or ‘Lip Service’ lead characters in most of what we consume on television, at the cinema or theatre are routinely heterosexual , cis-gendered, white, able-bodied, men and women. In your workplace, school or college staffroom perhaps have a conversation about this and see where it leads?
Building on the above, how often do you see public displays of same-sex affection in the streets, roads or lanes where you live? Because, regardless of our own sexuality, when we see a man and a woman holding hands or kissing (so long as the latter’s not too full on obviously because that’d be weird) a bit of us goes ‘Aah, that’s nice’ and it gains our approval. It’s part of the unconscious bias in each of us. It’s the world’s cultural wallpaper. It’s normal… But if we are in a pub, a restaurant, the cinema or at a generic concert and we see two men or two women kissing it’s remarkable. We realise on one level these two people are happy. Certainly they’re happy to be kissing. But we also recognise they are making a statement. And also being brave. Because no heterosexual couple is going to be given funny looks, be nudged and whispered about, made to feel uncomfortable or indeed subjected to threats of or face actual violence for acceptable public displays of affection. The statement made by a same sex couple holding hands in public is important. Up close you can see it in either or both pairs of eyes. There’s vigilance. ‘Are we in any danger doing this?’ say their eyes as, depending on context, one of them will be snatching glances across the landscape for potential threats. If you’re not a lesbian or gay person reading this ask someone close to you who is. I’m fairly confident they’ll go, “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up actually”.
The reason this still happens all over the UK in 2020 (aside from in the obvious ‘gay streets’ of our principal cities: Old Compton Street (London), Hurst Street (Birmingham) and Canal Street (Manchester) is lesbian and gay people self-regulate. In order to stay safe or to not ruin a personal or social occasion like a meal, a theatre visit or a concert (unless its Erasure, Pet Shop Boys or Years & Years etc. where it’s to be expected… legitimised) gay couples invariably avoid holding hands, leaning against each other romantically or kissing. These actions are so naturally part of heterosexual people’s lives they don’t even notice they’re privileges which lesbian and gay people can go a lifetime never doing.
And why is this? Well, to some extent despite the fact we have hate crime laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and same-sex couples can marry or civilly partner we’re still as a society catching up with this legal change. The Church of England incidentally continues to refuse to marry same-sex couples: sending a clear message of disapproval to society concerning its stance on lesbian, gay and bisexual people. It’s effectively saying “Your relationship doesn’t carry the weight of an opposite-sex one. It’s not worthy of the Lord’s acknowledgement. Certainly not his blessing.” Now one doesn’t need to be a Christian or indeed a follower of any religion (or none) to recognise that if its teachings are essentially saying “It’s not okay to be gay” this is an enormously powerful message. The triptych of church, state and monarchy is an extremely influential one. Remember the Queen is The Supreme Head of the Church of England. Combined, these three bodies send authoritative, potent messages to us all about what’s acceptable, desired, appropriate, expected and what matters. Regardless of the actual law, their collective messages consistently privilege heterosexual lives.
If we don’t have an adult society where lesbian and gay people can be their authentic selves in public or at work all the time, every day and everywhere, like heterosexual people do as simply as they breathe then it remains difficult to convince lesbian, gay and bisexual young people that their future (sexuality wise) will be a potential-filled, happy and gratifying one. It’s why “How To Stop Homophobic & Biphobic Bullying: A Whole School Approach” will help not only schools and colleges, and everyone connected with them, but wraparound agencies too like CAMHS, Safeguarding organisations and mental health charities. It’s interesting how many books Jessica Kingsley Publishers releases which are essentially about children and young people but their content is equally applicable to myriad adult contexts in commerce and industry.
Time after time I was astounded by the number of pupils, in every school in which I conducted interviews, who spoke so poignantly and maturely about their frustrations, sadnesses or sense of injustice about the culture in their school and the society they described more widely. I was moved at how much faster they had to grow up then their peers and how vigilant they needed to be to remain safe and protect themselves from microaggressions or all out harassment. So often they spoke about the dichotomy between what their teachers believed to be the ‘state of play’ in their school and the reality for the pupils. This was one where they had too often to defend their sexuality having ‘come out’ and be expected to ‘prove’ that they’re lesbian, gay or bisexual by ‘being an expert’ on the topic which of course no teenager can be.
They talked of the lack of response by teachers or their ‘deafness’ to homophobic or transphobic comments by fellow pupils whilst racism was jumped on instantly. They remarked on how simple it would be for teachers to integrate same-sex pairing examples in their classes’ lessons to illustrate that two boys could be friends and enjoy doing things together (like girls are ‘allowed’ to) without being considered gay. “If two men or two women are used, say in French, as an example of a pair of people shopping at the grocery market then it’s down to each pupil what construction they place on the example. Are they sisters? Brothers? Friends? Lovers? Perhaps the sex of the pair remains literally unremarkable. Unremarked upon. The teacher can deal with any comments, questions or remarks as they emerge. There’s spontaneity built in to this approach.” This was the opinion of one pupil echoed over and over by pupils in their own school and others in which I conducted all my interviews for “How To Stop Homophobic and Biphobic Bullying”.
One thing on which they all agreed was the dreaded ‘assembly on a topic’ approach as given by a visiting speaker does not work. It’s all explained in my book but in essence what these pupils told me is that normalising non-heterosexuality isn’t achieved by one-off visits nor context-absent posters telling people to ‘get over’ someone being gay. It’s accomplished by integrated, cohesive and unified whole-school approaches explaining sexual orientation, its legal and social history, and the persecution lesbian, gay and bisexual people have faced. These facts have led to the different degrees of educational intervention and activism creating today’s situation in the United Kingdom. To improve our lesbian, gay or bisexual children’s lives when they reach adulthood we only need to effect simple but profound changes regarding what we teach and how we address what we hear in our schools, colleges and other young people’s settings. When we get this right future generations of lesbian or gay people can sit in any public space holding a lover’s or partner’s hand experiencing the confidence and calm pleasure which heterosexual people have forever enjoyed.
Jonathan Charlesworth is the Executive Director of the multi-award winning charity Educational Action Challenging Homophobia with over thirty years’ experience in delivering training, consultancy and resources on LGBT+ matters to the corporate, statutory and charity sectors. In 2019 he developed the Welsh Government’s statutory anti-bullying guidance for its nation’s schools. He has been commissioned several times by the Department for Education to create national guidances and training for schools to challenge homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. EACH was voted Charity of the Year by Ben Cohen’s Stand Up Foundation 2018-2019.
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