Life

For queer women, the threat of male violence is an inescapable part of existing in public

The attack on a lesbian couple on a London bus has sent shockwaves across the UK. But for LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people, male intimidation and aggression is a disturbingly regular occurence. Paula Akpan reports.

To be a LGBTQ+ woman or femme means policing yourself and your actions at every turn, especially when in public. When it comes to displays of affection with your partner, it means almost imperceptibly scanning your immediate surroundings for groups of men. It means choosing not to kiss or hold hands in certain settings for the sake of your safety; choosing not to engage with catcalls or threats to avoid violence.

Some days, these can feel like extreme measures if, like me, you have surrounded yourself with queer friends, and your world is filled with examples of queer love and affection. But homophobic attacks serve as a devastating reminder of the way our relationships are viewed and why we take such demoralising precautions.

This week, news of a lesbian couple being attacked on a London bus hit the press, with pictures of their bloodied faces sending ripples of shock across the internet. Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris were beaten up by a gang of men on a north London bus at around 2:30am after they refused to kiss for them. 

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According to a Metropolitan Police spokesperson, the women “were approached by a group of four males who began to make lewd and homophobic comments to them”. They were then attacked and punched several times before the men ran off the bus. A phone and bag were stolen during the assault, and both women were taken to hospital for treatment to facial injuries.

The assault is shocking, but violence against women within the LGBTQ+ community is more common than many people would like to believe. Stonewall’s 2017 ‘LGBT in Britain: Hate Crime and Discrimination’ report showed that one in five lesbians had experienced a hate crime in the previous year, while 40% of lesbians and 16% of bi women said they didn’t feel comfortable holding their partner’s hand while walking down the street. 

Overall, the study showed that the number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people who had experienced a hate crime or incident in the last year because of their sexual orientation rose by 78% between 2013 and 2017.

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However, it is critical to acknowledge that the attack against Geymonat and Chris happened because they were women. As writer and comedian Shon Faye notes, “lesbians and bi women are harassed in public because of male entitlement as well as homophobia… The reason it’s important to acknowledge the gendered aspect is so that men in the LGBTQ community appreciate the link between homophobia and hatred of women.” Geymonat told Metro that she was “tired of being taken as a sexual object”, and pointed to the multi-layered “chauvinist, misogynistic and homophobic violence” that queer women face.

“Our relationship is negated because they can’t believe that such a beautiful femme-presenting woman would be in a relationship with another woman.”

In the four years that Laura*, a queer woman of colour, has been with her girlfriend, they have always consciously kept their affection to a minimum when in public. “This is mostly due to issues in the early days of our relationship,” she tells stylist.co.uk. “On nights out, we’d often be approached by straight men wanting to flirt with us both or individually. Men also made crude and overly sexual remarks or asked us if we would let them ‘watch’ or ‘join in’.”

Laura says that the men who approached her and her girlfriend seemed to think that they could (or should) fill a ‘void’ within their relationship. Charlie*, a non-binary lesbian, identifies the belief that a relationship between two women isn’t ‘real’ as a nuanced form of homophobia.

“This sort of violence is specifically directed at WLW [women who love women] couples,” they say. “Men seem to think that our sexualities exist purely to fulfil whatever desires they have and think that women/women-aligned people exist to perform for them – ie asking these two women on the bus to kiss in front of them and shouting other inappropriate comments.” 

Jay*, a queer black mixed woman, says that men have “outright disrespected” her partner, and dismissed their relationship “to fit in with their desires. Our relationship is negated because they can’t believe that such a beautiful femme-presenting woman would be in a relationship with another woman, so the men then often become aggressive.” And because Jay is “the masculine-presenting person in the relationship”, she says, this aggression is directed at her.

When queer women are forced into situations where we have to prioritise our safety, it can lead to feelings of powerlessness and the sense that we have rejected our partner and/or our relationship. For Jay, learning to police her reactions has been an arduous process.

“I rarely bite my tongue, but as an act of survival, I’ve had to,” she says. “I’ve had to learn to accept and ignore the disrespect, the often very violent and sexually charged language, and the subsequent dismissal of our relationship – because if I don’t, I could end up hurt or worse. It’s scary because all I want to do is kiss my girlfriend in peace.”

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Xena*, a queer Asian Muslim woman, still sometimes struggles to accept and understand her partner’s occasional reluctance towards public displays of affection. “My partner gets uncomfortable sometimes and I almost always take it personally,” she says. “I need to remember that just because I’ve been able to set aside that fear, almost as an act of defiance, it doesn’t mean everyone can.

“People are allowed to feel vulnerable when their identity puts them in such a precarious position, and we need to be mindful of that and protect each other.” 

“My partner gets uncomfortable sometimes and I almost always take it personally.”

Race adds additional nuance to the lens that black and brown LGBTQ+ womxn look through. Stonewall’s report found that a third of black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBT people had experienced a hate crime or incident based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the last year, compared to one in five white LGBT people. Xena believes that being Asian means she is somewhat more hardened to regular abuse than her white partner, but Nadia*, a queer black multiracial woman, fears that her and her partner’s blackness increases the risk of danger.

“The news [of the homophobic bus attack] has shaken me honestly [as well as] the fact that this has happened to a white queer couple,” she says. “I am in a queer black relationship and this scares me even more as the potential of violence is amplified.”

Tia, a lesbian of mixed heritage, adds: “As a gay woman from an ethnic minority, I am very used to having to curate and alter my behaviour depending on where I am, even in a supposedly welcoming city like London where I have lived all my life. I’m hurt and frightened that it could’ve been me, but I have no choice but to keep pushing forward.”

For any LGBTQ+ women who woke up to the news of this attack, the bitter irony of it being in the first week of Pride month – a month that has now become a heavily branded holiday – isn’t lost on us. While Roxy, a lesbian woman of colour, isn’t yet sure what will make her feel safer, she knows that “rainbow bunting during the month of June in my local supermarket and retailers selling T-shirts with something inoffensive and meaningless like ‘love is love’ won’t make me feel safer”.

On Friday 7 June, the Metropolitan Police Roads and Transport unit confirmed that arrests have been made over the attack on Geymonat and Chris, and said that the investigation remains ongoing. But for Xena, the door to this kind of violence is always open when the dignity of marginalised people is put up for debate.

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“The conversations that are entertained in the media around LGBT rights aren’t just abstract intellectual exercises,” she says. “They have consequences, and we need to have some kind of public acknowledgement of how attacks like this are encouraged by the broader mood and conversations. 

“From a purely practical perspective, people need to step up and be allies, whether that’s strangers in the street stepping in when they see abuse, or assertive public expression that abuse won’t be tolerated.”

Charlie also believes that now is that time for cis-het allies to offer any form of support they can, from speaking up where possible to – if they can afford it – paying for a friend’s cab journey home if they know they are at risk of homophobic attacks.

“On a larger scale, the government needs to take more serious measures when it comes to targeted violence like this,” they say. “We don’t want to hide and look over our shoulders forever.”

* Names of interviewees have been changed

Images: Getty Images