Love wins, or so the popular adage celebrating LGBTQ+ union goes. But in the UK, public attitudes towards same-sex relationships have fallen for the first time in 30 years. What’s behind the sudden shift, and how can we move forward?
It’s been 30 days of rainbow-coloured celebrations, and after a jubilant Pride month, the confetti is finally settling. This year, there has been much to celebrate, as the parade coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, when demonstrators took to the streets of New York to protest against police brutality against the LGBTQ+ community at The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.
Yet despite the steady march towards progress, the promise of rights, safety and equality at the end of the rainbow, we have received something of a setback this year. Unsettling new research has shown that acceptance of same-sex relationships has dipped for the first time since the height of the Aids crisis in 1987, when fatalistic leaflets bearing the message “don’t die of ignorance” dropped onto doormats across the country.
According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, the number of people who consider same-sex relationships to be “not wrong at all” fell to 66% in 2018, down from 68% the previous year. This is the first time tolerance of gay relationships has decreased in over 30 years, when nine out of 10 people thought same-sex relationships were unacceptable. Meanwhile, only 49% of people surveyed said they viewed prejudice against transgender people as “always” wrong.
How can this unsettling shift in public attitudes be explained? Representatives for the independent social research agency who carried out the research suggested that the liberalisation of social attitudes has leveled off in recent years. “While social norms have changed, there is a significant minority of the population who remain uncomfortable with same-sex relationships and as such we may have reached a point of plateau,” the report noted.
But many members of the LGBTQ+ community, myself included, would be sceptical of attitudes appearing to stall of their own accord. For while the visibility and inclusion of the gay community has risen favourably over the past decade, many of us knew this would come at a price. We knew that even as we noted the increase of high profile LGBTQ+ personalities on screen, elected 45 MPs who define as LGBTQ+, and celebrated the introduction of basic civil liberties such as same-sex marriage, a cost for fair representation would come. We anticipated a pushback.
The most prominent example of resistance to same-sex relationships coincides with the publication of the survey results. This week, protests restarted at Parkfield community school in Saltley, Birmingham, over the announcement that “No Outsiders” lessons, which promote tolerance of those with different sexual and gender orientations, will relaunch in September.
But to attribute the erosion of tolerance to the beliefs of a small minority of religious groups, or a stubborn generational divide, neglects to take into account the extent to which the increasingly divisive political climate has impacted upon positive momentum. Intolerance doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and it’s no coincidence that years of steady attitudes towards homosexuality have suddenly pivoted into uncertainty. Ask any member of the LGBTQ+ community, and they tell you that prejudice and discrimination never has one face.
To trace the roots of the upset, we have to cast our minds back to three years ago, when the UK voted to leave the EU. Brexit arrived after a long and bitterly contested campaign between the opposing Leave and Remain camps, and while the referendum invigorated political involvement, it also revealed deep rifts in the country’s attitudes to many prominent social issues.
The fallout has been a deeply divided society, with many believing that the result legitimised an environment of increased discrimination and intolerance, and enabled racial, ethnic and religious intolerance to be aired more freely. This was confirmed by police figures published last month, reporting that racism and race-related crime has shown a marked uptake since the referendum.
In a post-Brexit Britain, the LGBTQ+ community have undoubtedly noticed a surge in open hostility. It is not by chance that my friends in same-sex relationships have received more homophobic insults, or been jeered at for holding hands, or glared at menacingly for walking down the street with their partners. Here are some opinions we have heard aired in pub gardens recently: that same-sex visibility has “gone too far”, that gay couples are “rubbing it in our faces” and should “keep their business to themselves”.
It is not insignificant that on the day of this year’s London Pride parade, an Uber driver told my girlfriend that homosexuality was unnatural. Often I find myself reflecting that I felt freer as a fresher clubbing in 2011, than I do now as a woman in her late twenties in a same-sex relationship.
We cannot ignore the fact that the political landscape of the UK is being irrevocably reshaped, and that views are polarising as a result. You need only look across the pond to find a similar phenomenon taking place. A 2017 Accelerating Acceptance report found that for the first time in four years, Americans were less accepting of LGBT people, with 49% of those surveyed saying they were “very” or “somewhat” comfortable around LGBT people in certain scenarios. The figure had dropped from 53% in 2016, when the presidential election brought Donald Trump to the highest seat of power in the world.
Meanwhile, a 2018 survey showed the number of Americans aged 18-34 who are comfortable interacting with LGBTQ people has fallen from 53% in 2017 to 48% in 2018. That marked the start of a transgender military ban, the removal of LGBTQ content from government websites, and efforts to define gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth from the Trump administration.
The outcome of divisive rhetoric from conservative political regimes creates a familiar pattern: social tensions bubble, levels of everyday racism and homophobia rise, and then minority communities suffer. That is not to say that these views are new, of course. But Brexit, as with the election of Donald Trump, has emboldened those with particularly ugly beliefs to share racist and homophobic abuse, and create an exclusionary and increasingly dangerous society. Research from The Guardian last month proved as much with the news that LGBTQ+ hate crime, including stalking, harassment, and violent assault, has more than doubled in England and Wales over the last five years.
But we absolutely do not have to accept these hate crimes, any more than we have to accept the supposed inevitability that acceptance towards same-sex relationships is coming to an end. British attitudes have been slowly but surely liberalising over the past 30 years, and even though we now inhabit an increasingly turbulent political world, there’s no reason why that trend can’t continue. What we must do, though, is remain vigilant if we are to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community to feel safe, protected and included.
It is hard, of course, to fight back when the existence of gay people is routinely debated in right wing newspapers, when Conservative politicians refuse to condemn protests against LGBTQ+ equality teaching, when those in the prime ministerial race abstain from voting on overturning the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
But without speaking up, reporting abuse and sharing our stories, the corrosive narrative that LGBTQ+ people are fundamentally undeserving of equality will continue to drip feed into the public’s consciousness. Last month, a lesbian couple were left brutally bloodied on a London night bus for refusing to kiss in front of a group of men. But instead of recovering in privacy, the couple took their trauma to the papers.
“We decided to tell the story, because this situation needs to change, and maybe this helps a little,” Melania Geymonat told The Guardian. “For me, it was a moral obligation. Like, this needs to stop. This was a terrible episode, and maybe [if] we say something, we can contribute to something bigger.”
Geymonat shows there is cause for optimism even in the face of overt hatred. Even as it takes time for those in the highest echelons of power to reinforce hard-won legal rights with inclusive and supportive LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and time for LGBTQ+ policy to be implemented in society, we can still be confident in the knowledge that public tolerance isn’t condemned to keep falling simply because we find ourselves in the midst of a dark political hour.
By sharing our lived experiences with those at work, in the community, and with our political representatives, we can help steer the course of history.