We can be proud of Sheffield, because gay equality charity Stonewall has praised the way the Council works with education and youth services to tackle homophobic bullying. South Yorkshire Police takes positive action against harassment and their cars carry the gay pride rainbow flag. A new nightclub, Fuel, recently opened for ‘people of all sexualities’ in the former Boardwalk building. We have organisations like Gay Sheffield and Fruitbowl, a support service for LGBT young people of secondary school age. Sheffield Pride Festival leads the way and this month it’s Doncaster Pride. Next month is Barnsley Pride and Rotherham Show, with its Diversity Festival. Details are listed on the Alt-Sheff website.
One of Sheffield’s greatest social activists, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) was a pioneering advocate for legal change, because it wasn’t always like this. To be gay was seen as a mental illness and a crime. Male homosexual acts were illegal until the late 1960s. A certain level of equality must seem fairly normal to our children. No taboos. No need for discreet signals and family secrets. Even same-sex marriage has walked down the aisle. Public opinion has shifted dramatically away from the ignorant intolerance of the past, but far more is needed to make the world safer and more comfortable with the diversity of human gender and sexuality. To paraphrase Tom Robinson’s 1978 prejudice-busting punk rock song ‘Glad to be Gay’: “They’re legal now, what more are they after?” Well, let’s see.
The famous activist Peter Tatchell came to Sheffield last month to give a lecture. He is a dedicated, lifelong campaigner on multiple areas of human rights, justice and freedom. His talk, entitled The Unfinished Battle for LGBT Rights in the UK, charted stormy seas of bad attitudes and continuing inequality.
Change comes through education, but the majority of LGBT young people report having been bullied and half the country’s schools still don’t have anti-bullying programmes specifically covering homophobia and transphobia. Recent research showed a quarter of LGBT young people having no adults to confide in, with most feeling adults are judgemental and negative, making jokes and ignoring the issues. The National Curriculum does not include sex and relationships, so some religious schools opt out. Religious organisations are allowed to discriminate, as equality rules allow exemptions on premises being used for same-sex marriages.
These are not just small matters of offence to finer feelings. Over a three-year period, one in six gay or bisexual people report being the victim of a hate crime or incident and many experiencing repeat offences. Two-thirds feel at risk of being insulted or harassed. Only last year a gay teenager in Barnsley was burnt to death after enduring cruel homophobic taunts. Hate speech based on gender identity is still legal, such as that implicated in last year’s tragic death of teacher Lucy Meadows, after a revolting campaign of abuse in certain tabloids.
The struggle for LGBT equality is worldwide, but Britain’s treatment of LGBT refugees fleeing persecution in countries like Uganda and Iran is tragically inconsistent. Many are refused asylum and deported to meet their fate. Nearly 80 countries still criminalise homosexuality with penalties including life imprisonment and even death. Incredibly, this also applies to the large majority of countries of the Commonwealth, despite its pledge of equality. In advance of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the Peter Tatchell Foundation issued a powerful open letter arguing for change. And change came, like the first signs of spring. The opening ceremony included a same-sex kiss, the rainbow flag fluttered with pride from the Scottish government headquarters and Alex Salmond made prominent statements including a visit to Pride House in Glasgow, warmly embracing same-sex parents and their children.
We cannot accept a world with a climate of fear for so many, where dark clouds gather until lightning strikes in the form of harassment, violence and discrimination. We have to pressure until homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are ancient history. But no laws could guarantee an end to informal prejudice and discrimination, ostracism and hostility. It takes education against intolerance, explaining equality and diversity from primary school level onwards, promoting understanding and acceptance of the fundamental human right to be different. In a mature society, diversity is valued. Only clones could be identical, and clones are boring. Acceptance of difference is the natural opposite to the bitterness and hatred seeping out of ignorance, or even homosexual feelings bottled up in a repressive atmosphere. Sexuality is largely something we are born with; homophobia is not.
Attitudes can change, and you can play your part in this inevitable process. Maybe you’re straight, but at least one person in twenty is not, so only someone with less than twenty friends is likely to know no-one who is gay. Sheffield is generally a tolerant city. Help make it even better. Check your attitude, challenge prejudice in others and teach the children tolerance.