Homophobia Is Frighteningly Real – Here's How We Stop It

photographed by Ashley Armitage
Aptly, this year's ILGA-RIWI global attitudes survey was released on Halloween. A worldwide study of public attitudes towards sexual orientation and gender identity, it revealed that there are still paid-up members of the homophobia camp everywhere you go — and not just the ones who don’t want to think about bumming, but the fully fledged, wish-you-were-dead kind.
According to the survey, which had 116,000 respondents across 77 countries, 29% of the world's population agree that "people who engage in romantic or sexual relationships with people of the same sex should be charged as criminals." While that figure drops to 17% in the UK (around one in six people), since Halloween every time I’ve gone out in public — on a train, in a bar, on a particularly busy street — instead of the usual ‘imminent attack anxiety’ that low-key dictates my whole life, I’ve found myself surveying my surroundings, counting up and then working out statistically how many people in my immediate vicinity want me banged up for being into boys.
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And while this imminent attack anxiety is something that is high-key omnipresent for so many LGBTQIA+ people, when it’s reified by statistics, anxieties become realities and the world becomes calculably more terrifying.
Hearteningly, the Halloween study — as I’ve renamed it — also exposed the fact that if you know someone who is gay, or bisexual, or transgender, you are much more likely to believe that equal rights should be extended to them. The statistic is still not good enough, because it’s not 100%, but worldwide, 73% of people who know someone who belongs under the LGBTQIA+ acronym believe that we deserve totally equal rights in every single arena. And this was the most consistent statistic, too, more so than religion, geography or law: the study showed that to know someone is to want better for them.
“Well I didn't know any gay people before I knew you, but I knew what I wanted was to protect you.” I’m on the phone to my mum, talking about what it’s meant to her to know someone who is a queer drag queen, having never met even a gay person before me. “Meeting you, and your friends, has allowed me to look behind the curtain, if you will. I think that through you, you've exposed me to so much culture — brilliant, funny, loving — that if you weren't gay I wouldn't have had the chance to even know existed. So while it all started with me wanting to protect you, I realised that engaging more with you and your friends and your life was a better way to do that. And I’ve had the best time doing it.”
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I’m aware I have it good with my parents. To get to this level of mutual understanding took myself and Mum half a decade of tense disagreements and misunderstandings, something we both worked at in order to have a really productive relationship. Of course, this is not the case for so many LGBTQIA+ people.
“It was never a case of rights — I knew I wanted them for you, of course, even though I know a lot of other mums who might not, which I can’t even fathom. I’ve been asked many times if I’m ‘okay with it’ and I tell these people that I’m more than okay – I’m happy if my son is. But more than just knowing you, it’s important for me to fully explain here that not only is it a no-brainer that you have equal rights, you and your friends have enriched my experience as a straight woman. Pride isn’t the word to use really, it’s gratefulness.”
When I was 11, I remember seeing Lily Savage on TV and bursting into tears. I was absolutely terrified of her, this snarky, tacky, genius drag icon. I remember saying to people that I thought she was disgusting. What was confusing about that was that for my whole childhood I had been obsessed with wearing dresses and lip-syncing to Céline Dion in my dining room, but when I went to high school being gay was perhaps the worst thing to be, and I desperately didn't want to be it.
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Watching Lily Savage in this climate of high-level intolerance was terrifying. I remember initially feeling desperate to be her, like I’d seen the first person like me on TV, ever. But the terror of accepting that part of myself – this was the year before I came out – made me reject this possibility with aggression and disdain.
My yearlong discomfort for Ms. Savage was fuelled by nothing else but utter terror, both of the queen herself and of what might happen if I told people I aspired to be like her. While this isn't quite the same if you're homophobic and not gay, it’s fear of the unknown that compels people to shout about their extreme anti-LGBTQIA+ views. It’s the same pattern that produces the kind of awful transphobia we’ve seen recently in the British media — with two articles published in The Times pedalling damaging and violent transphobic rhetorics. Both pieces, by the same author, failed to engage with the realities trans people face, while succeeding in furthering insidious narratives about trans men and women being 'dangerous', even in lieu of a single statistic to back up this commonly cited viewpoint.
In Australia we’ve just seen the alternative, in the results of the postal survey on same-sex marriage. With a 61% majority of voters ringing in equal marriage, it’s clear that engagement with issues outside of your own community was what won the vote. Marriage equality affects nobody but the LGBTQIA+ community, and such a majority demonstrates what's possible if people outside of a marginalised group engage with what could be beneficial for those within it. The ‘Ring your Rellos’ campaign, despite its deeply annoying name, centred around calling up your relatives and explaining why gay marriage is important, asking people to engage in what the vote meant for LGBTQIA+ people.
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It’s important to challenge yourself and those around you (although of course, only if you’re safe to do so). For my mum, engagement with my culture as a queer person provided her with alternative perspectives which challenged her worldview, made her laugh, made her think differently about things. Obviously don’t head over to Grindr to bag yourself a homo bezzy, but do try to engage with the things you don't understand. Read books and follow people on Instagram who are saying and doing things that might challenge you in areas you aren’t used to being challenged in. Really consider where your views come from: are they selfish, fear-filled?
Listen to someone who doesn't have it as good as you, then tell people who will listen how they can help. Spend time blocking sexists, racists and homophobes, and defend trans folk, people of colour and women; talk to your man friends who have shit opinions.
It might seem like a small thing to do, but it’s this engagement which genuinely changes the lives of LGBTQIA+ people in reality. It’s this engagement that makes fewer people want to throw us in prison.
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