CW: Homophobia, sexual assault
By Eleanor McKelvey - National Director of Online Engagement (Blog)
“It’s something of a surprise to me that this could happen in London.”
This was the response of BBC interviewer Mark Mardell to Melania Geymonat – one of the two victims of a violent homophobic attack which took place on a London bus in 30th May. Melania replied that whilst she had also surprised by the attack, it was also not her first experience of homophobia in public. Melania had previously experienced men treating her public displays of affection with other women as a “joke”, and knew of other lesbians who had been assaulted “in the street”.
The severity of the violence which Melania and Chris were subjected to might seem shocking for the UK, a country which has one of the “highest degrees of liberty in the world for its LGBT communities”. Yes, the UK has progressed to an era where major corporations can peddle “LGBT sandwiches” and broadcast TV series about 19th Century lesbians without inducing major (homophobic) public outcry. However, violence against gay and queer femmes remains insidious in Britain, just as it does across much of the Western world.
The attack on Melania and Chris was part of a growing trend. In London, homophobic hate-crimes increased by nearly 50% between 2014 and 2018. When questioned about this trend during her interview with the BBC, Melania said that she suspected that a growth of right-wing populism was likely the driving force. I don’t disagree that political extremism might be a contributing factor. Attacks on LGBTQIA+ people can be politically motivated, and right-wing populism threatens to normalise intolerance and prejudice.
At the same time - you don’t have to be a political extremist to be homophobic.
The fetishization of wlw is an ongoing problem which continues to be trivialised, especially by the media. In movies and TV shows, the straight guy who pervs on the femme-femme couple is sill portrayed as a cheeky jokester, rather than the homophobic aggressor that he really is.
I can remember at least five occasions when straight men have attempted to co-opt the intimacy of my romantic engagement with other women; treating it as an opportunity for their own sexual gratification. The incursions have ranged from distant and voyeuristic to intrusive and physically aggressive. My earliest experiences of this happened whilst I was still living in the UK. I was once informed after a night-out that an acquaintance had spent the whole evening repositioning himself in order to stare at me and the girl I was making out with. When someone else I was with told him to be more respectful, he ignored their suggestion, telling them, “I can look where I like.” A few months later, I was sitting in a booth in a quiet corner of a pub with a girl. We started kissing, and soon after, a straight man came up and yanked us both apart at the shoulders, sticking his face between ours. We shouted at him, and then quickly ran off as he attempted to assemble his friends like some sort of freak-show audience. Another time, a man grabbed me on the butt whilst I was dancing with my arms around a woman.
It is possible that the incidents were politically motivated - an intentional performance of the perpetrators’ intolerance to homosexuality. But I didn’t get the clear sense that any of these men had politics at the forefront of their mind during the incidents. I am not sure that in the moment they saw me, a wlw, as a political opponent who they needed to quash. The truth may be much sadder - that they saw myself, and the women I was with, as nothing more than interactive pornographic images, performing for their gaze.
Melania and Chris’ attack was initiated because the attackers felt entitled to intrude on the privacy of their relationship, and then punish the women when they did not succumb to their demands. When I have been targeted under much less extreme circumstances, it was also because straight men assumed the right to benefit from or control public displays of homosexuality.
Seeing a homosexual person exercising their right to a romantic relationship, with all the same liberties as a heterosexual person, is a much more tangible threat to perceptions of heterosexual-superiority than seeing a rainbow flag slapped on some packaging. Whilst there might be growing acceptance of queerness as an abstract concept, when actually confronted with LGBTQIA+ people, the public’s reaction can be very different.
Knowing how to respect LGBTQIA+ people isn’t an implicit outcome of rejecting extreme politics, or becoming comfortable with seeing queer characters on television. Homophobia and transphobia are a product of institutionalised power structures, and cis/straight people’s assumption of superiority. We must not be lulled into a false sense of security by progressive media and legislation, and assume that intolerance is a thing of the past. There are still tough conversations that need to be had.
As unpleasant as it might be to talk about, we must acknowledge that intolerance and abuse remain a very real part of living as an LGBTQIA+ person in the UK, and other “progressive” Western countries. The institutionalisation of homophobia belongs not only to governments, institutions and organisations; but also cultures. The objectification and stereotyping of queer femmes is still a pervasive cultural phenomenon, and one which requires a targeted fix.