Being gay is still one of the most contentious issues that stands in the forefront of the debate of our country’s changing moral standpoint. While a string of Parliamentary legislation has helped to bolster a tolerant and egalitarian society into which LGBT individuals are actively welcomed, a new survey released by the charity Stonewall revealed that over half of gay people feel afraid to hold their partner’s hand in public. It seems now that the debate has taken a shift: discrimination is now less centred upon the formal, institutionalised attitudes of the legislature but is embedded within the attitudes, actions and inactions of the everyday individual. One must question why, if we live in the open and progressive society that the government and the establishment claims we do, this is even an issue.
To understand this, it is important to look back. Back to a time when to even identify as LGBT, nevertheless act upon it, would have meant, at best, social ostracisation and at worst physical, emotional and formal ‘punishment’. Interactionist sociology studies the effect of human action in creating and reproducing social structures and trends, and places great emphasis on this idea that social problems, attitudes and solutions are a subjective social construct – rejecting the idea of society as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Interactionists may therefore believe that historic and systemic oppression may explain the findings of the Stonewall survey. In the past, LGBT identities and actions attracted a negative societal label as they went in stark contrast to the prevailing consensus on accepted morals, values and behaviours. In the interactionist viewpoint, this negative label helped to create a self-fulfilling prophecy – Society came to believe that homosexuality was wrong, that became part of mainstream thinking, and simply by virtue of this negative label it was wrong. While society has advanced and, to an extent, ceased to negatively label the LGBT community to such a harmful degree, the label has nevertheless taken hold.
If the interactionist viewpoint is to be believed, then the fear that the subjects of the Stonewall survey experienced cannot be seen simply as an isolated snapshot of a small set of attitudes at any point in time. It has to be seen as the culmination of a long and historic discriminative structure that is deeply rooted within our collective conscience. Some may argue that the perceived innateness of this discrimination is the result of secondary socialisation: the learning of the norms and values of a society as taught by a social institution and wider society outside of the home and family. Educational and governmental institutions create a standardised form of socialisation which promotes socially desirable ideas that can both sustain the social strata and the economic base of society through business and production.
Conflict theorists and activists have repeatedly highlighted that these processes idealise the nuclear family, traditional gender roles and a strong work ethic, often at the expense of minority social groups and cultures. This creates an embedded and innate pathological need to conform to these ideals. Conformity is rewarded through social inclusion within a fair and meritocratic system while divergence from these norms warrants a negative reaction from society in the hope of preventing further ‘deviance’ and stimulating conformity to the established system. In short, people of the same gender holding hands in an affectionate manner goes in pretty stark contrast to the accepted value consensus, negative labelling occurs against it and people are discouraged from doing it – over half of them as a matter of fact.
This is a strong theoretical explanation but, like most theories, it is not always a true reflection when put into practice and should be viewed with an air of pragmatism. This is a particularly poignant thing to note when we apply it to society today. The value consensus can no longer be said to be standardised and traditionalised. With the decline of institutions of mass socialisation such as religion, moral views, norms and values have become fragmented and so its effect in reproducing discrimination may have been somewhat dulled.
In short, this is a rose-tinted view of the issue; it assumes that discrimination is deeply ingrained in the mechanisms of wider society and the individuals within it. It almost blindly assumes that discrimination is not an active human choice and is immune to conscious attempts by social actors to change it. The alarming reality, however, is that discrimination and intimidation is, more often than not, a deliberate and malicious choice.
This leads one to logically question why this is becoming common in a country which openly claims to have one of the world’s most tolerant and progressive societies. One explanation may be that the attitudinal and political structure of our new and rapidly-expanding world has undergone a large, and palpable, subjective shift.
In a world of political upheaval, in which the principles of free speech and the growth of global communication platforms allows for instant communication of ideas, discrimination takes centre stage – the power to control and change public opinion no longer comes from the top (recognised social institutions and government controlled facilities) but instead from each individual within society. This loss of ideological power has helped each individual to follow and express their own viewpoint, rather than sticking to the narrow and, often, constrained narrative of traditional media outlets. While this shift in power is a most excellent step forward in terms of promoting individual liberty – a universal right that is to be wholeheartedly encouraged – it has helped to normalise and legitimate ideas that, for the past decade or so, have been considered extreme and even radical.
The emergence of radical viewpoints on all sides of the political spectrum and the growth of populist media personalities and their growing online presence, has created an atmosphere in which discrimination of the most plain and overt nature has become central to controversial issues of the modern age. As a result, within the desensitised atmosphere that this has created, people are no longer held back by traditional social boundaries of behaviour and see their right to protest and oppose certain issues, such as the rights of the LGBT community, as inalienable. This undoubtedly creates an attitude of fear amongst those towards which this kind of behaviour is aimed. It now seems clear that everyone, minority social groups in particular, no longer lives in complete certainty that their lives, rights and safety are guaranteed, accepted or protected.
The findings of this survey are no doubt a worrying development in the long journey of the LGBT rights movement, and clearly reflect the worrying and troubled times in which we live. While the many causes of this can be argued over and debated and the statistics analysed, it is easy to forget that each number and every percentage represents a unique and priceless human life. The only thing left now is to question whether this is just a temporary shift accompanying the transition into an insecure and globalised society or whether discrimination and tolerance is becoming further rooted and institutionalised throughout our very societal infrastructure.
Words By Joe Lewin