Last October, the Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote one of the most bigoted and despicable articles that odious right-wing rag has seen fit to publish. She was responding to the untimely death of pop idol Stephen Gately. Despite the coroner's report which stated that Gately had died of natural causes Moir decided that she knew better - Gately was gay and therefore his "lifestyle" meant his death could not have been natural. It wasn't just that it was insensitive to his family and friends to write such an article before Gately had even been buried, it was also an attack on all the advances gay people have made in the last decade. According to Moir, civil partnerships cause suicide, while homosexuality is an unnatural lifestyle connected with promiscuity and drug taking which does not deserve to be regarded in the same way as heterosexual relationships. So far, so depressing, but there is a brighter side to this story. Moir got more than she bargained for when she penned this reactionary drivel. Within hours of the story going to print the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was being bombarded by those who were disgusted by the Daily Mail piece. Within a day the PCC had issued a statement saying that it had already received a record number of complaints and the reaction to her piece went to the top of the news agenda, helped no doubt by the star quality of her victim.
While Moir's article was a throwback to the '70s, the response was something new. It's not just that there was no email and Twitter back then, although that certainly speeded up the ability of people to write in. There has been a significant cultural shift against this kind of bigotry, even if the Daily Mail isn't printing the letters. You'd have to have a heart made of stone not to recognise the importance of that shift, but sadly there is no time for complacency because it is not just in the fetid corridors of the Mail that homophobia still exists. In the same week in Trafalgar Square Ian Baynham, a 62-year-old gay man on his way home, was attacked by a small gang of youths who hurled homophobic abuse at him and then kicked him to death; astonishingly, none of them were brought to justice. If anyone thought that homophobia was confined to an older generation raised with less enlightened values, they had better think again. The fact that Baynham's attackers were young men and women is a warning to us all that we need to be ensuring our schools are part of the fight against bigotry. "There have been major changes in some areas like civil partnerships, equal age of consent etc but we have to contrast this with problems at schools," says London Assembly Member Darren Johnson. "Bullying in many schools is as bad now as it was 30 years ago. We need to tackle this, taking a much more proactive approach."
Johnson's view is shared by Charlotte Dingle, editor of gay and bisexual women's magazine G3. She tells the Morning Star: "I think homophobia is slowly on the wane, but it's atrocious that things aren't moving faster. I think there's a widespread misconception that because of changes in the law gay people are now more or less treated equally. It's not all about laws, though. People's attitudes still desperately need changing. "The fact that people are still spouting homophobic rubbish in our papers and on our TVs and not being properly held to account, because, oh, it was a 'joke,' makes my blood boil. I'm afraid I don't have much truck with the political correctness gone mad brigade. The situation in schools is still pretty awful, despite the best efforts of groups like Stonewall campaigning to try and change kids' attitudes. There need to be far more regulations in place preventing gay children being bullied - indeed, this is one of the most important issues that needs addressing for the gay community in this country. Teachers just don't want to address the problem, mainly because they don't know how to, and they don't know what they're allowed to say or do. This needs to change." In 2008 the campaigning organisation Stonewall commissioned YouGov to conduct a comprehensive poll of lesbian and gay people. It found that one in five had suffered from some form of homophobic attack in the previous three years. For those who think we're living in a liberal utopia where bigotry has been abolished that may come as something of a shock.
Due to changes in the way that hate crimes have been recorded it is difficult to draw out a definitive picture of long-term UK statistics in hate crime, but what's clear is that there are two dominant trends. First, that it is easier to be openly gay now than at any time in the last 50 years. Second, that this is not the same thing as saying that we have wiped out homophobia from society - far from it. There is a social movement against prejudice that we can draw on. Sadly we're going to have to do just that, because there is an anti-social movement for prejudice that must be faced up to. The answer lies in reaching into every part of society to challenge stereotypes and equip those in positions of authority, like teachers, with the arguments and training they need. People in the media like small-minded Radio One DJ Chris Moyles who undermine the good work of campaigners against homophobia also need to be challenged. As Mark Healey, the organiser of a vigil in Trafalgar Square next week against homophobic attacks, says, "we need to unite against all forms of hate crime, stand together and say out loud that this is no longer acceptable in our society anymore." We certainly can't just sit back and assume things will get better on their own.
A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.