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Have we won the fight against homophobia?

By news editor, on 21 May 2012

International day against homophobia and transphobia (IDAHO) is held annually on the 17 May. It commemorates the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from the list of mental disorders.

To mark the day, Out@UCL asked the university’s Chair of Council and LGBT Equality Champion, Sir Stephen Wall, to give an informal talk about his past experiences.

Stephen opened the discussion by describing how he denied his sexuality to himself for 20 years. It then took him another 20 years to do something about what he called the “cork in the bottle”. Two years ago, he came out to his family.

Stephen began his career working for the Foreign Office where you simply weren’t allowed to be gay. This wasn’t the only inequality. Women had to resign once married and, incredibly, men had to ask for permission to marry!

The format of the event itself was intended as a brief talk by Stephen followed by discussion with the attendees. All of the participants were very open about their own experiences and views. One person commented that when he was a teenager the only gay person he knew of was Boy George – not really the ideal role model!

There was a shared sense that people generally felt more naïve 20 years ago, never having met another gay person. Role models are clearly important and the power of television seems to play a huge role in society – particularly as there is often a lack of parental role models.

So, as Stephen asked the underlying question to the audience, “are we on a rising curve to acceptance?” Responses were mixed. One person said “it’s ok to be out at UCL, it’s a nice little bubble, but not on the streets.” In contrast, a student explained that at 24 years of age, she had personally not experienced homophobia.

A very recent study by the International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) Europe chose the United Kingdom as the best place in Europe for LGBT people in terms of legal rights.

One participant referred to London as a ‘luxurious’ environment compared to elsewhere. Despite this, there still seemed to be a sense that London and the UK as a whole is not necessarily immune to homophobia.

Consider news stories about the 20-year-old woman that launched a physical attack on a young lesbian for kissing her girlfriend or the neighbour who told a friend he was a pervert and to stay away from his kids. Or even the contemporary, casually homophobic use of the term “gay” among young people, a derisory label used as an insult for almost anything that is considered negative.

Stephen himself received a letter prior to the event questioning the necessity for his talk and such public disclosure. The writer seemed to be advocating a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ position. They then explained that they were the last person to be homophobic.

Research carried out by Stonewall, The School Report (2007), showed that 65% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people still experience homophobic bullying.

Stonewall’s Head of Policy, Sam Dick, said: “We must not underestimate how much work there is yet to do – not least in securing marriage equality and tackling the endemic levels of homophobic bullying in schools.”

New initiatives such as the Gay-straight alliance club at a school in Wembley will help to overcome homophobia at a younger age. Although we have come a long way in the fight against homophobia, it seems we still have some way to go.

To conclude the talk, Stephen offered some words of advice: “Be true to yourself.” At 65, he is finally at ease with himself.

Written by Sonal Bharadva, Equalities and Policy Administrator, UCL Human Resources.

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