The troubling return of British homophobia

Rising hate crimes and spiralling mental distress are just some of the results from the anti-woke backlash of this year. We should be worried

October 15, 2020
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Last week the drag queen Crystal, a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, announced that she would be suing Laurence Fox, a scion of the Fox acting dynasty, for his "damaging" tweets in which he labelled her a "paedophile" (the tweets have since been deleted.) It has become customary to paint Fox as an outlier, a Katie Hopkins-style provocateur, but his comments are in fact a perfectly logical continuation of the rising tide of covert and not-so-covert hostility on gender issues and LGBTQ+ rights in the British media and beyond. 

The reasons for the emergence of this hostility are manifold, stemming from, in this writer’s view, a reaction to Corbynism and a mounting transphobia.

To take the second of these phenomena first, the resistance to LGBTQ self-affirmation had been building for a while, before taking shape most visibly during last year’s furore over Anderton Park School in Birmingham. The primary school had then recently implemented a "No Outsiders" education programme for its students, drawing on picture books to teach them about a variety of relationships, including LGBTQ relationships. A widely-publicised protest campaign was held. Parents set up a camp outside the school, often with homophobic signs, and shouted aggressive imprecations through loudspeakers.

The scandal that shouldn’t have been was grist for the mill of columnists, media figures and politicians outraged that children could be learning about the existence of queer people. Esther McVey, then in the running for the Conservative leadership, opined: “For young children in this multicultural, diverse, modern society that we live in, I would say for very young children—as you say, four and five—parents have the say over sex education.” The implication that there is an age limit for finding out about queer families, and that children should be protected from LGBTQ education, is materially important. It casts queer people as interferers with an agenda and implies a disturbing relationship which makes victims of children.

In reality, queer people who know what they went through as children understand the importance of educating young people in order to avoid violence and death. They are at pains to reach out to youngsters to combat prejudices that can set in early. In March of this year, the charity Mermaids, which assists trans and gender-questioning youth by providing information and support, introduced an “exit button” on its site in order to enable young people to read up on advice undetected by potentially hostile family members. Such security measures have become all the more necessary during lockdown, when many young LGBTQ people have found themselves obliged to stay with parents who can be unaccepting and/or violent.

And yet the group was accused by The Times columnist Janice Turner of “grooming” children. Again, note the language which positions queer people working for a charity as potentially harmful influences. Mermaids is a charity for trans youth, but in recent times similar complaints have been levelled at Stonewall, whose services extend across the LGBTQ+ banner, for perceived interference with children. The implication is that children are being wrongly encouraged to confront subjects too "adult" for them. But the direct testimony of queer people contradicts this. The number of LGBT people seeking suicide prevention resources is soaring. Let's not forget the story of Jamel Myles, a boy of 9, who tragically killed himself in 2018 after what appears to have been homophobic bullying from his peers.

It’s also important to see these movements in the light of the growing “anti-woke” movement, which has perhaps been given a fillip by the resounding electoral defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in December 2019. Ellie Mae O'Hagan wrote as much back in January, anticipating a real "backlash to wokeness" amongst voters who had enabled Brexit and Donald Trump. In this country, after the December 2019 election, that backlash movement found form in Lord Ashcroft’s analysis of the electoral defeat, which argued that the electorate thought Labour "had come to embody an excessively politically correct or 'woke' culture", and various op-eds arguing that Labour had essentially conceded too much to minorities. There was a sense among some centre-left pundits that Labour was now “free from the yoke of the woke.”

This is to misunderstand the driving force behind LGBTQ education and emancipation; the so-called "woke" generation does not represent a media trend to be sniffed at, but a battle for ever-diminishing rights.

During the Labour leadership hustings this year, the question of trans rights came up again, though what was at stake appeared not to be the dignity of trans people themselves. The question was rather cynically weaponised to show that the party was torn asunder. Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy both signed a 12-point pledge by the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, while eventual winner Keir Starmer signed a less radical 10-point pledge by LGBT Labour. The issue of trans rights almost overpowered the debates between the candidates, as Stephen Bush noted in the New Statesman. Centring this issue in the campaign allowed self-proclaimed leaders of the “anti-woke” movement—which, as a reminder, is inflected with racism since the word “woke” originates from African-American vernacular—such as Piers Morgan to attack the left as “deranged”.

Into just such an “anti-woke” movement stumbles Laurence Fox—the actor who made his Question Time debut in the wake of Labour's defeat—now perceiving that the left is weakened. A movement that paints the British left as out of touch and obsessed with arcane identity politics, then, goes hand in hand with an emergent homophobia. Fox is not a lunatic on the sidelines, but someone who voiced what was already very much in the ether. By apparently aiming his words at an individual, he was coarse enough to make it a personal attack rather than (which is much more acceptable) a defamation of a whole minority.

A last note: this week the BBC reports that homophobic hate crimes have trebled since 2015. Words have consequences.