The closet, three decades on

The Student has recently begun to digitise old editions of the newspaper in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections. This provides a fascinating look at student life and concerns from 30 years ago, during the 1984/85 academic year. Predictably, most of the woes of university life are the same, yet a lot has changed in the social landscape three decades on. An article about homosexuality and being ‘in the closet’ before and during university was unearthed in one of the old editions of the newspaper.

The writer, Robbie Foy, talks about how while society is undergoing a liberal shift, it is still taboo and incendiary for anyone to come out of the closet. Islands of safety are few and far between and even they don’t cater to the full diversity of the LGBT rainbow.

While it is no secret that the LGBT rights movement has taken a giant leap forward, both in terms of visibility and effectiveness in the last decade, we are still left questioning just how much society has changed as a whole since the aforementioned article was written.

For the purpose of succinctness, I will not be talking about virulently homophobic countries, though the very fact that extreme incidents of homophobia in these areas are generally condemned on a world wide scale and voices of dissent within these countries continue to grow is an encouraging sign.

We can narrow our lens and look at the United Kingdom over the last thirty years or so. Has much changed for the LGBT population? Let’s work our way upwards from the school system and sex education and how ideas of LGBT relationships and sex were showcased thirty years ago and how they are presented today.

Foy writes about how children were taught that someone was ‘homosexual’ due to the oversecretion of glands. As a result, most gay children would have suffered from severe ostracization if they were out of the closet and sometimes even if they weren’t. Thankfully, there has been a positive change in sexual education in schools over the years. While the focus is still on informing the student population about safe heterosexual practices, LGBT relationships and sex practices are definitely being discussed and showcased in at least a neutral if not positive way.

So we can definitely claim as a society to have progressively moved in a better direction. One of the shining symbols of this is the fact that LGBT couples have been able to get married in England and Wales since March 29 2014, and will be able to officially marry in Scotland from December 31. This showcases unprecedented levels of acceptance and desire for equality for all the citizenry.

As always, there is a flipside to the good news. While more and more people have begun to accept LGBT as something normal, there are always stray incidents that remind everyone all too starkly that complete acceptance and the realisation of dreams of an entirely safe space are still a while away.

Just a few days ago, two young women were told to leave a branch of Sainsbury’s in Brighton for what was termed as a public display of affection. In their own words, they had shared merely a peck on the lips. A security guard came up to them and said they had to leave because another customer had complained and was allegedly worried about the safety of her children.

Although almost all the responses to the incident have been of shock and condemnation, it does bring to light very starkly that LGBT couples are at the risk of discrimination in every sphere of their lives, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly.

The people of Brighton responded to the incident by flooding the Sainsbury’s branch and staging a ‘kiss-in’, to the bemusement of the regular shopper. Hence, while it is deplorable that such homophobic incidents still take place, it is commendable that more people than ever feel able to come out and openly voice their dissent and disgust.

At the risk of making a generalisation, homophobia is no longer a politically correct stance for most parts of the population, and waves of positive recognition for LGBT couples have begun to have a top-down effect. A related incident to that which occurred in the Brighton Sainsbury’s was reported on a London bus, where the driver was homophobic towards an LGBT couple. It has been met with similar levels of disapproval.

Closer to home, Edinburgh has a vibrant and growing LGBT scene. Thirty years ago, Foy wrote about the lack of diversity in the single gay nightclub in the city and the lack of safe spaces for LGBT students to meet and mingle. This isn’t the case today. The ‘Pink Triangle’ is a bustling, cheerful area with pubs and nightclubs proudly sporting the rainbow flag and catering to every kind of person on the LGBT rainbow and spectrum.

However, being a gay person in some of the so-called ‘straight’ nightclubs around town can still be a hit or miss situation, as amply illustrated by the recent incident at a popular nightclub in the city where a female fresher was thrown out of the club, allegedly for kissing another girl on the dance floor.

If nightclubs aren’t your thing, the universities have LGBT societies that you can join and there are events around the city catering to every kind of interest. As Foy reported, only 30 years ago the Glasgow University Union (GUU) was able to ban gay students. Needless to say most student unions wouldn’t even dream of doing such a thing today. The general prevailing attitude is that positive change is happening, but not nearly fast enough.

Things are looking up across the pond as well. One by one the state bans against gay marriage are toppling like dominoes in the US and there is a growing number of voices joining the chorus for marriage equality. Just recently a drunk man shouting out abuse and assaulting queer people in the Dallas airport was taken down by the local bystanders.

The media too has begun, slowly but surely, to represent the LGBT population as more than just a stereotype or a caricature to be laughed at.

It is very encouraging to compare society today to the society of thirty years ago. Things have changed dramatically and mostly for the better.

However, it is a long road to complete equality and acceptance and a concentrated effort must be made at all levels of society to foster a better understanding and recognition of LGBT people, both on and around the rainbow.

In my opinion, homophobia must be eradicated from the early years; children are often taught hate and fear.

A better sexual education program that embraces all sexualities and open discussions at home and the classroom would strike at the root of homophobia and work towards creating an even more open society in the future.

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