by Ivan Hernandez
On International Day Against Homophobia (May 17th) it is worth remembering that LGBTQ+ people still face immense pressures worldwide and are persecuted in 73 countries. Punishments range from a few years in prison, like in Morocco, to longer sentences, life imprisonment or even death. Brunei recently introduced stoning to death, and Saudi Arabia, our friendly tyrannical dictatorship, tortures, castrates and executes gay men. There are still many Commonwealth countries where it is illegal to be gay, but only criminalise men as part of a misogynistic Victorian-era relic. This is the case in Jamaica, where we officially twinned with last year and gay men can be imprisoned for 10 years with hard labour. Meanwhile, it was less than a year ago that a country as populous as India decriminalised same-sex relationships.
Growing up, being gay was taboo and there was no visibility or role models. It was synonymous with being alone or dying of AIDS. It was inconceivable we could have real and loving relationships and we were excluded from the conventional ways that we can relate to each other. Public displays of affection carried (and still do) the risk of physical harm. The burden and fear of being found out wasn’t exactly fun.
Invisibility and exclusion for being gay is a form of societal homophobia that still happens today. This is evident in sports; how many openly gay footballers or athletes do we know of? Not many. LGBTQ+ people know that sharing aspects of their lives like their peers do is not always acceptable because it may make others uncomfortable. After a while you develop a thick skin and deal with the jokes, stereotypes and bigoted comments on social media with a metaphorical eye roll.
Homophobia isn’t about fearing homosexuality, the root of the word phobia in psychology also means aversion. Ironically, fear is the effect homophobia has on those who are subjected to it. An iconic speech by Panti Bliss, an Irish drag queen and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner during the time of the Irish marriage equality referendum perfectly describes its effect:
“Have you ever been standing at a pedestrian crossing when a car goes by and in it are a bunch of lads, and they lean out the window as they go by, and they shout “Fag!” and throw a milk carton at you? Now, it doesn’t really hurt. I mean, after all, it’s just a wet carton, and in many ways they’re right – I am a fag. So it doesn’t hurt. But it feels oppressive. When it really does hurt, is afterwards. Afterwards I wonder and worry and obsess over: what was it about me? What was it they saw in me? What was it that gave me away? And I hate myself for wondering that. It feels oppressive and the next time I’m standing at a pedestrian crossing, I hate myself for it, but I check myself to see what it is about me that ‘gives the gay away’. And I check myself to make sure I’m not doing it this time.”
I was impacted by this because I too have been verbally and physically assaulted for being gay when minding my own business, and felt the same afterwards. It is strange how these negative experiences can be collective, but also internalised with their effects not evident at the time. Having to run for safety outside gay bars because thugs decided it was fun to start beating people up outside, happened from time to time. I remember walking towards our car after a night out with an ex-partner, when we heard the word “faggot!” shouted from behind, seconds later he was brutally physically attacked. I recall fearing for my own safety a couple of times trying to get home in a taxi when the driver started using very threatening homophobic language out of the blue. I was lucky but some friends of mine had the experience of being locked in the taxi, taken to the middle of nowhere and beaten up. You learn to live in a climate of hostility and violence, both physical and verbal, where the experiences of those you love mesh with your own, taking its toll both mentally and emotionally and leaving scars for years to come. I am fortunate to say that even so, my experiences of homophobia are mild compared to other people I know.
It is impossible to talk about homophobia without acknowledging our achievements. The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Gibraltar was historic but it didn’t mean the end of discrimination. This came with conditions that no other sector of our community is subjected to. Did you know registrars can still refuse to marry same-sex couples? They can’t do this to heterosexual couples. Why should registrars, as public servants, be able to refuse to marry me even though I can legally do so? Why is it that gay people are singled out with such a provision? Why does a registrar’s right to not marry me weigh more than my right to get married? What if on my wedding day there is no one else that can marry me? Why did the Government feel that it was necessary to bring in a clause that allows discrimination against gay people in a piece of legislation that was meant to grant us equality? The answer to these questions is simple: homophobia.
Someone who was involved in drafting this legislation told me at the time it was introduced that it was a “non-issue” (for them that is), and later told me that it was temporary. So, why have it in the first place? At the time, Marlene Hassan Nahon, now Party leader of the Together Gibraltar party, which I am also a part of because one its core values is real equality, pressed for an amendment to not include this clause in the final legislation on the grounds that it was discriminatory. Unfortunately, and predictably, it was outvoted. There is no real equality while ever there are laws with clauses that grant equality with conditions, or enable homophobia. I can’t speak for the rest of the LGBTQ+ community, but as a member of it I ask the Chief Minister and the Minister for Equality to repeal the discriminatory Clause 6b of the Marriage Act they introduced, and to rid Gibraltar’s laws from enabling homophobia once and for all.
LGBTQ+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning. The plus sign includes all others that don’t identify with being heterosexual or cisgender, and now want to have a voice. Including the Q+ hurts no one. Not believing gay people deserve the same rights as you for whatever reason, such as being able to get married, is homophobia. Having gay friends does not preclude you from being homophobic. Someone who has never been at the receiving end of homophobia cannot school me or any other member of the LGBTQ+ community on what homophobia is. Finally, if the word homophobia offends you or you feel it “stifles debate”, imagine what it is like for those on the receiving end. It is never too late to evolve.
Happy International Day Against Homophobia!
MAIN PHOTO: Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea