There are countless things in life for which we should apologise. Damaging a friend’s gentleman’s area with an especially vigorous tennis serve, or breaking the nozzle on my college wife’s Henry Hoover spring to mind as recent cases where I had to deploy my glum face, from which murmurous remorseful splutterings were projected. Conversely, there are plenty of things unworthy of an apology, among which passions and trivial mistakes tend to be counted. More significantly, though, no one should ever feel a duty to apologise for, or feel coerced into obscuring who they are – it’s obvious, isn’t it?
Well, if only it was. We are all deeply fortunate to live and study in a tolerant city in one of the world’s most tolerant countries, but I fear we are succumbing to complacency. Complacency in believing that the upward slope will continue. Complacency that everywhere outside our college walls is as accepting and welcoming to minorities, no matter their personal predilections. Regrettably, we are wrong. Very wrong.
I cannot – and will not – speak for all those under the LGBTQ+ banner, however no one should be in denial that the engine of progress has stalled, maybe even slipping into reverse. Nationwide, public acceptance of sexual minorities has fallen for the first time in recent history. Further afield, homophobic attacks in Germany rose by 30% last year, Eastern member states of the EU are sliding insidiously back into the clutches of social conservatism and to much condemnation, Brunei has reinstated the death penalty for homosexuality, bringing the number of states worldwide in which LGBTQ+ people face execution to twelve.
Anyone can reel off statistics for hours and invoke imagery of an unjust world, but it translates into real people being confronted with real abuse and feeling a very real sense of exclusion. The abuse in bars and nightclubs, the second glace at vestimentary choices, the inner dilemma to laugh or erupt in rage at intolerant remarks and the penetrating stare and inevitable eye-roll whenever an attempt is made to retort – I know I am not alone with these experiences.
Of course, some will deflect attention by stating we have come a long way since Stonewall and, yes, they would be right – undeniably so. However, being rescued from starvation by a bowl of porridge represents an improvement in condition, yet no one would claim it was fair treatment. For the same reason, I tremble whenever presented with the argument ‘you’ve been granted full legal equality, so there’s nothing left to achieve’ - since it is at best disingenuous and at worst wilfully ignorant.
Whilst the Britain of today is more accepting of sexual minorities than in past decades, why do 20% of LGBTQ+ people report to having fallen victim to a hate crime? Why do nearly two in three gay men feel unable to hold hands with their partner in public? Why do 40% of trans people report discrimination based on their identity? Most worryingly of all, why do a majority of hate crimes go unreported?
In case it is yet to be brought into sharp relief, the reason is full equality is yet to be attained – in fact, as many of us know all too intimately, it remains a distant hope. And this is because equality does not float into reality from the statute books. Governments have an unfathomable tendency to identify a problem, legislate and immediately believe it vanishes: drugs are bad, ban them. Speeding is bad, ban it. Sexualised videos of consenting adults on the internet are bad, ban them – but no matter what is tried, drug abuse is as prevalent as ever, I still get overtaken by Audis when driving at 77mph on a motorway and teenagers will always be savvier than a digital Theresa May.
Although I do not doubt their intentions, our politicians are woefully misled. In the same way we cannot spend our way out of poverty, we cannot legislate to tolerance either. It’s an organic process, the result of which must be passed from generation to generation as a sacred gift of understanding – an unwritten contract to respect the identities of others, accept the unalterable beauty of their peculiarities and refrain from ever enabling those who wish to preach at the temple of intolerance to molest our society with bigotry or ignorance.
In pursuit of that end, we must stop at nothing. From reforming education in schools to providing fora in which victims are empowered to report abuse and discrimination, nothing should be off the table. Internationally, it means our country putting diplomatic pressure on those 70 regimes whereunder LGBTQ+ individuals are persecuted, not only by nonchalant tirades of hostility from strangers in the street, but systematically and unrelentingly by the state itself, driven into refuge underground and forced to choose between self-denial and martyrdom.
I want for our whole country to follow in the footsteps of our University and blossom into an ubiquitously non-judgemental land where the millions of folks like me can stand shoulder to shoulder with every other citizen without our private pursuits or identities being clutched as weapons by those who seek to turn the clock back to the dark ages.
So, until that goal is achieved, I urge everyone not to remain silent in the face of injustice. I urge everyone to reject the sloppy insults and dehumanising vituperation which masquerades as light-hearted humour because behind the playful smiles lies a sinister and pervasive oppression. We forget all too easily that even something as trivial as word choice moulds what is perceived as the social norm, erecting invisible barriers around groups which do not comply, entrapping them in an enclave from which confrontation is the only means of escape.
Take even the notion of ‘coming out’ as a neat example. We have all probably used those words at some point in time, yet they imply that others deserve an explanation for a part of ourselves which is, first and foremost, private and personal. It means that what should be a joyous episode of self-liberation and realisation is shrouded by the anxiety that social norms and expectations are being contravened, transferring ownership of that moment to others – and until those expectations are modernised and the obligation to explain oneself is eviscerated, we remain collectively guilty.
But it is a guilt we can lift from our shoulders. The trend is encouraging, attitudes are changing, and norms are shifting. The dream of equality is possible; let’s see it through.
George Wright (Political Officer, Ex-Secretary, Former Deputy Returning Officer, Ex-Treasurer, Ex-Whip, Ex-Committee Member, St John’s College) is an undergraduate in his second year of studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.