Glad to be gay? Shame’s persistence within the LGBT+ community

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TW: depression, self-harm, sexual assault, suicide.

Russell T. Davies’s LGBT masterpiece, It’s A Sin, has had 18.9 million views on All 4, making it one of the most successful Channel 4 shows of all-time. Set during the AIDS crisis, the theme of shame within the LGBT community was central to the plot. At a time when AIDS made queer people, especially gay men, even more ashamed to ‘come out’, society took a decidedly anti-LGBT step.

In 1988, Margaret Thatcher implemented Section 28. This meant that teachers were not allowed to “promote homosexuality”, with Thatcher hoping to deter children from believing they had an “inalienable right” to be gay. All LGBT material was hence removed from curricula. It was finally repealed across the UK in 2003, but shame is still extant within the LGBT community. Shame is taught, and we are yet to undo the decades of indoctrination that declared being anything other than straight and cisgender was abnormal.

Culturally, one could be forgiven for thinking that LGBT+ inclusion was nearly complete. TV series, most obviously Ru Paul’s Drag Race, have given airtime to LGBT people in an unprecedented manner. Openly LGBT+ musicians dominate the charts and the airwaves. Queer actors, such as Jodie Foster, won Golden Globes in February 2021. But that does not solve the problem.

A lack of acceptance is evident both at celebrity and local level. Stories of gay footballers not feeling safe enough to come out, of persistent abuse of transgender celebrities such as Paris Lees, and of lesbians being physically attacked on a London bus continue to dominate headlines. If we dig down into the root of the problem, we can see that it comes down to society viewing LGBT+ people in the same way they did in the 1980s: with disgust.

This disgust permeates through society and into the minds of LGBT people both globally and at home. In 2015, Pew Research Center showed that only 8% of Americans believed bisexuals were socially accepted, with only 3% believing the same to be true for transgender people. This lack of social acceptance feeds into the declining mental health of LGBT people. In 2018, Stonewall found that 52% of all British LGBT people had suffered from depression, with 46% of transgender people having thought about taking their own lives. Destructive behaviour is also disproportionately high, with 41% of non-binary people having admitted to self-harming in 2018. Mental health issues stem from LGBT+ people feeling that they cannot be themselves, having to choose between remaining ‘closeted’ or facing constant abuse from a society that tells them to be ashamed of who they are.

We are taught from birth that being LGBT+ is wrong. Language is deeply gendered, with the difference between sex and gender being blurred as soon as a child comes into the world. A child may be born with female genitalia, but that does not mean that they were born a girl. Nonetheless, the connection between being female and being feminine is made instantly and is then entrenched by the gendering of colours, clothing, and character traits. Break that binary, and you are treated as a problem that needs to be fixed, as one that would bring shame to the family if anyone were to find out. This idea still exists in our society, evident by the fact that conversion therapy is still legal in the UK.

At school, LGBT+ children are told in no uncertain terms that they are abnormal. Sex education classes focus on ‘straight’ sex, with a discussion of LGBT sexual health being incredibly vague in the current curriculum. A recent news story about a Catholic school in Herefordshire is indicative of the continuing battle against LGBT education, with the school in question teaching pupils that “gay and lesbian people cannot marry”. This lie reinforces the idea that LGBT people should be ashamed of who they are. Given the formative nature of school education, it is difficult to shift these ideas once they are embedded.

We are being tricked into believing that everything is hunky-dory for LGBT people when really it is far from it. LGBT themes in popular culture merely pay lip-service to queer people, with social attitudes becoming ever more conservative regarding LGBT rights. Prejudice is not innate; it is placed upon us by society. As long as shame persists in the wider population, LGBT+ people will achieve neither true equality nor true happiness. It is time we held a mirror up to our society and changed the way it looks.   

Image: stockcatalog via Creative Commons

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