Look a little further: Examining homophobia and finding widespread social support

Look a little further: Examining homophobia and finding widespread social support

Adam White and Bryan Thomas

It is often hard to find the positive and empowering stories of gay men and lesbian women within the mainstream media narratives. Opening Facebook during the Olympics we were drawn to a story shared by Pink News highlighting the distasteful reporting of a male embrace of hugging shared between Olympic divers Jack Laugher and Chris Mears in the Daily Mail. The homosocial tactility these two Olympians share is completely routine for young men today, even without the emotion-fueling event of winning a gold medal. The Daily Mail, however, decided to question such normal and beautiful behavior, as if Jack and Chris have just taken gender norms, chewed them and spat them back in the green Olympic pool they just emerged from. In fact, just to set the Daily Mail straight, there is huge swaths of research today expressing exactly that younger men are increasingly physically tactile and pro-gay; exactly like Jack and Chris. This, however, isn’t the only gay-themed story we have cringed at recently.

BBC newsreported a gay couple being asked by a security guard to not innocently hold hands, due to a customer complaint. The most worrying story for us was to see the Daily Beast outing closeted gay athletes at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, potentially putting athletes in danger in their sometimes not-so-accepting home countries. Finally, Matt Horwood (Senior Communications Officer for Stonewall), caught our attention with the headline “Think that homophobia no longer exists in Britain? You’re wrong”. His story discussed the BBC commentator who remarked not wanting to see two men on the kiss-cam at a recent tennis match by saying “I hope it doesn’t zoom in on two blokes!”

Now from each of these reports it is hard not to see the homophobic elements to each of the stories that are really getting the backs up of the LGBT communities. But, there seems to be a failure to recognise the overwhelming, widespread and heartwarming social acceptance each of these stories has offered, yet seemingly underreported in the press.

Let’s start with the Daily Mail: Pink News has really taken umbrage with the Daily Mail’s story and pointed out the potentially homophobic nature of their reporting. Pink News have in essence read the story, seen the homophobic undertones and reported it. There is an element to the story Pink News only briefly mentioned at the bottom of their article. And that is how pressure from commenters, who suggested that the Daily Mail is out-of-touch with the public, had prompted an updated version of the article with a more pro-gay slant. Yes, the public in Britain, and even Daily Mail readers, are so unaccepting of gender regulation that they have called out a media gang-lord to put-up and shut-up when it comes to modern masculinities and sexualities. Wow. That’s progress.

Next, the media reported an incident at Sainsbury’s in North London. They had received a complaint regarding the same-sex couple holding hands and immediately offered and apology and a token gesture. Yet, the public has organised a kiss-in, where people of the same-sex kiss one another as a symbolic protest to homophobia or heteronormativity. BBC News reported that “about 200 people” attended the event armed with rainbow flags while dancing in the street.

This Daily Beast story is another example of the widespread unacceptance of homophobia. Upon the overwhelming backlash from the media, athletes and the public, the Daily Beast first updated their story and then removed it altogether from their website. The editor’s apologies in an editorial note highlighted that they had made a boo-boo on this occasion.

So finally on to the article in the Telegraph by Stonewall’s Matt Horwood. We think he is right when he asserts that homophobia can still exist in Britain, but what is also rife is the overwhelming social disdain to homophobia in comparison to homophobia itself. In fact, the academic research states exactly this. Social attitudes research is mapping the best attitudes in history, and young people are almost unanimously accepting of sexual diversity.

Unfortunately, too often we hear about homophobia from the angle that Assailant A inflicts verbal/physical abuse/harassment towards LGBT Victim B. Occasionally, there is recognition of the bystander dynamic. This is where behaviours such as banter can be recognised as being homophobic when an onlooker is upset by the actions. But we know that these things, especially language, are somewhat more complex and nuanced than that. Looking at the wonderful work on homosexually-themed language, Dr. Mark McCormack suggests that we should consider the intent, the environment and the social effect (to both victims and bystanders). McCormack recognizes that on some occasions, homosexually-themed language can and is deployed positively. This is supported by Dr. Rory Magrath who finds almost identical sentiments among academy football players in the South of England. Therefore, the categorising homosexually-themed behaviours and language as either homophobic or not homophobic is problematic. It does not extend the debate, assist the cause, or even allow further understanding of discrimination in a somewhat accepting culture of homosexuality.

Interestingly, as two gay men, we have a firm consideration that we have never been victims of homophobic bullying. We both came out as openly gay in school and both happened to receive widespread acceptance from our friends and wider-network of peers, even in the working-class realms of South Wales and secluded corners of Devon. Now this also concurs with modern academic research which finds that many young people are not bothered about a peer’s sexuality, often being supportive and accepting. Correspondingly, over the last two years, we have been interviewing college students and staff who tell us they haven’t experienced homophobia at the college they attend/work. Furthermore, we did try to illicit even the subtlest cases of discrimination, but they just weren’t there in any form.

This being said, there is a caveat. We have both experienced incidents that could have been interpreted as homophobic. Adam, only days after coming out to his friends, was hurled homophobic slurs along a busy school corridor at a break time. While Bryan’s friend, who routinely changed next to him in PE, moved away to the other side of the room after Bryan announced his sexuality in school. Conveniently, these both happened around the same time Stonewall completed their famous School Report outlining widespread hostile environments in the education context for LGBT youth. Why, however, do we both consider these progressive and positive experiences?

The response of the majority supressed the minority on both occasions and the overwhelming support, acceptance and protection afforded outweighed the minor homophobic incidents. For instance, when Adam was verbally abused, his friends immediately defended him and confronted the bully. Although we are in no way condoning violence, the young miscreant will probably reconsider the use of “f***ing faggot” in future. Likewise, Bryan was now with an empty space next to him in the changing room. However, he soon found the most popular sportsman in the year getting dressed in the newly available changing space. Not only did Bryan’s peer move closer to him as a symbol of support, he challenged the initial friend on why he had moved in the first place.

The social world is a complex, fluid and forever shifting environment, making it a rewarding yet impossible quest for us social scientists to capture. With the increasing pressures to have impact within our research, often we may be forced to find social problems, rather than recognising the multiple ways for which our society is progressively evolving. Now this does come with another caution –  we are by no means suggesting homophobia is dead in the water, or that the life experiences of many LGBT persons is always positive. Social progress is neither linear or uniform across all communities and institutions. But we will say huge and positive progress is being witnessed around us, and we should also offer praise where it is due. British society’s rapid-response to stand up and be counted in the face of witnessing homophobia is one place such praise is both neglected and needed. We only hope that mainstream media outlets recognise and reflect on this reality.


Adam White is an openly gay doctoral research student and associate lecturer at the University of Winchester in the Department for Sport and Exercise. His work focuses on the experiences of sexually diverse communities in sport and education, as well as injury in contact sports. Bryan Thomas is an openly gay undergraduate student studying a BA in American Studies at the University of Winchester. He is also working under the supervision of Professor Eric Anderson on a number of research projects looking at the attitudes towards and experiences of gay men in youth culture.