Mark McCormack, Durham University
One of the most significant social trends of the past thirty years in the UK has been the reduction of homophobia. And yet, sexual minorities remain under-represented at the top levels of sport, politics and business, hate crimes about sexual minorities have not dissipated and many people remain closeted in aspects of their lives. In order to address these issues, The Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities at Durham University is hosting a Sociological Review one-day symposium on Monday 30th June that seeks to understand the complexity of LGBT lives in contemporary Britain—a country that has undergone a transformation in attitudes toward sexual minorities that is reflected in the removal of homophobic discrimination.
Research on sexual minorities in British culture has shown that their lives have traditionally been marred by social marginalization and defined by difference. Denied equality under the law, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people have suffered discrimination in a culture whose population exhibited high levels of homophobia, particularly in the 1980s. Research documented elevated levels of bullying in school, as well as elevated suicide rates, particularly among youth.
However, a social trend of improving attitudes and legal recognition of LGBT people has been documented since the turn of the millennium. Data from the British Social Attitudes survey documents that only 29 per cent of adults think same-sex relationships are wrong, down from 46 per cent in 2000. Furthermore, 93 per cent of football fans would accept an openly gay player on their team. These findings are significant because they document the most dramatic change in attitudes in a generation.
Evidence for decreasing homophobia can also be found in qualitative research that shows the positive effect changing attitudes have had on the lives of sexual minorities. This includes better representation of LGB people in the media; an improving environment for LGB students in schools and universities; and positive experiences for sexual minorities within sport compared to a decade ago. There have also been substantive changes to the legal system in the UK. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, which, combined with an equal age of consent for same-sex sex and equality in marriage have had the effect that homophobic perspectives are no longer enshrined in English law. Still, it is important to stress that decreasing homophobia is an uneven social process, influenced by a range of factors. The visibility of LGB people is, for example, still restricted in professional sport and among senior politicians; and heterosexual privilege remains present in educational and other settings. Furthermore, there is significant complexity in how changing attitudes and behaviours map onto law and equalities policies.
Given these issues, it is clear that the experiences of LGBT people in the UK do not map neatly onto a simplified notion of decreasing homophobia. Significantly, while attitudes toward homosexuality have markedly improved, there remains evidence of discrimination in a range of settings. Yet much of the research that documents continued issues for LGBT people does not engage in the sociological debates about decreasing homophobia and broader social trends related to sexuality and gender. Indeed, declining homophobia has occurred alongside a number of social trends of gender and sexuality. The rise of the internet has led to a democratisation of desire, at the same time as the processes of individualization have resulted in displays of sexual competency being part of the project of the self. In this context, the individual has a level of autonomy over satiating their erotic needs and desires—something Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’.
Given the concurrence with the rise of gay rights activism and feminist discourses, it is perhaps unsurprising that attitudes toward homosexuality have liberalized over the past thirty years. Yet sociological understandings of decreasing homophobia remain divorced from these broader sociological debates, and there is little examination of the utility of such frameworks. Accordingly, this symposium will advance sociological debate by developing empirical and theoretical understanding of the lived experiences of LGBT people that is historically situated and context-specific that also accounts for other social and attitudinal trends and engages with broader sociological theories.
About the Day
This symposium seeks to address these issues by focussing on the lived experiences of LGBT people in the UK, in explicit dialogue with the research on decreasing homophobia. The symposium opens with a paper from Professor Eric Anderson that maps the complexity of decreasing homophobia in the British context, recognising that attitudes, legal rights, experiences, and other factors contribute to the cultural dynamics of sexuality. Presenting a framework to understand both the profound social changes that have occurred over the past 30 years, as well as the limits of the ‘decreasing homophobia’ narrative, this paper will engage with broader sociological concepts and theories and contextualise the presentations that follow.
The following five presentations then examine a range of factors that affect the lived experiences of LGBT people in the UK.
Dr Andrew King’s paper will draw on intersectionality theory to explore the effects of decreasing homophobia and homohysteria – the fear of being socially perceived as gay – on older LGB adults, who have traditionally been marginalised and rendered culturally invisible.
Some of these issues will be expanded upon by Mr Richard Roberts, a leading solicitor and a member of the Law Society’s Wills and Equity Committee. Mr Roberts will describe the continued heteronormativity of the law, discussing the unique issues still faced by LGB clients as they interact with heterosexual solicitors.
Dr Sally Hines will draw on the literature on recognition, focussing in particular on the work of Iris Marion Young, to explore the continued prevalence of transphobia in the UK, arguing that both decreasing homophobia and legal moves to recognise gender diversity are disconnected from the realities of transsexual people.
Also troubling the narrative of decreasing homophobia and highlighting the heterogeneous nature of lived experiences, Professor Yvette Taylor will draw on poststructural and class-based theories to explore who is left behind in this ‘world we have won’, using parenting as a frame to explore how sexuality intersects and deconstructs class advantage and disadvantage.
Finally, Mr Max Morris examines how, in a culture of decreased homophobia, sexual minority undergraduate men are using duel techniques of neutralisation to balance their (hetero)normative attitudes toward sex and relationships against their support for gender and sexual nonconformity.
By drawing on a diverse range of sociological theories to explore the issues involved, this symposium will advance our understanding of how sexual minorities experience a country that has undergone radical change in regards to attitudes to homosexuality in the past 30 years and complicates a simplistic rendering of decreasing homophobia. Privileging empirical research that is theoretically informed and pays due attention to social context, this symposium will advance knowledge of how the sexual intersects with other social factors, developing sociological ideas more broadly.
How to register
The symposium is free to attend and there will be time set aside for discussion of the papers. All are welcome, but numbers are limited, so if you would like to reserve a place please email email@example.com.