Picture this: It’s late at night, and someone is walking home from an event in central London. They live in East London. They are alone and are wearing a rainbow flag on their back. East London, alone, at night, wearing a gay pride flag: brave, or stupid?
LGBT+ residents of the East End have been coming to me over the past few weeks with their stories of homophobic abuse. When I posed them with this question, I received some very interesting reactions.
Transphobia is not something that is talked about often as it seems to be swept under the umbrella term of ‘homophobia’. However, the trans community of East London take homophobia to a whole new level when they head out in public. A few weeks ago, a young male was walking on Roman Road with some friends. He was wearing an ‘unassuming black skirt’, and was said to have received a ‘barrage of abuse’ from people, including ‘shopkeepers standing outside… jeering and calling him a “he/she” and “it” and making fun of his “backwards dress’”.
Many more cases like this one are occurring in East London every day. Another LGBT+ resident told me, ‘I’ve had names and comments that weren’t friendly … like “fag”, “you’re gay” and “gayboy’”. And it seems not to be isolated to just one area which incidents occurring in Whitechapel, Stratford and even Wetherspoons on Mile End Road. The location that alarmed me the most, however, was on the QMUL campus.
Abuse and oppression of the LGBT+ community is constantly happening around the world, and here in the East End, though not always visible, that oppression is undeniable. ‘We don’t feel comfortable expressing affection when we hear stories like these, for fear of becoming another one of them’, said one LGBT+ resident.
When I spoke to Adam Sparkes, LGBT+ Representative at QMSU, I was relieved to discover the abuser on campus has been expelled. He went on to tell me, ‘you aren’t allowed, on this campus, to express any type of abuse like that’. We talked about his past experiences, the worst of which occurred in Birmingham. He told me how he confronted a gang hurling homophobic abuse and, in his words, ‘ended up getting the s*** kicked out of me’. This has had many lasting affects, including a dislocated jaw that still causes problems today, not to mention the psychological effect. Despite this, he said ‘I will always confront people because I am stupidly proud and won’t back down’. So, when asked if the hypothetical flag bearer mentioned at the start should have done what they did Sparkes, of course, said “yes”.
And he is correct. Why shouldn’t they represent their sexuality without fear? Why does what we chose to wear, and who we fall in love with, make us into activists, or even martyrs receiving abuse for our cause?
LGBT+ people just want to live. We want to walk on Roman Road and wear whatever skirt we choose without even turning a head. We want to kiss our partners in Wetherspoons on Mile End Road without anyone batting an eye. We want to hold our partners hands on the escalator in Stratford without being considered “activists”.
However, as one respondent said, ‘it’s a sad fact that not everyone has the luxury to be themselves without any self censorship in order to feel safe…’
So, what then, do we feel about the lone gay pride flag bearer?
Well…’I couldn’t, in good conscience, say that I’d ever let a friend of mine go home alone like that.’, says one LGBT+ East End resident. And I’d have to agree.