Given David Cameron's push to legitimise same-sex marriage and
decriminalise homosexuality in commonwealth countries, you might be
forgiven for thinking we're entering a new enlightened period of
tolerance towards gays and lesbians in the UK. But the horrifically
brutal murder of gay barman Stuart Walker this weekend has raised
questions about how tolerant Britain really is - are we kidding
ourselves into thinking we've become a normalised part of the
Stuart Walker was from the Cumnock area of Ayrshire, Scotland.
Described by local MSP Adam Ingram as being "a very nice young man,
very popular and well-known within the community", in the early
hours of Saturday morning, 28 year old Stuart's charred and
battered body was found on an industrial estate in Ayrshire. Police
believe he may have been sexually assaulted before being brutally
beaten and burnt alive. Division Commander John Thomson of
Strathclyde Police says the victim's lifestyle is the "main focus"
of his enquiry.
Strathclyde Police are also not ruling out the possibility that
openly-gay Stuart was the victim of a suspected homophobic hate
crime - if this is proven to be the case then his death shows a
shocking level of hatred within our own back-yard.
Since homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in
1967 (and in 1980 in Scotland), the gay and transgender communities
have slowly received an increasing level of acceptance in society -
especially within the arts. It's likely you might see a gay
presenter, actor or musician whenever you turn on a television,
radio or go to the theatre. This change in public opinion took a
big leap forward with the passing of the 2003 Employment Equality
(Sexual Orientation) Regulations act and the legalisation of Civil
Partnerships in 2004 between same-sex couples.
Or so it seemed - Scotland Yard released figures earlier this year
that confirmed a spike in homophobic attacks over the last 12
months. Whilst hate crimes against transgender people went up by
14%, a total of 4,883 homophobia-motivated hate crimes were
recorded by the police - a worrying statistic given research
suggests as many as three quarters of gay people are still too
afraid to report hate crimes.
If Stuart was targeted because of his sexual orientation - and at
this point it is still an if - Strathclyde Police have an
opportunity to show that homophobia is not tolerated in Scotland.
666 hate-crimes were reported to Scottish police in 2010, up by 54%
from 2007/08. By acknowledging the possibility Stuart's murder was
motivated by homophobia, the police appear to be taking a positive
step in addressing homophobic hate-crimes as a reality they are
confronting. The same may be said for the media too; Gay Rights
activist Clare Dimyon MBE suggests that the press-attention for
Stuart's murder denotes a similar shift within the media - "the
fact they are calling him a gay man and not a 'self confessed
homosexual' is a change" as is the fact the "the mainstream press
are mooting the possibility of homophobia as a motivation."
'Homosexual' might not be a taboo word anymore, but it certainly
seems to have snagged on the fence of intolerance. So the question
arises- where do we go from here? It seems sensible to start at the
beginning; according to Stonewall, three out of five victims of
hate crimes say they were committed by a stranger under the age of
25, debunking the myth of generational homophobia. It is not just
the elderly and middle-aged who harbour homophobic feelings - so
what can we do to fix this?
Clare points to "Education, Education, Education" as key to
breaking this worrying trend. A teacher herself, says she "fears to
work in mainstream schools in the UK, even in Brighton because
[she] can't cope with the homophobia". Despite this, Clare travels
across Europe educating school children about the history and
development of PRIDE and the emergence of the LGBT
people. By educating from the bottom up, it is possible
to stifle prejudices before they take root. Education programmes
about LGBT issues and a unified attitude to tackling homophobia in
schools could go a long way to instil the idea that homophobia is
unacceptable. How many times do we hear youths using the word "gay"
to describe something they dislike?
Imagine if this was challenged every time it was used - if someone
explained to them why this was offensive. Sadly, this doesn't
Suran Dickson, Chief Executive of Diversity Role Models asserts
that LGBT legislative progress and the increased media
representation of members of the LGBT community over the last 10
years may have actually "left many young people with an even
stronger desire to prove they are not gay. This is often carried
out via aggressive words or actions towards people who may not fit
prescribed gender stereotypes. I still have the impression that
being called gay is the greatest insult students can dish out in
the corridors." Within schools, low-level homophobia is often
ignored as a non-issue; students are not challenged; they are not
encouraged to rethink their attitude. Is it any wonder then that
our young people grow up thinking that homophobia is acceptable?
Suran concludes somewhat sadly that when this "transfers onto the
streets - particularly when fuelled by alcohol and testosterone -
[it] can lead to vicious and unwarranted attacks on people
perceived as gay or just different."
As the police investigate Stuart's murder further, time will tell
whether it was a hate-crime or another callous act. Irrespective,
Stuart's murder has reopened painful memories for the LBT community
as well as highlighting uncomfortable present day realities.
N.B. Statistics taken from the government website, The
Guardian and Stonewall.