As I’ve blogged about before here, an emerging finding from my current research on LGBT housing and homelessness is the reticence of heterosexual-identifying staff in organisations to ask service users their sexual identity. In 20 days’ time, it will be the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of sex between two men, in private, in England and Wales when the Sexual Offences Act 1967 received royal assent. The Hansard record of the debates relating to the parliamentary bill given an interesting, if alarming, insight into social attitudes at the time.
This has led to quite a bit of focus on changing social attitudes to same-sex relationships. For example, the National Centre for Social Research tweeted this graph from the British Social Attitudes Survey demonstrating how we’ve become more accepting of same-sex relationships.
Yet my lived experience, and also my research findings suggest something different – an acceptance, but a remaining discomfort. I’ve got to think through this because one of the ways I was thinking of “queer-ying” policy, and to hit home my point that it should be normal to ask people their sexual identity, was to do a cartoon gently mocking the assumption that asking people if they are straight, gay or bisexual, is asking a question about what they get up to between the sheets (or anywhere else they may choose to have sex). I still think this will work, but I’ve realised I’ve got to do some more work on it.
As part of making sense of my data from my project I’m reading into queer theory. I’m not an expert – in a disciplinary sense, I live in policy studies – so I’ve been going to “readers”. It’s interesting for me with my historians perspective on as a lot of the texts in them are quite dated and pre-exist much of the legislative progress of the last decade in the UK and elsewhere. Here, I want to draw on the excerpt from Ahmed in the Routledge Queer Studies Reader, ‘Queer Feelings’. She focuses on the discomfort generated by being “queer”, or non-normative, and the way this rubs up against a heteronormative society. I read a lot of the chapter thinking of Panti Bliss’ famous speech on oppression.
It has also got me thinking a bit more about the discomfort people say they would feel if they had to ask people their sexuality. As I wrote previously, I do empathise with this discomfort a lot – I would probably feel a little bit apprehensive. Reading Ahmed though has got me focusing on what exactly is discomforting? Arguably, marriage equality has garnered such support because it is assimilationist – it is gay people doing what straight people do, pairing up, settling down, and having sex just with one another.
So is it the sex that a heteronormative society finds so discomfiting? I did a little experiment on this myself because I noticed that my tweets regarding LGBT issues got very little attention. Searching for a GIF once I found one that was from a gay porn film. It didn’t take much to find quite a few others on the Twitter GIF search. So I posted a hard core gay porn GIF, the obliquely showed a sexual act between two men, every day for a week. I got two likes, and one of them was for a GIF that was a passionate kiss. This suggested, to me, at least an ambivalence towards sexual acts between men.
Particularly in the UK we find all sex discomfiting. However, we are getting better at having open discussions about heterosexual sex – just not necessarily the right discussions with the right people. But we’re happy to accept lesbian and gay couples, and indeed celebrate them through marriage, yet when we consider them actually having sex, I suspect we’ve got an awful lot further to go on social attitudes.