young lesbian, gay and bi women share their experiences of homophobia today
Following recent violent attacks on LGBTQ women and enby individuals, we examine the unique intersection of homophobia and misogyny and ask what can be done.
“I kissed my girlfriend, then we looked up and realised we were being filmed by a man in his forties on his phone,” explains Emma. She was 17 and at Birmingham Pride in 2009, her first ever Pride event. “He would not leave us alone and we couldn’t find any security personnel. I haven’t gone back to Pride since; I didn’t feel safe.” Another bisexual woman, who is now 26, says she hasn’t returned to London Pride since 2017. “I was clearly with another woman,” she says, “[when] a man came up behind me and pressed his erection into me.”
It’s damning that sexually assault could take place at Pride, a jubilant event built to celebrate how far the LGBTQ community has come. But according to these women, and many others, homophobia takes a particularly toxic form when it combines with misogyny. And that happens a lot.
"This misogynistic homophobia is rooted in an attitude of men feeling they have an entitlement to have women perform for them sexually and to submit to their requests."
Reports last week told of how Melania Geymonat and her girlfriend Chris were attacked on a bus by a group of boys after they would not kiss on demand. The couple’s bags and phones were stolen and a photograph of them splattered with blood has gone viral. Five young men aged 15-19 have been arrested. Melania has said the attack on her and Chris was “chauvinist, misogynistic and homophobic violence”.
Lesbian, bi and queer women will recognise this sort of violence. As well as outright disgust of homophobia, they face the entitled lustfulness of misogyny. Sharing their own stories of what happened to them after learning of what happened to Melania and Chris, they’re angry, upset and shocked, but not surprised.
First, there are instances of blunt homophobia where women are treated as somehow lesser for being readably lesbian, bi or queer. “Me and my girlfriend were walking through Manchester City Centre holding hands,” says Amy, 26, “and a man walked towards us, staring us down. As we passed him, he turned to walk behind us for a while, loudly singing songs about sinners going to hell. It was very intimidating.”
In Dalston, east London, Sorcha, 27, was holding hands with her girlfriend when “a guy from across the road threw something at us -- I think it was loose change -- and shouted ‘disgusting!’” She has noticed that dating a butch woman, “with short hair” has led to an increase of hurtful comments on the street.
Revulsion towards homosexuality will sadly be familiar to many same-sex attracted people. Women’s experience of this diverges, though, when misogyny strides in. This specific hatred of women rears its head when butch lesbians are deemed unattractive to men and therefore are insulted, or feminine lesbians are seen as attractive to men and thus imposed upon.
"This misogynistic homophobia is rooted in an attitude of men feeling they have an entitlement to have women perform for them sexually and to submit to their requests.”
Laura Russell, Stonewall’s director of campaigns, policy and research says that the alleged attack on Melania and Chris “wasn’t just a homophobic attack” but “had misogyny thrown in for good measure”. “It’s tempting to think that in 2019 lesbians and bi women are safe from attacks like these,” she adds, “and indeed we all should be. But sadly, this isn’t the reality.”
Instead, the blend of misogyny and homophobia starts off small, “Twice, [me and my girlfriend have] been stopped by a lone man on the tube who has told us that we are ‘such a great couple’,” Becky, 31, explains. “A few kind words are better than being attacked or verbally abused, but I just can’t shake the idea that for a man in his late 40s to insert himself in order to offer his decree on two young women’s relationship is a bit off.”
Unfortunately, with statistics showing that 64% of women face sexual harassment in public, rising to 85% for women aged between 18-24, this seemingly casual compliment fits neatly into a pattern of worse-intentioned invasions of privacy.
“A guy interrupted me and my girlfriend in a bar where we were having a really lovely, deep conversation,” Jo, 29, explains, “to tell us we were ‘beautiful’ and [to ask] could he buy us a drink.” Amy has experienced this too, explaining that she and her girlfriend “will be minding our own business while out for a drink or meal when we’ll hear from a table of men: ‘Are you going to kiss?’”. “It makes my skin crawl,” she adds
Emma, who is now 27, says she has been offered £50 by a man outside London’s only dedicated lesbian bar, She Bar in Soho, to accompany him inside (men are only admitted if accompanied by a woman): “I asked him why and he said ‘Because I love watching lesbians.’”
Some men won’t only ask, though. Rachael, 28, was in Shoreditch, when she shared a goodbye kiss with her date. “A man shouted ‘What the fuck’s going on here then?’ I immediately went into alert mode… I pulled away, and he was standing right next to us, with his face peering directly into ours. He wouldn’t have done that to a straight couple or even to two men.”
“You are intimate with a partner,” Sorcha says, “and then a man feels he is entitled to be part of your space or experience. It makes me feel so uncomfortable.”
None of these incidents involve criminal acts. And according to Rachel Krys, co-director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, their motivations seem to be clear. “This misogynistic homophobia is rooted in an attitude of men feeling they have an entitlement to have women perform for them sexually and to submit to their requests,” she argues.
But that attitude causes even worse behaviour. Take that harrowing experience at London Pride. The woman, who is now 26, says “One major difference between being in a heterosexual relationship and a gay one, is the former makes you less vulnerable to sexual assault and the latter makes you more so.”
As for Emma, her first trip to a gay bar in Birmingham went about as well as her first trip to the city’s Pride. Again, an older man was taking photos of her, and “security said that as we were in public we didn’t have a right to privacy. I wasn’t out to my parents at the time and the idea of the images being circulated scared me." Because of her experiences, Emma feels "more unsafe in LGBT spaces than outside of them”.
Gay bars are not free from misogyny, either, frequently denying access to women. Sorcha has even received abuse from gay men: “We were called ‘fucking dykes’ by a very angry man and his boyfriend after they were served second behind us in a kebab shop. I called him out on being homophobic and he shouted back ‘I’m gay, that’s not possible!’”
So where is safe? For Jo, somewhere as seemingly anonymous and functional as a bus station isn’t: “A guy punched me in the head last summer at a Walthamstow bus station when my girlfriend and I declined to engage with him.”
She didn’t report it to police, after having previously reported assaults to no resolution. Additionally, she says she had no way to prove that his motivations were homophobic. “But out of around 15 people at the bus stop it was me he chose to punch in the forehead,” she says, “completely unprovoked.” At the time Jo adds that she was wearing a suit.
The woman assaulted at London Pride also didn’t report what happened, because “it didn’t feel out of the ordinary and because I didn’t expect the authorities to take it seriously or respond effectively”.
Jessica White, Community Safety Lead at the LGBT Foundation, Manchester’s leading LGBT rights charity, is pretty certain of the motivations behind sexual violence against lesbian, bi and queer women: “Women are punished for not choosing to be sexually available to men, and as such there will often be sexual harassment in homophobia against women to ‘correct’ them into being sexually available to men.”
She adds: “With lesbians often sexualised for the entertainment of others, many also feel a degree of ownership over lesbian women’s sexuality.”
Over 75% of men watch porn and PornHub’s most-searched category for two years running has been “lesbian”. Regularly filmed from a man’s point of view, and sometimes also featuring a man, this genre appeals to the sort of homophobe who can, at best, learn the un-truth that lesbians are here for male consumption, and at worst, pretend such consumption is a homophobia get-out card. To quote Jeremy Clarkson, “I know I’m not homophobic as I very much enjoy watching lesbians on the internet.”
Women who sleep with women face a specific sort of sexualised fetishisation in public spaces, like any woman whose identity is misrepresented by a porn subcategory, explains Krys. “It’s about intersecting identities,” she says “Women are very vulnerable, particularly young women, and the minute you add in a minority identity -- gay women, black women, women with disabilities, hijabi women -- they experience a more violent form of harassment and misogyny.” Other women frequently hypersexualised in their representations in porn include East Asian women and trans women. Both trans women and men, some of whom do not pass as cis and can be perceived as sexually available by virtue of their liberal attitudes towards gender, or butch lesbians, are also likely to be punished for not being sexually available for straight cis men, by eliding their porn-influenced fantasies.
Of course, lesbians can and do live other identities concurrently, and that impacts the sort of bigotry they encounter. Maria, 21, is Brazilian, and explains that she’s often fetishised for being latinx and “exotic”. “If I’m kissing a girl in a club, it’s guaranteed that men will come up to us and say something, grab us, try to kiss us, ask for a threesome,” she says. “It’s a violent appropriation of fundamental pillars of my character that are used for sexual power over me.”
The problems are vast. To Krys, the solution is only in sight once the problem is recognised: “If you ignore this as violence against women, you can’t even to start to think about how you may prevent these crimes.”
Measuring how many women are on the receiving end of homophobia might help in this regard. But while there has been an increase in reported hate crime incidents because of someone’s sexual orientation from 2011/12 to 2017/18, these figures cannot be readily broken down to show sex of the victim. However, Stonewall, the LGBT rights charity, found in 2017 that 21% of lesbians and 14% of bi women had experienced a hate crime for their sexuality in the last year, compared with 19% of gay men and 16% of bi men.
Nevertheless, lot of misogyny, such as a man leering at a woman kissing another woman, stops short of being a hate crime, and although sex is a protected characteristic in our Equality Act 2010, hatred towards someone because of their sex is not recognised by our current hate crime legislation.
Education is also key, Krys says, to sorting out this problem, “We need to look at how we’re socialising boys and girls in school and the sorts of attitudes and behaviours condoned and tolerated in society.”
Age-appropriate same-sex relationships education is compulsory in all state schools, apart from faith schools, which has, in places, resulted in children being taken out of school amidst angry, homophobic protests. The misogyny inherent in these protests shone through when one activist protesting outside Birmingham’s Anderton Primary School proclaimed: “God created women for men’s pleasure”. In March, 21 MPs voted against this sort of compulsory age-appropriate same sex education, including Conservative leadership candidate Esther McVey, who says parents should be able to remove children from such classes until age 16.
Filling in the gaps left by a lack of education to tackle misogynistic forms of homophobia, the LGBT Foundation in Manchester offers women-specific outreach to its beneficiaries, with White saying that the organisation “trains its staff to deal with the ‘nuances of a person’s identity’ and offers ‘dedicated men’s, women’s and trans programmes’ [and]peer-led spaces for LGBT people to socialise in with people who ‘get it’”.
Stonewall sees the under-reporting of hate crime as an issue and is working with police and the Crown Prosecution Service, Russell says, “to better support LGBT people reporting abuse”.
The Law Commission is currently reviewing sentencing guidelines around hate crime, and part of this work will assess whether homophobic hate crime deserves as tough a sentence as religious or racially motivated hate crimes. It’s a shame that plans to make misogyny a similar hate crime have been shelved, though, as this could provide an added protection for all women who’ve endured anything like the incidents detailed above.
Once it is appreciated that we live in a society that so keenly objectifies and belittles women, it is easy to realise how a lesbian couple might experience a sexualised type of homophobia in public. It needs to be recognised for what it is, it needs to be measured, it needs to be legislated for and it needs to be stamped out.