A few years ago, on a trip to Vancouver, I found myself sat at the back of a sightseeing trolley tour. The driver was an amiable older man, who reeled off the history of the city with knowledge and affection: dropping in the occasional insight and story from his own life as he pointed out the famous sights and local landmarks. It turned out that he had the little finger missing from one of his hands. He explained that he had been involved in an accident, and the finger had been violently bent backwards. When healed, the finger was still bent at an awkward angle backwards. Not only was this an inconvenience, but – he chuckled – “people thought I was… ahem, you know?”
Published: January 30, 2014
The occupants of the trolley laughed. Even I smiled. We all knew what people must have thought. If a man’s pinky finger sticks out backwards, he might be gay. Eventually, the driver decided it would be easier to have the near-useless finger cut off: hence the missing digit.
The trolley tour came to an end. Its occupants disembarked, entertained and educated by our history tour and the amusing anecdotes. The driver had meant no harm. It was only later, when I reflected upon the his story that the significance of what he had said sunk in. Apparently he had had a part of his body amputated because he didn’t like people thinking he might be gay. Yes, that was only part of the reason, but still, it seems to have been a factor in his decision.
I was reminded of this when I read a recent article by Graeme La Saux. In The Times at the beginning of the month, the former Chelsea football player – who, like the driver on my trolley tour, is heterosexual – reflected on how, in the early 1990s, he found fellow players and fans questioning his sexuality. The taunting began after it was discovered that he read The Guardian and had been on a touring holiday around Europe with a fellow footballer friend.
"The homophobic taunting and bullying left me close to walking away from football. I went through times that were like depression. I did not know where I was going. I would get up in the morning and would not feel good and by the time I got into training I would be so nervous that I felt sick."
Le Saux stuck things out, but the memories of his experiences – in particular, the vicious taunting he received from some other players on the pitch, have not dimmed.
"The abuse I had to suffer would be multiplied a hundredfold for a player who was openly gay. The burden would be too much."
This weekend, London’s Southbank will be hosting a three-day cultural festival entitled ‘Being a Man’. I have been invited to participate in a panel discussion on ‘Being a Gay Man’, in which one of the subjects for discussion will be ‘the level of oppression felt by gay men.’ That gay men – and women – continue to be oppressed is without doubt. Were this event to take place in Russia, I could be arrested for publicly discussing my sexuality. Was it Uganda or Nigeria, I could face a lynching or several years’ imprisonment. I consider myself fortunate to live in the UK, where laws exist to protect me from such persecution. However, although homophobic oppression may be less visible in the United Kingdom, like environmental pollution, it remains in the atmosphere. And, as the examples I offered at the beginning of this piece, I don’t believe homophobia just oppresses gay men: it affects straight men too.
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