I’m writing about some really horrible things today so let’s start with something beautiful instead: here’s Swedish group Erato covering Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend.
Okay. Let’s talk about hate.
Writing in Buzzfeed, Patrick Strudwick speaks to a man whose name should be more widely known. Terry Sanderson was a lone voice against the media bullying of LGBT+ people from the 1980s onwards, and won the first ever ruling against the press for homophobia.
Here’s what I grew up seeing on the breakfast table (content warning: vicious homophobia and transphobia including offensive slurs).
Poofters. Benders. Shirtlifters. Bumboys. Lezzies. This was how British tabloid headlines referred to gay men and lesbians in the 1980s — an echo of the taunts heard on the street before a beating. The stories beneath would expand on the pejoratives, justifying them with news of “sick” “evil”, “predatory” gays; all arising from a presumption: that readers would agree.
…In a typical example from 1985, Sanderson is left returning fire on one homophobic piece after the other, all drawn from a single month. The first, a Sunday People spread under the headline “Ban the Panto Fairies”, saw the comedian Bernard Manning arguing that gay actors should not be allowed on “television, on stage, in clubs or pubs” in order that they don’t “corrupt the children”.
…It wasn’t just the national newspapers. In the same column, Sanderson selected a delightful mezze of local paper bigotry. “Gays are EVIL” was the headline in a recent edition of the Bromley Leader. The Plymouth Evening Herald described a mere advert for a gay club as “an offensive gay club poster”. While the Solihull Daily Times blared in a headline: “Row over poofs and queers”.
In the same column, he reported that The Sun, Britain’s bestselling newspaper, had “negative gay stories almost every day for the past few weeks”. In one, the paper branded a council leader “barmy” for campaigning for black and gay people to be protected from murder.
It’s shocking to see how little regard the papers had for human lives. As Strudwick writes, the AIDS era produced some astonishingly vicious journalism in papers such as The Times.
Shortly after The Sun’s near-daily anti-gay coverage, The Times declared its official position in a leader editorial: “Many members of the public are tempted to see in AIDS some sort of retribution for a questionable style of life.”
The Sun and The Times are both owned by Murdoch, as was The News of The World.
“The News of the World carried ‘gay plague’ headlines in three consecutive issues,” wrote Sanderson, detailing each one: “Victims of gay plague long to die”; “My doomed son’s gay plague agony”; “Art genius destroyed by gay killer bug”.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Sun ran a headline asking, “is it wise to share a lavatory with a homosexual?”
…The Sun then called gay men “walking time bombs” with the “killer disease AIDS” who are a “menace to all society”
Even when the evidence was clear that heterosexuals also had HIV, The Sun, wrote Sanderson, “still insisted that AIDS sufferers were ‘gay plague victims’” and merrily printed headlines unencumbered by facts: “Beer mugs may spread the disease”.
There’s a generation of LGBT+ people who read this stuff daily. When some of us finally came out in later life, people around us expressed surprise. Why didn’t we come out earlier?
Here’s The Sun on 12 December 1987, when I’d just turned 15.
Perverts are to blame for the killer plague.
The homosexuals who have brought this plague upon us should be locked up… Burning is too good for them. Bury them in a pit and pour on quick lime.
Broadsheets advocating for the murder of gay people; tabloids demanding they be locked up. The national press celebrating anti-gay hate crimes. Even The Guardian got in on the act.
[Sanderson] accuses the outlet of “giving a voice to people who should never have one in a paper like that, simply because they felt they should have balance.” Sometimes it was worse than that. Media Watch highlighted the reporting of a vicar who had been caught cottaging, entrapped in a public toilet by a policeman, but rather than criticise the police The Guardian published the defendant’s home address.
Publishing a gay man’s home address during a time of homophobic murders and petrol bomb attacks. No doubt The Guardian later ran a story pondering the mysterious rise of anti-gay hate crimes.
As Sanderson notes, the focus later moved to trans women in columns containing ‘phrases such as “man in a dress”, “dicks in chicks’ clothing”, “shemales”, “trannies” and a warning to trans people: “You really won’t like us when we’re angry”.’
The media regulator proved toothless for many years, and when it did finally rule against the press – against Garry Bushell’s Sun columns – they doubled down on the abuse.
And now, as Sanderson says, “the whole thing is starting again.”
The same slurs, the same publications, often the same writers. There are growing demands for Section 28-style legislation to prevent children being “exposed” to the existence of LGBT+ people. Newspapers are telling their readers to be afraid of people in toilets. A tiny, vulnerable minority is being victimised by some of the most powerful people in the world. Hate crimes have doubled; for trans people they’ve trebled.
The newspapers didn’t stop the abuse because of press complaints adjudications, because the had a change of heart, or because they discovered basic human decency. They stopped because their readers didn’t share their hatred. There wasn’t money in it any more.
the backlash eventually ebbed, says Sanderson, as newspapers began to realise “which way the wind was blowing”. Their readers were changing before they were.
The current anti-LGBT+ abuse won’t stop until the same thing happens. That means voting with your feet, with your web browser and with your wallet.
If you buy the papers that are currently conducting a vendetta against LGBT+ people – such as the Spectator, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday, even The Guardian – or read anti-LGBT+ content online, you can’t claim to be supportive of LGBT+ people.
Your money means you are part of this. You’re funding it. You’re fuelling it.
You are paying the wages of people who make a living inciting hatred against people.
People like me.