First published on the Huffington Post
When I was 18 I worked in a village pub. One evening two customers did not really like my style behind the bar. I did not know what I had done to annoy them and carried on with my tasks, and the evening passed. The two in question were some of the last to leave, something I thought little of at the time. I left at the end of my shift and drove home. Within seconds of leaving the drive my clapped-out Micra was pelted with stones and some very unpleasant words about my sexuality followed in the same direction.
I was not hurt, nor was my little car (not that you would have been able to tell) but I was shaken. Instead of heading to bed I went on auto pilot to a place called Pink Punters. It is Fenny Stratford’s finest, just outside Bletchley/Milton Keynes off the A5. It’s a curious location for a gay bar but it was the scene of many a good night out in my teens. It was a place of joy. On this night, it was a place of safety.
I did not stay long – I was tired after work and obviously could not drink as I was driving – but I knew that after 11pm it was the one place I could go without waking anyone, where the faces would be friendly and the homophobes would be far away. It did the job and in many ways I have not thought about that night too much since.
The last time I remember recalling it was when a gay centre was targeted in Tel Aviv in 2009. Now, yesterday’s news of 103 victims at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida reminds us all of the role LGBT venues play in our community. Much fun is had at such establishments but I cannot put into words the feeling you get from being in a place where you know judgement and bigotry is beyond those doors and that love is love between those four walls. There are reminders of how special this is when you and your date have to drop holding hands when hailing a taxi or on the walk home. Orlando reminded me of their importance – and that night when I was in my Micra at 18. Those feelings were compounded as I watched the clip of Mark Longhurst hosting Sky Papers with Owen Jones and Julia Hartley-Brewer.
It appears Owen was asked to appear on the show because he is a prominent LGBT commentator (among many other things). Ahead of the show he tweeted, ‘Talking about the mass murder of LGBT people in Orlando on Sky News at 10.30pm and 11.30pm. Messed up about it but will do my best.’ He was clearly emotional. As I was. And many (if not all) of my LGBT friends who had been texting and chatting about it as the news unfolded. Owen was – as usual – a total pro. To his surprise – and my incredulity as I watched the clip – he was patronised, told he had no right to ‘own it’ as he was gay, that it was an ‘attack on the freedom of all people to enjoy themselves’ not terrorism targeted at LGBT people and their allies. The perpetrator might hate ‘gobby women’ too – as Julia so eloquently put it – but he chose to focus his hate on people because of their sexuality. That horror hits home.
I agree with Owen when he had to argue, “When gay people are targeted … it’s homophobia. An attack being also recognisable as terrorism doesn’t negate that.” Why he had to make the point is beyond me but the unprofessionalism of the host and co-commentator continued and Owen decided to walk out. I like to think I would have done the same. I fear I would not have been so well behaved.
Why watching it angered me so – and I am sure so many others – was, first, how Owen being an LGBT person in the debate was dismissed so easily. There is a growing trend by everyone who considers themselves a liberal that they are equally offended when such horrors take place and therefore has licence to suggest an attack on a particular group – especially when they feel strong affinity to said group – is an attack on ‘one and all’. In doing so Owen’s views were ten a penny. Mark and Julia may have been the victims of hate in the past – I do not know – but it seems from their position last night it would not have been because of who they love or might want to be in love with.
Second, the sneering talk of Owen being ’emotional’, like he had taken leave of his senses. It was homophobic and had very similar overtones to the blatant sexism and attacks too often made about women in public life; that they should not be present because their feeling make them ‘irrational’ and unable to tackle complex issues. Homophobia often rears its ugly head in the form of others placing LGBT people into gender-normative roles. It is not right or acceptable and Sky News should know better. As should many, especially those in the Labour party, on Twitter.
Finally, because Owen’s experience about why these events were so personal despite, I assume, having never been to Pulse in Orlando, was dismissed out of hand. The Guardian columnist may never have been to that particular bar but Pulse will be like so many other gays bars across the world, Pink Punters included. Crucially, what Mark and Julia did not get was this: it was not that anyone could have been Omar Mateen’s victim in the early hours of Sunday, it’s that any LGBT person could have been his victim. Moments before the horror unfolded the patrons of Pulse assumed the homophobes were on the outside and love meant love on the inside. As we wish the 53 a speedy recovery and remember the 50 who perished I do all I can to not think about the horror that flashed through their minds when they realised that just simply was not true. My thoughts go out to their partners, friends and family.
Richard Angell is director of Progress and former national secretary of LGBT Labour. Vigils for the vicitms of the terror attacks are taking place across the UK this evening. In Soho the event takes place at 7pm.