Gay Times July 08 - Issue 358
Gay men are still wary of kissing or holding hands in public, despite massive social changes and anti-discrimination laws. Does anyone have the right to stop us?
Last year, gay teenagers Steven Black and Mark Craig claim they were ordered off a bus in Aberdeen because Mark had his arm around Steven’s shoulder. When they refused, the driver forced them to sit in separate seats. Three months later, the same driver prevented the couple from getting onto his bus, the last bus home that night.
In March, a gay couple embraced at London’s St Pancras International station. Suddenly an announcement boomed over the public speaker system: “Can passengers please keep their hands to themselves and refrain from kissing.”
In late March, Martin Packer and Chris Hughes held hands as they walked out of a club in Cardiff. A group of three men started shouting abuse at them, then two ran over and punched and kicked them in what police described as a “horrific” attack. At the time of writing, no arrests have been made.
In 2008, it seems it’s easier to marry another man than to hold his hand in public. Fear of prosecution, humiliation or attack cause many to think before showing affection beyond the safety of a gay venue, their own home or a few privileged enclaves: parts of Soho, Canal Street... That’s about it.
It’s a typical Saturday at Bluewater in Kent, Europe’s largest shopping mall. Determined wives and bored husbands brush past pale emo kids and teenage girls racing toward Claire’s Accessories. Straight couples kiss and hold hands absentmindedly while wandering from shop to shop – it’s a privilege not afforded gay people.
“I see gay men kissing in clubs and bars, but not here,” says 17-year-old Louise, shopping with her mate Georgia. “But it wouldn’t bother me at all.”
“Maybe if two men were being really passionate with each other, I’d tell them to go get a room,” laughs Althea, 37, before adding: “I’d feel the same if a man and woman were going for it.”
Eighteen-year-old Alec isn’t so sure. “It wouldn’t bother me if I saw two men having a cuddle, as me and my mates cuddle,” he says, holding girlfriend Jenny’s hand, “but if I saw them kissing, I wouldn’t like it. The whole gay thing makes me feel a little bit sick.”
Chris, 25, and his dad Andrew, 62, are unequivocal. “I’ve never seen two men kissing here and hopefully I never will,” says Chris. “They should do it in their own homes, not openly where any kids could see.” Andrew agrees: “I’ve not got a problem with it, but I don’t want it in my face. If a security guard told them to stop kissing or leave, that would be fine by me.”
For the record, Bluewater security guards said they had never asked anyone to leave the mall for kissing or holding hands, but added that they do expect all shoppers to be “discreet”. But if we want to stride into a public place and kiss our partner’s face off, can anyone legally stop us?
It’s rare to get a definitive answer in law, as legislation is often tested on a case-by-case basis. Prosecution services in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland agree that it’s extremely unlikely for gay men or lesbians to be prosecuted for showing affection in public.
In 1988, the police were criticised after arresting two 19-year-old men for kissing each other in public during a Section 28 protest in London. The men were charged under the wide-ranging Public Order Act, introduced two years earlier. No further arrests for gay kissing were reported, and, in 2003, the Sexual Offences Act stated that it was not fundamentally illegal for men to hold hands or kiss in public.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland you can be prosecuted under common law for “outraging public decency” if you do anything that causes “alarm or distress” to another member of the public. This applies anywhere open to the public, including shopping malls and train stations, and could lead to a maximum of six months in prison or a £5000 fine. Scotland’s “breach of the peace” law has a similar function.
In theory, these laws could be applied to people being overtly affectionate in public, but in practice they’re seldom used. Last year, 85 public decency cases made it to court in England and Wales out of more than one million cases dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Prosecutors from all four nations weren’t aware of either law being used against gay men for being publicly affectionate.
“We prosecute on behalf of the public at large, so we consider whether it would be in the public interest to proceed with each case,” a CPS spokesman said. “We consider what a jury would think of the case, and whether an average person in the street would be particularly bothered.”
For example, a public decency case brought against two sunbathers who flashed their breasts at a CCTV camera in Worthing, West Sussex, last summer was dropped when the CPS decided that no-one had been offended by their actions. It would be a different story, however, if an affectionate couple got carried away and ended up having sex in public, when they could be charged with a sexual offence.
Legal developments have made it even less likely for gay couples to be prosecuted for being affectionate in public. Courts in the UK must abide by the European Convention on Human Rights, which prevents discrimination on the grounds of sexuality. So if a gay couple were prosecuted for kissing passionately in public, prosecutors would have to prove that a heterosexual couple would also be prosecuted for kissing in public under similar circumstances.
In addition, if a gay man or lesbian is denied the same goods or services available to a straight person, they could call upon the Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations. Introduced last year, these aim to ensure we all receive the same treatment from businesses, councils and health services, regardless of our sexuality. So restaurant owners can no longer eject gay couples for holding hands across the dinner table, for example. The law is finally on our side when it comes to showing public affection. In the light of recent incidents, it seems businesses are beginning to recognise that fact.
Bus operator Stagecoach maintains that it did not discriminate against Steven Black and Mark Craig when they were asked to get off a bus for embracing each other. “The driver warned two passengers about the nature of their behaviour following a complaint from a fellow passenger,” says Stagecoach spokesperson Steven Stewart.
The teenagers denied that anyone complained, but after investigating the incident the company concluded that its driver had not behaved inappropriately. Three months later Stagecoach disciplined the same driver for refusing to allow the couple back onto his bus. “We will not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” Mr Stewart says. (It may be worth remembering that this was the company whose founder, Brian Souter, rabidly supported Scotland’s Keep The Clause campaign.)
Rail operator First Capital Connect disciplined the member of staff who “unacceptably” used the public speaker system at St Pancras to instruct a gay couple to stop kissing. “She made what she thought was a flippant, off-the-cuff remark, not realising it could be seen as highly offensive,” a spokesman for the firm says. “We do not tolerate homophobic or racist behaviour, and she was moved to another station. It will not happen again.”
So far as the law is concerned, there is now little to stop gay men showing affection in public. However, the experience of Martin Packer and Chris Hughes, who became targets of a vicious attack after holding hands in Cardiff, shows that society still has some way to go to catch up with legal change.
Police forces around the UK don’t advise gay men or lesbians against showing public affection. “It might be perfectly OK to kiss or hold hands in a public place,” says a spokeswoman for London’s Metropolitan Police. “We just tell everyone to be aware of their surroundings and to use common sense in the way they behave.”
More from Gay Times July 08 - Issue 358
If you are subjected to abuse or attack after holding hands or kissing, report the incident to police to ensure they are aware of the extent of the problem. Homophobic hate-crime charity Galop advises that this can also be done via national lesbian and gay switchboards
Words: Tom Bishop