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4 December 2014

If you want to know how socially conservative Britain still is, go to a restaurant

Lesbians have been asked not to kiss because “this is a family restaurant”, and a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby. We aren’t always as liberal as we think.

By Eleanor Margolis

When I was about three, my mum explained the rules of restaurant-going to me. You stay in your seat. You use cutlery. You say your pleases and thank-yous. You, preferably, don’t have a tantrum. In adulthood, I like to think I’ve remained true to these instructions. One restaurant rule she failed to mention though is that, if and when I grew up into a great, honking dyke, I should probably put the kibosh on my sexuality until after dessert.

This week, a lesbian couple in a branch of Canteen on London’s South Bank broke that rule. And, horror of horrors, they made their sexuality known to their fellow food-eaters and restaurant staff by briefly kissing. The two women were asked by a member of staff to stop showing each other the most basic human affection, because “this is a family restaurant”. Translation: “Your sexuality is rude.”

Even in the UK, where same-sex marriage is now legal and legislation protecting LGBT people from discrimination is in effect, these sorts of stories are all too common. Sometimes it’s hotels, sometimes it’s restaurants and sometimes it’s Sainsbury’s – on a fairly regular basis, gay couples are asked to either tone down their gayness or leave.

Why is it that in so many cases, every time we go for a burger we’re entering Victorian Britain? And it’s not just the queers who break the rules, and fall under the scrutiny of any given establishment’s selective prudishness. Also this week, a woman having afternoon tea at Claridge’s was told that she wasn’t allowed to breastfeed her baby without pitching a kind of linen tent around the entire situation. According to this batshit, backwater restaurant protocol, getting out a tit for a hungry baby (literally the most innocent thing a person can do) is the equivalent of getting up and having a wee all over the table. Pissing should be done in private, and so, according to restaurants, should feeding babies and being a homosexual.

A restaurant is somewhere you can get a decent idea of just how socially conservative British culture still is. Many gay Londoners, myself included, see the South Bank as a kind of safe haven. It’s an artsy area, full of people in creative industries, which usually translates as – “here be a buttload of queers”. This makes Canteen’s recent homophobic moment even more telling. Even in the areas that LGBT people have come to trust, deep down, we’re not welcome.

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London in particular is somewhere in which gentrification is eating into the gay scene. Venue after venue is shutting down with Madame Jojo’s in Soho and Hackney’s legendary gay club, the Joiners Arms, most recently getting the chop, to make way for “nicer” (read: less gay) things. As a result of this, it’s more important than ever that essentially heterosexual spaces become gay friendly.

As the Canteen incident has proven, same-sex couples are still forced to be careful about where they choose to kiss or even hold hands. Most non-heteros will know just how draining it is, having to consider warily when and where you show your partner even the slightest affection.

As for self-described “family” restaurants like Canteen, someone badly needs to let them know that the definition of “family” is changing.