It’s a feeling that many LGBT+ people know too well. You hear someone loudly commenting on your outfit, so you walk down the street as fast as you can, just in case. You see a group of young men hanging out on a street corner, so you cross the road and turn your headphones off, just in case. You lower your voice when speaking to people you don’t know, like a taxi driver or bouncer, just in case there’s any hassle. You develop a sixth sense with your same-sex partner, where you both know the exact moment that holding hands becomes unsafe, so you stop. Just in case, just in case, just in case.
Many LGBT+ people have developed this sense of hyper awareness. To keep out of harms way, we exist in a state of extreme vigilance. But just like any form of mindless prejudice, harm has a habit of finding us, regardless of how careful we are.
Former Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas was reminded of this on Saturday night when he was the victim of a homophobic hate crime. Thomas came out as gay in 2009 and has since become a campaigner for LGBT rights in sport. In a video posted to his Twitter page the following day, Thomas appeared battered and bruised, saying that been attacked on Saturday night in his hometown of Cardiff “because of his sexuality”.
This horrific hate crime, which occurred in a busy urban area, is a reminder of what myself and I’m sure many other LGBT+ people know to be true: hate is on the rise. Last year Stonewall revealed that hate crime had surged by an 80 per cent in the last four years. One in five of 5,000 LGBT+ respondents had been the victim of a hate crime in the last 12 months. In London, supposedly the bastion of urban progressiveness, the Metropolitan Police claim that LGBT+ hate crime has more than doubled since 2014.
Anti-LGBT+ hate crimes, whether verbal or physical, can be immensely traumatic experiences. I’m sure the impact of this incident will stay with Thomas far longer than his cuts and bruises. The fact that even Thomas – a six foot, three inches tall, traditionally masculine sportsman with bulging biceps – can be subjected to such a horrific crime, is a reminder that LGBT+ people are never the problem: violent bigots are.
We know not to, but sometimes it can be tempting for those of us who do not conform to heterosexual norms, or easily “pass” as straight, to blame ourselves when such incidents occur. For example, this summer when a man screamed at me on a bus – calling me a paedophile, a rapist and threatening me with violence while silent passengers looked on – my first thought was: “I shouldn’t have worn that purple jacket”. Even now, the shame of growing up different can be hard to escape.
Though, conversely, this hate crime offers a bleak indication for the rest of us. If a teenage perpetrator felt confident enough to launch a physical attack on a former national rugby captain, known for his brute strength and dexterity, what hope is there for those who would struggle to fight back, or do not closely embody traditional masculinity? Or those who suffer from overlapping and more severe forms of oppression, like trans people or LGBT+ people of colour? What about those of us who can’t hide our queerness as easily?
In this case, Thomas’s ability to “pass”, or the fact that he embodies a gayness that is more broadly accepted by heterosexual people, were likely erased by the fact that he is a public figure who is known for his LGBT+ activism. As a sportsman, he may have been specifically targeted for the fact he has challenged the norms in a heterosexual, male-dominated arena.
Ultimately, the only people who know the exact motivations are Thomas and the perpetrator, who reportedly met following the attack in an act of restorative justice, facilitated by the police. Though there is no justification for such a horrific crime and, while it is heartening that Thomas felt able to do so, no minority is responsible for educating perpetrators of abuse.
Restorative justice is only available to those who report hate crimes to police. Currently four in five go unreported, according to LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall, with young people particularly unlikely to come forward. Unlike Thomas, not everyone is “out” of the “closet” and confident enough to go to police. Many who have had past encounters with homophobic police, either in the UK or abroad, might be more reluctant.
In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Thomas was asked about homophobic abuse. He responded: “Now I’m not really in an arena where I could be openly abused; where I could feel unsafe. I’m less likely to be abused on the street than I used to be in a football or rugby stadium”. Yet, just a few months later, he found himself unsafe on the streets of the city he calls home.
If it can happen to a former Welsh rugby captain in the capital of Wales, it can happen to any of us anywhere. So, for now, I will continue to carefully look over my shoulder – just in case.