Unsurprisingly, Mr Silvester was suspended from the UKIP Party following his remarks, on the grounds that his beliefs did not reflect those of the Party. Is it also unsurprising that political opponents used this incident as a means to undermine UKIP. Conservative District Councillor for Henley, William Hall, told The Independent that he hoped UKIP supporters would realise that this was evidence that the party was ‘a seriously unpleasant organisation’ underneath the ‘varnish’.
Although Silvester’s comments were generally met with derision, this is not an isolated incident in British politics. During a memorable edition of Question Time in 2009, BNP leader Nick Griffin admitted he found two men kissing in public ‘creepy’. Similarly Griffin’s television appearance severely damaged the Party’s reputation, with membership dropping by 68% between 2009 and 2012.
As both UKIP and the BNP are generally regarded as minority parties, it is safe to assume that views expressed by their members are not representative of British opinion. Sadly, evidence of homophobia is not only found lurking in eccentric political parties. In a study carried out in 2012 by the organisation Stonewall, it was found that 55% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people had experienced homophobic bullying at school. The School Report also found that one in five gay, lesbian or bisexual teenagers had contemplated or attempted suicide as the result of treatment by their peers. Although one might expect homophobia to be more prevalent among the older, more conservative generations, these statistics reveal a surprising trend of intolerance among the young.
Although we are not faced with the issue of teen suicide to the same extent as America, where in recent years there has been a series of deaths related to homophobic bullying, there are still instances of homophobic violence and low-level homophobia in the UK. From incidents such as the tragic story of 18 year-old Steven Simpson who died when he was set alight on his birthday in June 2012, to the debate surrounding the pejorative use of the word ‘gay’ in everyday language, it appears that there are some groups where this behaviour, fuelled by extreme religious beliefs or otherwise, is still deemed acceptable.
On an international scale, the UK is relatively forward-thinking in terms of advancing LGBT equality. In many parts of the world, in particular Asian and African countries, it is still illegal to engage in homosexual activity. This, as well as the furore surrounding Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics puts into perspective how liberal the UK appears in comparison. The existence of organisations such as Stonewall, set up in the 1980s to fight for equality for LGBT people in all areas of life reflects how far attitudes have progressed since the Sexual Offences Act of 1967.
Silvester’s outburst and continuing occurrences of homophobic bullying in the UK remind us that whilst we may be advancing in terms of social and legal rights for the LGBT population, much more needs to be done to address attitudes in society and it could some time before the LGBT community are truly ‘equal’ citizens in every sense of the word.