When Phillip Schofield came out as gay on live television earlier this month, he was, on the whole, met with a wave of love and encouragement. Celebrities and members of the public both flocked to give their support, share their own stories or even thank the star for giving a voice to LGBT+ issues and the struggle that many face in coming to terms with and sharing their sexuality or gender identity.
But behind this screen of acceptance and tolerance it is important that we do not get complacent. Although the mostly positive press coverage and public reaction to Schofield’s announcement is hugely encouraging to the LGBT+ community, it does not represent the whole story. In fact, the way in which this story shocked and enraptured the nation may show how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go.
Reflecting on LGBT+ history, it is amazing how different our experience in the UK is now compared to just a few decades ago. From the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 to the repealing of Section 28 in 2000, the LGBT+ community has consistently gained in acceptance and representation in the UK over the past few decades, with the first same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland taking place just this month.
But we still face challenges. You only have to look at the graphic images of a lesbian couple who were subject to a homophobic attack in London last year to see that LGBT+ people still face discrimination and hate crimes on a daily basis. In fact, even the way in which the UK media seized on Schofield’s announcement and the nation’s subsequent fascination highlights that being gay is still something that requires a reaction. Of course Schofield’s high profile and his choice to come out on his own breakfast show means that coverage was inevitable. But the fact that this was headline news changes it from a heartfelt moment of human authenticity to a sensationalist gossip topic.
Coming out is undeniably important. For many, it is a vital step to feeling they are being their authentic selves and it is a release after years of struggling with questions of identity and sexuality. Personally, it was the only way that I could truly love myself for who I am, a way of bringing my true self out of the shadows. No-one’s story is the same, and everyone faces challenges, be it with family, friends, or even themselves.
More importantly, it is a moment that should be treated with respect and met with support, rather than being a national news story. The fact that Phillip Schofield received so much love made me truly happy. But there are thousands of LGBT+ people who do not have millions of fans, who do receive this love and support. Social media platforms such as Twitter are a hotbed of horrific abuse and discrimination, particularly against trans and non-binary people, and almost every LGBT+ person can tell you a story of intolerance, lack of acceptance or even worse.
It is always good to focus on the positives of stories such as this, and there is no doubt that being a member of the LGBT+ community in the UK is a thousand times better in 2020 than it was in 1920. But with openness comes more room for criticism. There is still a huge generational and rural-urban divide when it comes to acceptance of the LGBT+ community and it is hard to feel safe in yourself when even some people in government do not believe in, or agree with, your very existence.
I have the utmost pride and sympathy with Phillip Schofield and his family’s silent struggle. The fact that he has mainly been received with open arms is a hugely encouraging sign, something that would not have been thought possible just a couple of decades ago. But until ordinary people stop feeling forced to hide who they are, to pretend to be someone they’re not for their own physical or emotional safety, we still have work to do.