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  • Damian Kerlin

Freedom at what cost?

Freedom. A word redolent with benevolence. We like the idea of being “free”. We are outraged at the thought of being “un-free”. It is often presented to us as a polarity: free expression, free speech, and most recently Freedom Day on the one hand – and repression, censorship and autocracy on the other. We are to guard the former from the latter.

But is that all? What is the “freedom” we are told about, think about and experience? What does it consist of? What uses do we put it to or – perhaps even more importantly – not put it to?

Freedom of speech. You are not allowed to badmouth other people or spread lies about them. And you must not incite people to violence, discrimination, or murder. If you do, you are punishable by law. Yet, Boris Johnson once compared marriage equality to three men marrying a dog, and called gay men “bumboys”. This happened at the same time as the Brexit party’s rise in the polls – topping some – with its leading light, Ann Widdecombe, saying that science “might produce an answer” to being gay. That was defended by the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, as a “matter of conscience”. Gay conversion therapy – a horror that was supposed to be consigned to the past – has been injected right back into the British political mainstream. If adults in a position of power can so heavily condemn our existence as free speech, we cannot be surprised our peers would do the same?

We live in a society in which one in five LGBTQ people report suffering a hate crime in the past year. And that’s going up, not down. In 2011-12 there were 4,345 reported hate crimes in England and Wales based on sexual orientation, and another 313 directed at trans people; by 2017-18, those respective figures were 11,638 and 1,651. It’s worth keeping in mind that many queer people do not report the hate directed at them: official figures capture but a tiny fraction.

We stand by and watch as history repeats itself and the media makes use of their “free speech” demonising our trans sisters and brothers, playing the same tunes that were sung about gay people in the 1980s: sexual predators, deviants, grooming and brainwashing children. It not only erases the hatred directed at trans people, it legitimises and fuels it. Some 41% of trans people suffered a hate crime or incident in the past year; 44% avoid certain streets through fear; 12% of trans employees have been physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the last year; half don’t feel comfortable using public toilets. The trans community suffers from a severe level of mental distress, and higher than usual levels of suicidal thoughts.

And this is only in the UK – one of the richest, progressive, and free countries in the world, apparently?

In May of this year Germany reported a 36% rise in hate crimes against LGBT+ people in 2020, this month in France a gay couple were beaten mercilessly by a group of men at bar for being “against nature” while a crowd of around 60 people stood by and watched, LGBTQ+ campaigners cancelled their “March for Dignity” Pride event in Georgia after counter-protestors stormed and ransacked their offices in Tbilisi, after which cameraman Alexander Lashkarava was found dead after being targeted by protesters at an anti-Pride protest in Tbilisi. And then there is Samuel Luiz, a 24-year-old nursing assistant, who was murdered outside a nightclub in northern Spain on the 3rd of July in a homophobic attack.

Frighteningly, this is merely only a few of a landslide of homophobic attacks across the world. There are STILL countries where homosexuality is illegal and where the use of social media platforms is monitored by governmental authorities to track down and persecute LGBTQ+ people in countries where there is no hate crime legislation.

In both democracies and dictatorships, it is getting harder to speak up. We are living in an age when hatred is being cultivated by the far right and that message is being taken up by many young people with disastrous results.

You can talk, but only when spoken to.

You can express yourself but tone it down.

You can be together, just not in public.

Your free to use social media but you can’t post that.

To quote Panti Bliss, “You don’t want to make it too obvious as you end up blaming yourself that you were too gay”. The dictatorship is rife but what we must all guard against is rather more subtle and creeping. We may have to recognise that the greatest danger to our exercise of freedom is lapsing into habits of thought where we acquiesce – where it becomes easier to think of the way things are as the way things ought to be.

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