Yesterday, The Independent reported on a horrifically violent homophobic assault in Portsmouth. A group of 15 men accosted eight lesbian women on a night out, hurling homophobic abuse at them before attacking them physically.
I read the report yesterday morning, and it haunted me all day, as it probably did most LGBT readers. On the way to work, the same lines of text replayed over and over on the inside of my eyelids, and stayed with me all day as a weight in the pit of my stomach. My journey on public transport was attended by irrational paranoia, every flash of eye contact with another passenger accompanied by a surge of defensiveness when filtered through the lens of that single, terrifying event.
I’m used to these sporadic periods of heightened fear – all LGBT people are. One day someone snarls a slur at you as you pass them in the street, and for the rest of the day you feel a little sick. Everyone feels like a potential enemy. If total strangers can sniff you out in a crowd of pedestrians and spit their homophobia at you, then it’s surely rational to be on edge, alert, constantly anxious. As Panti Bliss so brilliantly put it, you “check yourself”.
For most of us, these minor acts of aggression are regular occurrences, and eventually one learns to diminish their significance. You have an unpleasant encounter with some drunken lads, and it unsettles you for a couple of hours, but then you put it out of your mind. You tell yourself they were joking, you tell yourself they couldn’t hurt you in public, you tell yourself you’re safe in a group. You cling to these tenuous rules like precious talismans, and weave them into a safety net for yourself. You construct a mythology around these boundaries that you think people won’t cross. You tell yourself the spectre of homophobia will never spill into your life as long as you don’t go down dark alleys alone, like male violence against our community is something mythological, and can be fended off by adhering to rituals and obeying norms.
Yesterday’s attack was particularly frightening for LGBT people because it crossed all of these lines, and broke all of these rules. It was shocking for the sheer brutality and fearlessness of the aggressors – one of the victims was hit so hard she lost seven of her front teeth, her jaw was dislocated, and the men continued to hit her up to “20 or 30 times” despite the presence of children and other women begging them to stop – but mainly it shook us because it reminded us our safety net is a delusion. These women were in public, they were in a group, they were just having fun – but it didn’t keep them safe.
Male violence casts a shadow over the lives of women and LGBT people – we don’t even need the statistics to tell us that men are our aggressors, because we live in fear of them. Our only hope most of the time is to try to shake it off and grin through the indignity. When men accost me and my boyfriend in McDonalds, our best hope is to just politely listen to the abuse and wait for them to get bored and leave. But sometimes, it all becomes too much to bear, and you entertain thoughts of retaliation. What if I just let the anger take over and shouted back, you think?
Yesterday’s assault was a harrowing answer to that question. If you dare to stand up to male aggression as an LGBT person, you can expect brutal, savage violence in return. Misogyny and homophobia bubble secretly beneath the veneer of acceptable masculinity in society, always looking for a fissure in your armour through which they can erupt. If you dare to assert yourself, you give male violence the excuse it needs for escalation. If you try to reclaim your dignity, you pay in blood.
And this is in the lovely “liberal West”! If you’re unlucky enough to be born in Chechnya, where LGBT people are currently being rounded up, tortured and imprisoned, then patriarchal violence will actually be state-sanctioned.
As LGBT people, we are always accused of forcing our politics on people. But we are not the ones being political. Those eight women were not being political outside that pub by singing merrily – they were simply existing. The fact that men in our society continue to visit physical and social violence upon us on a daily basis is what forces our very existence to become a protest.
Brian O’Flynn is a Dublin-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @.