IWANT to start with a question to you all: how do you feel when you see a rainbow? Those beautiful, big icons in the sky — they might remind us of happiness, of possibility.

Some people say rainbows are a sign from God.

Whatever our beliefs, when we see a rainbow, it IS a sign, isn’t it?

A rainbow is an indication that things are going to get better. It’s usually been raining, it might have been dull and dreary moments earlier, but it’s okay now, because there’s a rainbow.

I want to take you in another direction with your thoughts around rainbows.

I want to ask you, how you feel if you’re out shopping for the day and you walk through a city centre, and you notice a rainbow in a shop window or, maybe, above the bar.

You wander further into that area and you notice that you are surrounded by rainbows. Not in the sky, but in the form of flags.

That rainbow flag is a sign that the people in those outlets, in that area, are okay with people who are LGBT+.

For me, when I walk into a place and start to see there are more and more rainbow flags, I feel safe.

But there’s a flip side.

We are walking a tightrope right now.

We are walking on a knife edge because, just as I feel safe… just I feel that I can be myself… just as I feel that I can, perhaps, be brave, reach out, take my wife’s hand and walk down the street together, there are people who will look at those areas, full of rainbow flags and see them as targets.

We are walking on a knife edge because, just as I feel safe… just I feel that I can be myself… just as I feel that I can, perhaps, be brave, reach out, take my wife’s hand and walk down the street together, there are people who will look at those areas, full of rainbow flags and see them as targets.

I don’t want to dampen your spirits too much, but I have a plea today, because my fear is that as we move into a time where so many of us might be seen as been a bit more liberal or a bit more, “Right on, dude. Everything’s cool”, we don’t always see the other side of the coin.

Reading this, you might be wondering what the issue is. We’re all adults, right? We can make our own choices. We can make informed choices, as consenting adults.

That’s all great.

The trouble is that when we have that attitude, we can sometimes be absolutely blind to the fact that it is still not okay.

Speaking out

When I was first asked to do a TEDx talk on this topic (you can watch it here if you’d like to), honestly I was a little bit nervous.

I was nervous because, despite having been out for many years and with my beautiful wife for almost 22, I don’t normally talk about LGBT+ related topics.

I’m a professional speaker — I speak all over the world — but I usually speak about things more related to my coaching work: I speak about unleashing your awesome, how to be confident, how to feel empowered. I talk to small businesses about how you can build your visibility and your personal brand, build your tribe.

Although I haven’t hidden my sexuality for many, many years, it’s not something I’ve ever made a big deal out of because, for me, one of the ways that we create inclusion and equality, and fly the flag for diversity – ironically – is by not making a big song and dance of it.

Sometimes I’ve found myself getting a little bit caught up in this and thinking ‘Hold on, how can we say that we just want to be the same as everyone else, but then say, “Hey, I’m different”?’

Equal does not mean the same

The fact is, of course, that equal does not mean the same.

The sad reality is that, although we are in a time when so many are open minded, accepting and believe it’s ‘okay to be gay’, the number of hate crimes have more than doubled since 2012.

Now, that’s hate crimes across the board. That includes racism, it includes religious hate crimes, disability hate crimes, it includes transgender hate crimes, it includes gay-related hate crimes. It includes all of them.

To bring a little bit of perspective, last year, according to Home Office figures (full report HERE), there were 103,379 crimes reported, but that’s still a 50%+ increase since the 2012/2013 figures.

One in 10 people still believe that gay people are dangerous to society, and that we can be cured

And then if we look at information from GALOP (full report HERE), they will tell us that in their surveys last year, one in 10 people still believe that gay people are dangerous to society, and that we can be cured. Well, hallelujah. Give me your electronic probes and shock it out of me, people. It doesn’t work that way.

To take this further GALOP’s 2020 Online Hate Crime report (find it HERE) shows that eight in 10 LGBT+ people have experienced abuse online, two in 10 removed any LGBT+ information from their profiles or left social media altogether, six in 10 have been threatened with physical violence and four in 10 have been threatened with sexual violence or death.

For the record, before you start thinking everyone gets trolled online and we should get over ourselves, five in 10 had experienced online hate more than 20 times and one in five had experienced more than 100 incidents.

These are not one-off social media trolls looking for kicks.

Are you surprised by those statistics?

Honestly, when I was researching for my TEDx talk, I really was.

The online hate stats weren’t released when I delivered by talk, back in December 2019 but, given the amount of hateful comments I found on my own social media pages after it went live on the TEDx YouTube channel, I was less shocked when I read the survey.

If you were surprised by the numbers, that brings me right back to the point of this article…

Positive headlines

My fear is that in a time where we are seeing positive headlines, and we can get married, and equality etc, etc, we are all assuming it’s okay. And when we all assume that it’s okay, we are blind to the potential for those hate crimes growing more and more and more.

There are a hell of a lot of crimes that are not reported. There are a hell of a lot of incidents that we don’t see as being serious enough to report.

Of course, we could focus on the fact that we’re talking about reported crimes, and we could quite easily say, “Well it’s because here the police have done a cracking job”. We could say that it’s just because people now feel safe enough to report those crimes. But we know that there are a hell of a lot of crimes that are not reported. There are a hell of a lot of incidents that we don’t see as being serious enough to report.

In fact, when I was first asked to deliver the TEDx talk, I thought, ‘I haven’t really experienced that level of bigotry. How can I apply this?’

The word we don’t want to look at

When I started to think back across my life — particularly over the past almost 22 years that my wife and I have been together — though I might not have been subjected to the kind of attacks I would have reported, I certainly have experienced homophobia.

It’s a big word, isn’t it? Homophobia.

We don’t want to admit that something is homophobic.

Let me just run through a few of the incidents that came to mind, then you can decide for yourself…

Brighton

I remember some years back, my wife Asha and I had been Brighton pride. Brighton… you’d think that, that was safe haven, wouldn’t you? It’s like a shiny rainbow beacon for gay people everywhere.

Brighton was the first place we actually experienced abuse for being together.

We weren’t even holding hands. We were just walking back from the parade and the guy walked past us and says, I’m not going to swear, but essentially, “Beep, beep, beep. Gays. You should all be shot. You’re all going to hell”.

Actually, he might have said ‘gassed’. Either way, it wasn’t pleasant.

At the time, we kind of laughed it off, because that’s what you do, isn’t it?

We’re not big on public displays of affection. We were literally just walking back, and he looked, saw a couple of women walking away from a pride event, and decided they must have been there.

Just to confuse the poor guy even more, I had long hair at the time. Long hair and makeup. I couldn’t possibly be gay, could I?

I’m joking with the hair and make up comment, of course, but that in itself is another issue.

The guys in the bar

There was a time we were sitting having a meal at a bar, and a couple of guys came up to us, and were trying to chat us up, when we politely explained, “I’m sure you’ve heard this lots of times before, but actually, in our case it’s true, we’re gay”. At which point, they started to insist, “Go on then, have a snog. Go on. Prove it”.

“Well, no”. And it went from being a little bit humorous to actually feeling a little bit threatening.

Peterborough

There was the time where we were out in Peterborough shopping centre. We don’t live too far from the Peterborough. Middle England, or as we like to call it, Middle Earth.

My wife and I chanced just taking each other’s hands, just for a second, as we walked between the shops. We grabbed each other’s hand, just for a second. It was just a quick hand squeeze of solidarity. And then we found ourselves being followed for about the next 20 minutes, by two women who trailed us, loudly quoting scripture.

And then there was a time where I was partaking in the free hugs event — again, in Peterborough.

We’ve all heard of the free hugs movement, yeah? You go to a shopping centre and you just stand with a board saying, “Free hugs”. It’s just a way of giving something back. Inclusion. Bringing a bit of cheers into people’s lives.

We’d been standing there for a while, all smiles, no agenda other than spreading a little happiness, and a guy singled me out.

Somehow, this man managed to manoeuvre me away from the other people giving hugs and back me up against a shop wall.

Somehow, this man managed to manoeuvre me away from the other people giving hugs and back me up against a shop wall.

He said he assumed that I was gay, (because I had short hair by then, so obviously!?), then he started to lecture me on morality, whilst having very strong energy and backing me further and further into the bricks.

None of these things on their own seem particularly significant, but they’re the kind of incidents that we just don’t expect to be happening now, aren’t they?

These are the kind of incidents that we are blind to when we say, “Everything’s okay. Everything’s legal. Everybody accepts you”.

The forced snogs

Three times now, three different men — all of whom knew my wife and I — have grabbed me and forced their tongue into my mouth, because clearly I just have hadn’t met the right fella yet.

Is that ‘normal’? Does that count? Chaps reading this, how would you feel if another guy grabbed your wife and forced his tongue into her mouth? Women, what about you? How would you feel if another woman grabbed your fella and did the same? Is it different if it’s a same sex couple? Why?

Unconscious bias

I want us to think about unconscious bias too. That makes us feel so uncomfortable, doesn’t it?

We don’t want to think that we might have unconscious bias, but I promise we will all have it. Hey, even I have it. And when I notice it, it’s big warning sign, ‘Whoa, look at that embedded belief, Taz, do something with that!’

Let me take you back a few years to a lady we used to live next door to. Really lovely lady. Fairly liberal. You might say that she was centrist, slightly to the right, but pretty accepting.

We live in the countryside, the Lincolnshire flatland countryside, and she was talking to us and getting herself in such a panic because she’d seen a rat in her garden.

She said, “I blame the dykes”.

I laughingly replied: “That’s right. Blame us”.

She said: “I blame the dykes”.

I laughingly replied: “That’s right. Blame us”.

Our neighbour was horrified. “Oh, no, no, no. I would never call you girls that. I’d never say that about you”. And then she paused and motioned to another area of the village we live in, and said: “Those people, over there. They’re dykes”.

I said: “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa. Why is it that you couldn’t use that word for us?” (And I know there’s a lot of stuff about ‘dyke’ being derogatory. I don’t mind it actually, it’s kind of reclaimed.)

“Why is it okay to refer to the ladies over as being ‘dykes’, but not us?”

Her response? “Well because you girls don’t look like lesbians, so that’s all right”.

Just think on that for a moment. See why I was making the jokes about hair length and make up now? Are they still funny?

We can laugh about it if we choose, but scratch that surface and what is going on?

Back in time

When I was a journalist, I wrote a few reports where I looked into hate crimes. I’m going back 10, 15, 20 years now, where LGBT equality still was very much under the surface compared to today.

I remember, back then, people using Section 28 as an excuse for inequality when it came to education and even local authority funding. I also remember the local fire crew telling me the couple who’d been fire bombed, and had previously had windows smashed and dog mess through their door, had brought it on themselves because “They’re a couple of women shacked up together.”

We still were in the time when people were being told to hide their sexuality. I remember being told to hide my sexuality, because if anybody knew that I liked girls, “your career will be over”.

I say, when we were in those times but — reality check — for a lot of people it is still like that today.

I’ve been told I’m perverted — by people who actually love and care for me — and asked to invent boyfriends for family occasions. Thankfully, we have now moved a long way away from those times.

‘Normal’

Let’s talk about ‘normality’ — whatever that is!

I want to take you back to another incident.

I was sitting with a colleague in the car, when I was still in corporate land. Again, really liberal, nice guy, middle of the road.

Incidentally, he did turn out to be one of the guys stuck his tongue in my mouth, but that’s another story for another day.

We were on the road somewhere and he started having a bit of a rant. “You lot. I don’t know what you’re worrying about. You’re still having all these pride events, you’re waving your rainbow flags everywhere. Nobody cares, Taz. Nobody cares. You’re consenting adults, we can look at you and Asha and see how happy you are… Really, nobody cares”.

I replied: “Well, okay, but it’s still illegal in many parts of the world to be gay. People are still being executed in some parts of the world. And even here in the UK, we know that sometimes people will wait outside those bars that have rainbow flags and pick people off. It’s still not safe”.

Him: “Yeah. But, you’ll even be able to get married soon. You can have civil partnerships and everything”. (So that dates it a little bit.) “Nobody cares”.

Me: “Well, okay then. So, when you get married, if you have kids, and one of your kids says, ‘Dad, I think I might be gay’. Are you going to be okay with that?”

And he said: “No, of course I won’t be okay with that”.

“Well, why wouldn’t you be okay with that, if there’s no issue?”

His reply? “Well, it’ll never really be normal, will it?”

It’s was a throwaway comment, and yet, it spoke volumes. Like so many of the other lines thrown around in the workplace — the FD who told me he’d assured the bosses they wouldn’t need to worry about me taking maternity leave, the woman in accounts who complained that we’d recruited enough of ‘that kind’ already when the best woman for the job in question happened to be a lesbian, the receptionist who told me about her church running a session on ‘how to deal with gay people’, the woman in marketing who said I should organise the adrenaline-packed adventure day for clients because “You’re more like a man”.

Did I complain at the time? No. There have been far more occasions than these. All of them stung. Every time, I carried on regardless because they didn’t mean any harm.

It’s only when I look back that I realise, all these things add up.

Back to today

My fear now is that because so much is legal, so many of us are liberal, so many of us who have that beautiful mindset where we believe we’re all inclusive and it doesn’t matter, we won’t spot more right wing opinions creeping into the mainstream.

We won’t spot them because we think it’s okay and we can’t believe anyone else would think otherwise.

We live in a bubble, and social media algorithms don’t help. Neither do our reticular activating systems — they’re those bundles of nerves at the base of the brain stem that filter out all the less important bits, so our brains aren’t overloaded. If we’re not focused on something, there’s a big chance we won’t notice it… you know, a bit like when you buy a new car and suddenly see them everywhere, when they seemed virtually non-existent before. Who knows, maybe this article will help with that — it will certainly have switched on your RAS when it comes to homophobia!

Back to the point…

Just shut up — we don’t want to hear about it

When all that hatred started to hit my Facebook page after the TEDx talk went live, a lot of the commentators claimed that raising awareness was actually creating discrimination. Too many rainbow flags. Too many news reports. Too many LGBT characters on TV. Too many LGBT people in the mainstream.

Funny — I don’t see that as awareness building — I just see that as the media reflecting LIFE.

The majority of people who took issue with my talk seemed to be saying that we needed to shut up.

Let’s take that a step further, to an extreme, perhaps… is it all okay, so long as we stay down and stay quiet while they kick us?

What’s to be done here? Are hate crimes really on the rise because we dare to be visible and actually talk about them? If we don’t address the issues, won’t they just get worse?

Should we stop talking about murders in case we encourage more? What about rape? Should we stop talking about that, just in case it coaxes more rapists out of hiding?

Couldn’t we apply this argument to anything? Should we stop talking about murders in case we encourage more? What about rape? Should we stop talking about that, just in case it coaxes more rapists out of hiding? Robbery? Assault? Fraud? Let’s just stop talking about any crimes, just in case.

Statistically, there was a spike in hate crimes directly after the Brexit vote. Not just race-related, but driven by sexuality and religion as well. Is that because all those ‘minority groups’ were suddenly more visible when the question of leaving the EU came up, or is it simply because these levels of prejudice still exist? And if someone’s being triggered by the mere mention of a rainbow flag, doesn’t that mean they are carrying homophobic prejudice, even if they don’t want to admit that?

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On that note, let me also share that I was essentially accused of white privilege by someone who watched my TEDx talk. Why? Well, because I was in the position of being able to talk about these issues in the first place, when it’s so much more difficult for people born into different circumstances.

That person may have a point; I do, indeed, have it easy compared to so many others in the world.

Ordinary life with your love

Let me give you something else to think about…

If you’re reading this and you identify as heterosexual, can you imagine being in a situation where you would have to think about reaching out to take your partner’s hand in public? Can you imagine sometimes having to say, “Oh, are we walking too closely together”?

What about booking a holiday? Have you ever stopped to think ‘Is it safe to go to that place?’ Or ‘If we go there, do we need to book a twin room instead of a double, just in case?’

Have any of you who are straight allies ever been turned away from a hotel? Imagine if you tried to book a hotel and they wouldn’t accept you and your partner. That’s certainly happened to me before — there really were (probably still are) hotels that refused to accept bookings from same sex couples.

Back to the bubble

When we live in social media land, those platforms will automatically show us the views and opinions of people who are like us, and so we become blinded to the dangers. We really do live in a bubble and we become blind to the fact that there are some elements of society where homophobic opinions are rife; not only that, but there are people — even in politics – who still believe conversion therapy works.

Think about it… it’s not too long ago that Ann Widdecombe was talking of her hope that science would one day provide the answer to homosexuality. She certainly isn’t the only politician to hold similar views.

Watch out for those seemingly innocuous statements. When we brush them off as being nothing to worry about, we open a dangerous doorway for hatred.

My plea to you, if you really are allies, if you really do believe that my wife and I deserve the same rights as you, that you just watch out for those seemingly innocuous statements. When we brush them off as being nothing to worry about, we open a dangerous doorway for hatred.

It’s not too long ago that we had the Admiral Duncan nail bomb. That was in 1999. My wife and I would have been in Soho that night, except we were held back at work. Somebody was watching out for us that day.

More recently, we had the Pulse nightclub incident. That was 2016.

I want to wrap up with this…

Just after the Pulse nightclub shooting, Asha and I were walking through London; as we cut through Soho, we saw the remains of the vigil where people had been paying their tributes to all those who had been injured or lost their lives.

It had been raining. People had left cards at the vigil site, and the rain water was washing them away.

The words were disappearing.

The memories were disappearing.

And that, my beautiful people is what we do when there’s an incident.

We recognise that it’s appalling, but in the days afterwards, we allow those memories to fade, and we assume everything is okay.

It’s still not okay.

Thank you.


Taz Thornton is the author of Awesome Sauce — a free, weekly positive life and business round-up, with good news stories, positivity tips and visibility hacks for your brand. In a few minutes each week, you get a dose of optimism and some awesome advice to get seen and stay happy.

Taz is a best-selling author, inspirational business speaker and multiple TEDx speaker, consultant on confidence, personal brand and visibility, and an award-winning coach (UK’s Best Female Coach 2018 — Best Business Woman Awards). She is also the creator of the  #UnleashYourAwesome  and  #BrandMastery  personal and business development programmes, as well as #UNLEASHED — an affordable confidence, content and cashflow building programme for coaches, healers and therapists, and #LIFEFORCE — an affordable online spiritual empowerment and coaching programme for people wanting to bring more optimism into their lives.

Taz has been featured on BBC, ITV, in HuffPost, Diva, The Daily Mail and countless other newspapers, magazines and podcasts. Taz is also a regular columnist for the America Out Loud talkshow network. In 2019, she was named as one of the most inspirational businesswomen in the UK.

Find her on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and Insta.