Secondary Sociology

Sociology: Changing attitudes towards sexuality

In late June I was living in Madrid and witnessed the success of the World Pride events first-hand. What particularly struck me was the sheer size in support of the ten-day celebrations that attracted visitors from far and wide. On the first weekend of August I also made my annual visit to the wonderful Brighton pride celebrations. As a resident of the city I have grown up surrounded by sexual diversity and difference. The popularity of these events raises the question of just how far attitudes have changed in a relatively short period of time. However, it would of course be rather naive to say the events of Madrid and Brighton are truly reflective of the attitudes towards sexuality on a global scale.

2017 marks the 50th anniversary since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England in Wales. Prior to this legislation both gay and bisexual men could face up to life imprisonment for such acts, and interestingly there was no such punishment for lesbianism. Despite the change in the law being half a century ago it certainly took a while for attitudes to change as many individuals continued to experience social isolation and homophobic attacks. Only an estimated 2000 were in attendance for the very first London pride event in 1972 with very little support from anyone outside the gay community.

A further setback came in the late 80s with the introduction of section 28 under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act stated that councils should not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” in its schools. This lack of education on issues surrounding homosexuality or the very fact that children could not even pose questions on the subject made a huge dent in the attempted move towards equality.

In reality it took until the new millennium before significant changes in law came into effect. Legislation in 2000 was changed which allowed gay and bisexual people to be in the armed forces and in 2002 same sex couples could adopt children. In 2003 section 28 was also abolished. 2004 saw the introduction of civil partnerships and finally in 2013 gay marriage was made legal in England and Wales followed shortly after by Scotland. In 2017 an estimated 1 million people were in attendance to the London pride event, a far cry from the 2000 that attended 45 years earlier.

Despite this huge leap in progress though, the number of countries in the world that show such acceptance are still very much in the minority. Joining me at the Brighton pride event I had a friend visiting from Kenya. I did not consider just how much of a culture shock the event would be for her. We often forget that to witness such events if you have not seen them before is quite an attack on the senses. I asked her when she thought gay marriage may come into effect in Kenya. She reluctantly anticipated ‘not within the next century’!

Indeed, South Africa is the only country in the whole continent that allows same sex marriage. In fact at the time of writing there are only 25 countries (plus some states of Mexico) that have passed the legislation with Germany and Malta being the most recent, this however only makes up around 13% of all countries in the world. Further dissection of the statistics show that these countries are all in Europe, Australasia or the American continents other than the aforementioned South Africa.

It is no coincidence that if you look at the countries that have passed such legislation they are likely to be more secular in their make-up. Perhaps we are unlikely to see a similar pattern in Africa and Asia unless secularisation occurs which for many writers such as Bruce is a long way off occurring, if at all. Let us not forget that there are still 10 countries in the world whereby the punishment for homosexuality is death and in countries such as Uganda the anti-homosexuality act of 2014 has actually increased draconian punishments rather than relax attitudes.

It therefore becomes very difficult to judge exactly to what extent attitudes towards sexuality have truly changed as we certainly cannot make the judgement based simply on the developments in England and Wales. The real interest for me comes in an increasingly globalised, media saturated and transient world. For my friend from Kenya though it took less than 24 hours from initial shock to dancing in a tent draped in a rainbow coloured flag.

Matthew Wilkin

Matthew has been teaching Sociology for 14 years and has taught in the UK, Kenya and Spain, he currently teaches at Bellerbys College in Brighton. Matthew runs the website and the Socio-Zone iphone app.

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