Saturday, 16 April 2011

When a kiss is not 'just a kiss'

When is an innocent kiss between two young men in a pub deemed 'obscene'? That was the question on everyone's lips - if you'll excuse the pun - at a 'kiss-in' protest outside the John Snow pub in London's Soho last night. The catalyst was the reaction by a complete stranger in the pub, and the landlord's response, to a seemingly innocent snog between 23-year old James Bull and 26-year old Jonathan Williams, who had the audacity to show more than a little interest in each other after a successful first date on Wednesday evening.

As far as I know, there's no law against kissing. But, I know that landlords are entitled to throw people out of their premises if they are causing a disturbance, or discomfort to other patrons. And it's entirely true that heterosexual couples have been thrown out of pubs for over-affection. But, as Williams has said, “p
ublic decency laws tend to, from my understanding, apply to indecent exposure. We were kissing on the lips”.

If I am a complete stranger to you and I kiss my boyfriend, as a gay man, without doing anything lewd or obviously inappropriate, am I *really* offending you? Or do you just ignore it and concentrate on having a good time with your own friends or partner?

I don't like to assume that Britain is fundamentally homophobic. Public attitude surveys have recently shown a clear swing towards tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. But I wonder if Britain is still just far too prudish in an age of sexual liberation and enlightenment and, as a friend said to me “
uses prudishness to justify homophobia”. Maybe this is true.
I fear that in an age of civil partnerships and employment equality we're still in danger of letting archaic views go unchallenged. Yes, gay and lesbian people have more or less got legal equality. But I still can't go down most streets in London – let alone anywhere else - holding hands with my boyfriend without attracting stares, while straight couples go completely unnoticed. I don't want to be noticed. I don't want to be tolerated, nor accepted. I want complete ambivalence. And that goal seems so far away, even in my lifetime.

The politics of Wednesday's protest were a bit of a mess and it was hardly a coherent campaign built over a long period time. It was a spontaneous event brought together by the power of Twitter, which may have been unthinkable a few years ago. Social networking and mobile phones have helped mobilise people in a way that people had maybe forgotten how to do until recently. As someone Tweeted:

I got thrown out of a bar once years ago for kissing my boyfriend. But it was before Twitter had been invented, so we just laughed”.

But I began to wonder how the trend towards spontaneous protesting had influenced the John Snow event, in the context of a government which is finding new outposts of dissent every day, not least the enormous anti-cuts protests just a few weeks ago. Gay and lesbian people - often accused of being apolitical or indifferent – have an opportunity in the aftermath of this incident. If the LGBT community wants to take this further, the John Snow protest could build into something a lot bigger. It's hardly a comparison, but the attitude of Barclays Bank in South Africa in the 1980s soon changed when it became clear that the younger customers who might otherwise bank with them boycotted them for being complicit with apartheid – and they pulled out.

Here's a bit of free consultancy for the Sam Smith's public relations people – if you even exist. Listen and take note of what your customers are saying about you. Because the protests will be back outside the John Snow every Friday until you apologise to Jonathan and James and change your attitude.

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