I have lost count of how many times I have felt the need to swap seats on the tube, in a bar, or even in a library because of a kissing couple. I know it does not bother some people, but I get wound up into a fury at the blatant and unnecessary display of bad manners of people who find either find it impossible to control themselves in public, or are such exhibitionists that they take extra pleasure from canoodling in public.
When I heard the news, therefore, of the kerfuffle over the kissing gay couple in Soho I felt momentarily torn. Jonathan Williams and James Bull, young gay men out on their first date, had enjoyed a nice dinner before moving on to the John Snow, a pub on the edge of gay-friendly Soho. The pub is a friendly venue which welcomes a mix of folk, and on the occasions I have been there, gay and straight customers appeared to blend easily together.
During the evening the men began kissing, and were soon asked “politely” by a customer to stop because it was “bothering him”.
The couple refused to leave, and continued kissing. Eventually, the landlady told them to leave as they were being “obscene”. The original complainant then joined in and took hold of Williams’s coat lapels, amid protestations of the couple’s innocence.
Inundated via Twitter, Facebook, newspapers and numerous web sites and blogs with stories about the so-called homophobic attack on the men I was expected, as a lesbian, to sympathise. A number of protest groups have sprung up since the incident, and couples, gay and straight have been planning to teach the staff at the John Snow a lesson, with hundreds pledging to attend “kiss-ins” both there and at other Samuel Smith-owned venues.
Williams and Bull say that their treatment by the bar staff was inappropriate and heavy handed, and I agree that it seems over the top to attempt to physically eject the men from the pub for such a minor misdemeanour. But was it homophobia? As a lesbian, and a life-long campaigner against anti-gay bigotry I can honestly say I do not know.
Some things are cut and dried. A same sex couple being refused a double bed in a B&B is blatant prejudice. Being assaulted in the street, as has happened to me, because of holding hands with a partner is another.
But is the reaction to the John Snow debacle a knee-jerk one? Is it because there still exists appalling homophobia in the UK that anytime gay men are chastised over their behaviour it is assumed to be fuelled by bigotry and discrimination rather than views on acceptable behaviour?
Historically, public sex between gay men (cottaging) has been defined as part of “gay male culture” and therefore, according to some, above criticism. Obviously I am not comparing kissing in a pub to having sex in a public toilet or park, but perhaps the fact that cottaging has been defended by some gay rights campaigners almost as a “right” of an oppressed minority has resulted in the application of a double standard.
Cottaging grew out of a climate in which there was nowhere for gay men to meet legitimately in public, such as the bars and clubs now prevalent in cities, towns and even villages around the UK. But it still exists as a practice. In 1998 Labour Party MP Ron Davies was mugged at knife point on Clapham Common and resigned after it became clear he was cruising at a known cottaging area. There have been more recent cases involving public gay figures such as the singer George Michael.
It has been argued by the likes of gay pressure group Outrage! that police activity in known cottaging areas is fuelled by homophobia as opposed to upholding public decency. But I cannot imagine that many folk would wish to stumble upon two men having outdoor sex.
I recently read in my local newspaper that one of the toilets of a well-known north London department store is becoming a haunt for gay men looking for sex, and that one man has been cautioned after being discovered having sex with another in a cubicle. This is not OK. Heterosexuals are rightly condemned and arrested for “Dogging” (having public sex in car parks), so why should gay men be let off the hook because it used to be difficult to find a sexual partner?
To return to the couple in the John Snow; if the protest against them kissing was fuelled by homophobia then I wholeheartedly disapprove. But I believe there is a time and a place for public displays of sexualised behaviour, whatever your sexual orientation. I find it distasteful and unpleasant, and have no desire to witness such intimacy between people I do not know. If I did I would go to a sex club.
I asked a number of my lesbian friends whether they think that what happened to the couple was homophobic, and all were pretty much united in opinion. “If they would treat heterosexual couples in the same way then no, of course not,” said one, “I don’t think it has to be homophobia. I find snogging in public a bit too sexual for public display, best done privately, whether homo- or hetero-sexual couples,” said another. “Personally, if I was asked to stop I would have done and not dreamed of carrying on.” But my favourite comment has to be, “I think full-on snogging in public is a bit naff if you are older than about 15, no matter what gender the snoggers are.” Hear, hear.