‘I’m stifling myself’: How LGBTQ+ people have to change their behaviour in public

‘As soon as I step foot outside, I don’t feel safe’


TW: Homophobia and homophobic slurs

Recently I was walking along holding my girlfriend’s hand, when a man passing turned around and made a gagging noise at us. It was on a busy street, in central London, at lunchtime. We weren’t doing anything wrong, we were simply two women holding hands on their way back from Tesco. And he gagged at us.

Unfortunately, this kind of experience is all too common for queer people. We’re used to checking over our shoulders before any kind of physical contact, saying goodbye at train stations without a kiss because we don’t feel safe with the people around us. LGBTQ+ people have to change the way we move, dress, speak, and almost every single aspect of our behaviour, just to try and keep safe in public.

The Tab spoke to queer young people about how they have to change their behaviour when out in public. This is what they had to say:

‘I’m being robbed of my individuality’

As a trans man I often feel myself not speaking, adopting a different gait, etc around people. I also basically only wear hoodies at all times, in the hope that I pass more in a hoodie, which is warm. All this is not particularly helpful at uni where I have found myself never speaking, sat at the back so people don’t misgender me which isn’t fun! And is probably affecting my degree quite a bit.

I’m also not able to walk in most of the areas around my house after dark in case I’m given trouble, as even with all this I’m routinely yelled at in the street and I’ve had stuff thrown at me before during broad daylight. Overall it’s pretty scary even in a very liberal city, and as a student who works nights it’s also very inconvenient.

It’s safer, which is the main priority, but it sucks because I feel like I’m stifling myself. Uni is the time to dress in weird stuff and be bright and dye my hair fun colours and do all the stuff that’s frowned upon when I’m a working adult, and I feel like I’m being robbed of my individuality.

Ollie, 21

‘We don’t touch, we don’t show affection’

I think it comes from being verbally abused and stuff in public plenty of times, living in a city centre I just assume it’d be full of people who accept us but it’s not the case. It’s just sexualisation, all the time. [My girlfriend and I] will be in the supermarket and looking at us both you’d think we were friends, we don’t give any indication we’re a couple. We don’t touch, we don’t show affection or anything, and men will still come up to us all the time and be like “do you fancy a threesome?”, or “you fucking dykes”.

From those situations I’m not comfortable in showing affection or holding hands. It makes me so angry because I’m a proud lesbian woman. For me, coming out was so hard and it took so long, [before coming out] I was hiding so much, through the way I dressed and the people I hung around with. I used to distance myself from queer people because I was scared of realising who I was, but I always knew. Even in my job, people sometimes ask “why do you tell people you’re gay in that type of environment?”, and it’s like because we’re in the 21st Century? I’m not going to hide that part of me any more, it’s not who I am. I have a rainbow tattoo on the back of my arm, that side of me is so confident but when I’m in public I can’t even hold my girlfriend’s hand.

It angers me, because I’m not sure how certain people are going to react. I went to a restaurant with my mates the other week and her boyfriend put his arm around the back of the chair, no one batted an eyelid, but I know if I did some people would stand and stare and it would make me feel uncomfortable. I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary but people still today can’t get their head around that two people of the same gender can love each other and show the same affection as anyone else. It angers me and it makes me so sad because my girlfriend deserves to have that level of affection, but we’re both really cautious about it. [If people do say something], I don’t know how safe that situation is, if I should react or not react. I want to react, but my girlfriend’s always like “don’t, it’s not worth it”.

Georgia, 25

‘I limit my personality around my friends’

I honestly can’t think of a time since coming out when I haven’t had to change my behaviour when I’m in public. I avoid doing so many things like holding my girlfriend’s hand or even giving her a hug because I never really feel safe. I’ve only been out for a year and in this time I’ve been called a “f****t”, men have made vomit noises at myself and my girlfriend when we hold hands and I’ve been starred at by countless people who have a look of disgust and sometimes anger on their face. I get scared almost every time I walk down the street in case I look like a lesbian and someone non-LGBTQ+ doesn’t like it.

When I’m out with my friends I often limit my personality because I’m afraid if I get too comfortable around them, they might become uncomfortable. I spend a lot of time inside and online being angry about the state of the world and how people treat those in my community but as soon as I step foot outside, I don’t feel safe and I feel a need to change my behaviour.

Georgia, 21

‘In six years I’ve never once kissed my partner outside’

It’s pretty depressing to say I’ve been with my partner for six years and have never once held his hand out on the street, never once kissed him outside our house, and barely felt able to hug him. I’ve felt the same in previous relationships too. I remember getting really stared at the first time I hugged my first partner and that was kind of it, I never felt comfortable to show affection again.

There’s other things, too: I don’t dress the way I’d like to, I prefer to kind of “blend in” with everyone else. I don’t feel able to show my “queerness” that much, event though I’d love to express myself more.

[If I could] I think I would present myself differently in the way I dress, for example, wear clothes that are a bit more camp and outlandish, I suppose. I’m quite “effeminate” in the way I gesticulate, but out in public I tend to constrain myself and try and act more manly. The term “queer” was used so negatively when I was growing up so I’d love to be able to fully reclaim that by being my authentic self in public.

Marcus, 26

‘The worry is always in the back of your mind’

I 100 per cent change my behaviour as a gay man in public. I often act more feminine around women, particularly lone women. I will be quieter around groups of men (straight), often using what little sports knowledge I have to engage in conversation. With both straight men and women, I either feel the need to act more self deprecating or take the piss out of stereotypes.

I can be a lot less outspoken around straight people/in public. Often less “left wing” and quieter on social issues, which I feel awful about. I’m less likely to order a drink I actually want. I will rarely hold my partners hand, or display any public affection. We typically look around prior to displaying any affection.

I feel like a second class citizen, I worry for my safety quite often. Even though I’ve never had a homophobic assault, that worry is always in the back of your mind – partly from news reports, but also due to my best friend being homophobically assaulted not long ago – he’s okay now, sadly it was very traumatic.

Rhys, 28

‘It makes me feel exhausted’

I think the key thing I’ve noticed about being an asexual person in public is that people make sex jokes all the time (and expect you to laugh every time). I only realised I’m asexual recently but I’ve noticed for far longer that I was forcing myself to engage in these conversations with no real interest. I don’t mind when it’s general or about other people – I’m not interested but I can cope fine and engage with the conversation.

But jokes or comments about my sex life or who I find attractive are just – ugh. It hasn’t been as bad since I came out and stopped pretending to answer but it still makes me uncomfortable because pausing the conversation to be like “yeah, again, I am asexual. I don’t feel attraction” for the fifth time is awkward af. Plus it reinforces this idea that talking about this stuff is stilted and awkward and out of place.

It makes me feel exhausted, really. I never realised how much it took out of me and I never realised just how much I had to go along with, just to fit in. There’s an element of frustration too but for the most part, it’s just that sort of bone-deep weariness of LGBTQ people that comes from constantly reminding others we exist and we’re in the conversation.

Beth, 21

‘People branded me as ‘acting gay’

Growing up in quite a deprived low income part of the country, there’s a very strong sense of hyper masculinity, as a LGBTQ+ male there was quite a difficulty to fully come into myself. Even now after coming out to friends and family there’s still part of me that subconsciously avoids the topic. I think coming from an area where there is a lot of strong discriminatory views and not much diversity, even now being at a more open and inclusive university there is still an ingrained sense of worry about being completely open in all settings.

In the past these feelings definitely made me less willing to bring up conversations on relationships just out of fear of judgement, I definitely have second guessed how I present myself in my speaking or mannerisms out of fear that how I conduct myself somehow gave off the impression of what my sexuality was. In the past people had branded me as “acting gay” because of the way I carried myself, although I never saw this as a bad thing, I was unsure at the time as it was a while before I had even worked out my sexuality, so I definitely didn’t feel ready for others to make that judgement. So I think that led me to be more straight acting without even subconsciously realising it, because I was unsure who I really was yet, although in my head I knew the way I acted shouldn’t reflect my sexual identity, I think it just took a while for me to comfortably act myself in a lot of settings even after coming out.

I think environments such a big crowds and unfamiliar faces are still sometimes hard, because I still have that fear of the unknown of how others may act. And in a more negative light, with instances of homophobia and hate crimes being spoken about a lot on social media, I think I like many people don’t always feel 100 per cent comfortable in certain situations to always be fully open.

Sam, 22

‘This has a huge impact on LGBT+ young people’s mental health’

Amy Ashenden, from LGBT young people’s charity Just Like Us, told The Tab: “Growing up LGBT+ is still unacceptably tough – trans young people are often hearing very negative things in the press and LGBT+ young people generally are watching and seeing an increasing number of anti-LGBT+ attacks making headlines across the UK.”

Amy Ashenden from Just Like Us

“Whether it’s two women on a bus, a man being attacked elsewhere, or trans people being harassed, this all has a huge impact on LGBT+ young people’s mental health and wellbeing. This fear can, very understandably, lead to self-censorship – whether that’s changing how you dress or present or express yourself, it’s devastating that LGBT+ people are having to assess their safety in public.

“Personally, I do experience lesbophobic harassment in the street, in all kinds of areas in London, and it leaves you feeling you have to watch your back. LGBT+ people should be able to be themselves in public without fear but sadly this isn’t always the case. And these issues don’t happen in isolation – Just Like Us’ research found LGBT+ young people are twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety and panic attacks so there is a huge knock-on effect.”

The Tab’s Pride reporting series is putting a focus on highlighting LGBTQ+ issues and celebrating queer voices across UK campuses.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story you can contact Switchboard, the LGBTQ+ helpline, on 0300 330 0630 or visit their website. You can also find help through young people’s charity The Mix, and Galop, the LGBTQ+ anti-violence charity. 

If you’ve got a story you’d like to tell us – whether it’s an incident of homophobia on campus, an experience you’d like to share, or anything you think we should hear, get in touch in confidence by emailing [email protected]

Read more from The Tab’s Pride series:

One in three LGBTQ+ students have experienced discrimination and queerphobia at uni

41 homophobic things straight people say every day without realising

‘Nobody who matters cares’: LGBTQ+ students on what they’d tell their younger selves

You can find all articles from The Tab’s Pride series here