I went to the hate crimes vigil at Trafalgar Square last night. It was a wonderful evening - the night was mild, the crowd swelled to a couple of thousand and the atmosphere was friendly, open and generous. I wasn't sure what to expect - it was really my first event of this type, despite being involved in community work for over three years. The mood wasn't angry, it didn't feel like a community under threat. It felt like a community taking a stand and I was proud of that.
I often hear older gay people ask about my generation and younger 'where is the passion?'. Well it's difficult to get passionate without a focus. Anger is an emotion which needs a point, otherwise it becomes a shrill and frustrating emotion. You need something to harness the short burst of energy it gives before it snuffs out. It can be difficult for young gay people to find that channel when many of the major national, legislative fights have already been fought. At one point last night, one of the speakers talked about young gay people only caring about bars and clubs and I rolled my eyes so far that they almost disappeared round my skull. It is the oldest, most frustrating and silliest complaint that every older generation levels against the younger - that it is more frivolous, more flippant and more superficial and everything would have been so much better if they were back in charge.
The thing is, where does a young gay person, who is just coming out, who sees bars and clubs as their opportunity to meet other men and women like them, go to find out about their history? The generation of the 70s and 80s has failed to preserve their heritage. It is a trifle unfair to blame younger people for not knowing their history when it is not taught in school (gay rights are barely mentioned as a civil rights issue, especially in comparison to ethnic minorities and women's struggles). There is an amazing story about the development of the gay rights movement, its struggles for legalisation, acceptance and then the dark years of the AIDS crisis. But we don't have a gay museum or cultural centre where this can be taught. A Gay History project is only just getting going and they have a monstrous task playing catch-up and preserving stories before generations die out. A generation was already almost lost due to that shitty little virus.
I am no absolving my generation of guilt. We can be frivolous, silly and flippant and particularly cruel to older members of our community. We do need direction and we are not necessarily going to respond to people acting like we are lost causes to begin with.
The most sobering thing about the attacks which have taken place over the last few weeks is the role of teenagers in each of them. I believe that each successive generation is more accepting then the last. But it is all to easy to forget that most kids grow up in households where there is at least casual levels of homophobia and often that rises to a toxic stew of prejudice and hatred. This doesn't take into account the other elements of their lives which can lead to social dysfunction. It is a horrid mix and the best indication that the focus has to be put into schools. Unfortunately a generation of work was silenced by Section 28 and now we are playing catch-up.
I just finished re-reading Randy Shilts' wonderful biography of Harvey Milk. Milk often spoke of the importance of coming out - the best way to break down the barriers to acceptance and understanding is for a straight person to realise that a friend or loved one is gay. It is the entirely sensible belief behind the Same Sex Holding Hands day which took place today. I think a lot of straight people go through life believing that gay people are a rarity. But we are not. There are millions of us, from all walks of life. Only by overcoming our own fears and struggles can we force others to do the same.
I am ambivalent about hate crimes laws. I understand the reason for their existence, but I still there is something to be said for the law being blind to our differences. But in light of the protections offered to other minorities I think it only right that gay people are included. However, they punish an event that has already taken place, and the existence of those laws are unlikely to curb a violent attack motivated by a dizzying array of personality maladjustments. The work has to go in at the other end, to shaping hearts and minds and not changing them.