Refusing to serve or represent someone based on their identity is an idea that goes back many years, from the operation of racially segregated facilities in the USA to the discriminatory barriers felt by Irish and Caribbean migrants in post-war Britain. The phenomenon’s current target here in the UK is still, depressingly, the LGBT community. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are one of the most discriminated against groups worldwide, and we should all reflect on this when we consider the debate on whether overruling the ability to refuse to serve, or represent, LGBT people restricts free speech.
When Ed Razek, the chief marketing officer for lingerie company Victoria’s Secret, justified the firm’s lack of transgender inclusion in their world-famous annual shows by claiming that ‘transsexuals’ did not belong in what was ‘a fantasy’, he was met with a mixed response both in the USA and across the pond. Some condemned him, but others drew attention to the company’s essential right to refuse to represent trans people in their fashion shows. A common line of argument seems to fear that the possible tokenism of trans inclusion could come at the expense of more ‘deserving’ cisgender models. However, this is disputable given the significant professional barriers for trans people – and LGBT people as a whole – in any career.
The charity Stonewall produced a thorough report regarding the relationship between the community and employment earlier this year. 18 per cent of LGBT job-seeking respondents said they had been discriminated against due to their sexual or gender identity whilst looking for work in the last year, while 12 per cent of black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBT employees have lost a job because of their sexual or gender identity. Almost one in six trans people are not addressed by their correct name and pronouns in the workplace. Stonewall have found that employees have been excluded, outed, bullied, and even physically attacked by colleagues or customers. Not only do LGBT people face problems in recruitment and promotion, but many have been encouraged to actively conceal their identities to improve their prospects. Many workplaces often don’t have zero tolerance policies in place that specifically protect LGBT employees. While these facts and figures inform us about the lived reality for LGBT people here in the UK, it’s a similar story across other countries. Hearing about ‘freedom of speech’ as a reason to exclude the prioritisation of LGBT people being served or represented – measures that are essential if we are to be serious about equality – just seems insincere.
The conversation that needs to occur about representation has been clouded since the October ruling by the Supreme Court that a Christian bakery was right to refuse to bake a cake inscribed with the message ‘Support gay marriage’. The judges referred to the right to not express an opinion one does not believe in. While the logic of the ruling is understandable, it is still incorrect. But the real issue is that the headlines, which reduce the case to that of a ‘gay cake’, misled the public to the point of effectively giving the impression of legally-sanctioned homophobia. This speaks to clear prejudices that continue to have a widespread, oppressive power.
Representation in the media is equally important – it should be a given, not demanded, that film and television reflects life as what it is and people as who they are, and this includes committed LGBT inclusion. Only 18.4% of films released by major film studios in the USA in 2016 included characters who identified as LGBT. Think of the vague gay representation suggested, but not rightfully materialised, in the character of Albus Dumbledore in the recently released Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts 2: The Crimes of Grindelwald, wherein his sexuality and feelings about the eponymous Grindelwald are surely narratively important. Actress Scarlett Johansson was, earlier this year, set to play a transgender man in Rub & Tug. She later quit the role in a positive step forward, after backlash drawing attention to the lack of roles for transgender actors, but her casting in the first place shows a woeful, pervasive misunderstanding that trans men can be played by cis women because they are ‘really women’.
Not just in employment and in media, but in all aspects of society, we need to do better by the LGBT community with awareness, diversity, inclusion, and, most importantly, justice.