Fish and chips, washed down with champagne while seated by the Regent’s Canal, makes for a weirdly romantic dinner. I’m sorry if you disagree; you might think that there are few things less sexy than a boozy fish-fest next to a foetid waterway, but you’ll just have to trust me. There’s something peculiarly decadent about sipping bubbly after a grease-laden mouthful of battered haddock; all the more so when it’s with someone you’d normally want to take to dinner at the Ritz.
Anyway, that was my Friday night. A romantic fish supper with my boyfriend, next to the Palm Tree pub in Mile End Park. Two miniature bottles of Piper-Heidsieck from a recent trip to France, and fish and chips from the fantastic Britannia chippy on Grove Road, served with pond-sized dollops of tomato ketchup and enough salt to poison an ox. I’m sure I could feel my arteries furring up with every mouthful, but the mood was sweet.
Until, that is, the hooligans arrived. A group of teenage boys in a cloud of Lynx and machismo, who cycled by and shouted something about “queer bastards” at us. It’s small beer, as homophobic abuse goes. I’m sure you’ve been called something similar at some point, possibly with considerably more force, maybe even by people who were willing to stick around to see how you responded. However trivial it might seem, it’s always a startling experience to have an otherwise lovely evening marred (even only slightly) by someone who sees your sexuality as an existential threat – as dangerous as people who support the wrong football team, perhaps, or people who know what ‘existential threat’ means.
More seriously, the sort of moron who will shout homophobic insults at a couple of perfect strangers may be only one IQ point above the sort of moron who thinks that ridding society of a ‘queer bastard’ with a good kicking is a sort of public duty. In this case, our scrawny assailant couldn’t have packed more much punch than a slightly asthmatic guinea pig, but that’s not always the case – and nor is it the point. Too often, we read about gay people who are physically assaulted by those brought up to believe that homosexuality is an aberration. Random, futile insults might not wound you in the same way, but they belie the same terrifying ignorance. Wherever that ignorance comes from – school, family, politics or religion – it is dangerous. Politicians and activists tinker with the definition of ‘hate crime’, or belittle gay rights, at our peril.
Anyway, these “queer bastards” weren’t too upset. We returned to chowing down on our pre-coronary feast before heading into the Palm Tree for a pint. But no matter how puerile the words, the intent, ignorance and hate behind them show that there’s still, sadly, a long way to go before we can stroll hand-in-hand along the towpath without occasionally wondering who’s waiting nearby to show us the error of our ways.