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It’s amazing that public transport providers openly support gay events in their localities. Love is all around. But it wasn’t always

 

It’s a credit to our industry that public transport providers openly support gay events in their localities

 

Quite rightly, we hear an awful lot about diversity and celebrating diversity in public transport. It seems to be one of the latest KPIs (forgive me uncharacteristically lapsing into cringeworthy corporate speak), and therefore I have a minor niggling worry about the sincerity with which some organisations and companies might shout rather too loudly how they endorse this principle. But let’s not be churlish.

I have observed a few organisations taking diversity to mean that they accept women on the same terms as men. Oh, big deal. The better ones take it to mean they accept and, to a greater or lesser degree (very much lesser in some cases and wonderfully greater in others), celebrate people in their infinite variety – gender, sexuality, skin colour, religious belief, ethnicity, geography, hair colour, shoe size or whatever. So they damn well should. But the main acceptance hurdle has probably been the gay one. You know – queer, pansy, homosexual, friend of Dorothy, Lezza, dyke, bender, faggot, poofter, woofter, and a fair number of other euphemisms and downright crude soubriquets. As one who is ‘light on his feet’ and ‘a bit musical’ I know them all and find none of them offensive. Sticks and stones and all that. We’re made of sterner stuff than most straights. Alpha males and females the lot of us.

It’s not only great, it’s amazing and a credit to our industry that public transport providers openly support gay events in their localities, and increasingly go to town when Pride crops up in their local cities. Would it be too cynical to mention the power of the pink pound? But they are finding it reaps social and political benefits too. And it’s fun!. So a round of applause and a Judy Garland song to the likes of Brighton & Hove (it really would be pissing in the wind not to support such a thing in Brighton), Reading Buses, Oxford Bus Company, Transdev Blazefield, Transport for London, ScotRail, GWR, and many others. It’s brilliant and how it should be. Love is all around. But it wasn’t always.

Let’s look back not so very far. I used to love going to Gay Pride in London in the 1990s. The atmosphere was electric. How did bus and train companies embrace this? London Transport used to put up notices to explain that route diversions and alterations – wait for it – were due to a demonstration. A demonstration? A load of drag queens, bull dykes, assorted Village People look-a-likes, fats, fems, bears, twinks and outrageous creations from another dimension camping their tits off down Park Lane, along Piccadilly and through Trafalgar Square to Westminster, is not what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘demonstration’. London Transport, it would seem, could not bring itself to say the word GAY. But then, even 25 years after it was no longer illegal, few ‘posh’ companies or professional organisations would acknowledge they even employed gay people, let alone want them to represent their organisation in a joyous celebration of diversity.

Let’s look a bit further into this. I knew many people at that time in the world of transport who had to either keep their sexual orientation hidden from fellow workers – and very much from management – or, worse, put on a pretence of being straight. I knew of management that felt they had to do the same, even to the point of having to find a female to take to important dinners to keep the pretence going. That was a shocking, disgusting pressure to feel you had to bow to. Nasty! I have heard of ‘mariage de convenance’, the so-called lavender marriages to appease social norms, too.

Other things used to happen. We had been doing a lot of great work for one particular operator, when management changes were foisted upon it from on high. Out went the existing managing director and in came a not so nice one. We were suddenly persona non grata. I made discreet enquiries. I was told by another member of the management that the new guy had questioned my sexuality and, when told (you’ve never seen me denying it), said something about he wasn’t having a queer doing work for him. What a nasty piece of work. Instant karma is great – he was sacked for something else later on! As always, I continued to carry my head held up high; he had to hang his in shame. Double shame.

It’s interesting how generous of spirit and accepting of those who are not like us ordinary people can sometimes be. At least one bus company (and I believe more) has had a bus driver wanting to change from male to female. One of the requirements for gender reassignment in that direction is to live as a woman for a period of time before any surgery is allowed. With possibly a bit of ribbing in the early days, a driver in Oxford was soon accepted and treated as a normal human being by his workmates and management when he went through this phase of changing sex. It couldn’t have been easy, for sure, but I doubt if the bigots that were around then (and some still are) could be as strong and resolute, and brave and fearless, as that man (woman now). I salute him (her), and the peer group that supported and respected the brave soul.

Most gay people, especially those of a certain age, working in public transport have faced prejudice, rudeness, offensive remarks and behaviour from far too many that hide behind the rancid cloak of respectability and majority

Most gay people, especially those of a certain age, working in public transport have faced prejudice, rudeness, offensive remarks and behaviour from far too many that hide behind the rancid cloak of respectability and majority. That is disappearing thanks to legislation, more enlightened thinking and a wider experience of the world and its ways. But which came first? For example, would we have had universal low floor service buses and spaces for people in wheelchairs had it not been for legislation? We did get these features and I think by now most managers and manufacturers no longer see it as a damn nuisance that they have to provide but as a positive good they welcome, embrace and love.

Which brings me on to the subject of acceptance. After the groundbreaking but long overdue 1967 Act, homosexual men were tolerated by society a bit, rather than accepted, and that is a whole different pretty kettle of fish. A number of MPs, even some who voted for the change in legislation all those decades ago, actually said things like, “just don’t flaunt it, OK? Be grateful we’re no longer putting you in prison”. It’s a bit like some of our religious bodies who at one point were telling vicars that they could be one so long as they didn’t do it. Oh please! Whether a certain B&B in Wales will ever get as far as tolerance, I doubt it.

These differences between people shouldn’t matter a jot; rather, they are what makes us such an amazing species and worthy of celebrating our differences. Sexuality above all else makes no difference at all to our ability to do whatever our talents, interests or training lead us to. I actually heard one Neanderthal bus manager claim having a gay in his team was a disruptive force because he would constantly try to ‘convert’ the others. Really? We have taste, you know! A psychiatrist would have a field day about that lady protesting too much, I wouldn’t doubt.

I believe the newer, younger breed of intelligent people in our industry aren’t encumbered by the prejudices of their forebears, and are naturally more accepting of the diversity to be found in humankind. But we must never let our guard down. There are always bigots and slimy lowlife hiding under bus wheels. So I say to our industry keep on and on and on celebrating all forms of diversity. Go out of your way to do so, often and loudly. As Mrs Patrick Campbell said, “so long as you don’t frighten the horses”.

 

About the author: Ray Stenning is the award-winning Design Director of Best Impressions, which provides creative services to the passenger transport sector. Email ray@best-impressions.co.uk

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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