It’s a frustrating truth that being gay in Britain can still be a difficult experience in 2019. Homophobic hate crime has doubled in the last five years, with acceptance of gay sex falling for the first time since the AIDS crisis. This year also saw shocking anti-LGBTQ+ protests outside schools across the country, with many parents have expressed objections to their children being taught about the existence of gay people. Most recently, a YouGov poll revealed that a quarter of British parents would not feel “proud” to have an LGBTQ+ child.
The Conservative government’s austerity agenda has also targeted queer people. Homelessness has also tripled since 2010, with vulnerable LGBTQ+ people making up 24 percent of the homeless population. Sexual health services that queer people depend on, such as London’s pioneering 56 Dean Street clinic, have been forced to resort to crowdfunders to provide patients with medication.
All this makes for pretty grim reading, but how do the challenges of gay life in the UK compare to other countries? Now that same-sex marriage has finally been legalised in Northern Ireland, Britain is a part of the minority of countries globally that recognise same-sex unions. Yet 2019’s Rainbow Index, which compares the legal rights of LGBTQ+ people in European countries, suggested that Britain’s progress on LGBTQ+ rights is stalling. Having topped the list in 2014, the UK now languishes in ninth place. Though, as any gay person knows, statistics and rankings only tell us part of the story.
To find out more about the lived experience of gay men in the UK and across the world, VICE spoke to gay men who have moved to the UK from overseas. How easy is it to make gay friends and meet guys? What’s it like using Grindr, or visiting the dreaded GUM clinic in a new culture and/or language? Is the UK a place where gay men from across the world can be themselves?
GIAN, 27, PHILIPPINES
I moved to London from the Philippines in 2018, after first visiting in 2009. Lower levels of homophobia were definitely a motivating factor in me moving to London. In Philippine culture, there's more conversion therapy / forced sex type things happening, more misogyny and machismo and more justification of homophobia with religion. Our culture revolves around the family, rather than the expression of your authenticity and personal self, so being gay is tolerated – not accepted – as long as you conform to stereotypes and social expectations.
London is a fucking amazing global city. There's a lot more diversity of people, thought and activity. Manila, despite having 30 million people, felt insular, small-minded and unwelcoming. But I do feel somewhat excluded for being Asian in public spaces more than on the apps. One of my funnest memories since moving here was being part of an orgy group that I was invited to via Grindr. No chems, just sex with people without hangups or issues. It very open and friendly.
ROBERT (AKA POLKA DOT), 28, POLAND
I moved to the UK for a “gap year” between studies in 2013 – which has so far lasted six years! My main motivation was lack of acceptance towards the LGBT+ community in Poland. One of the first things I did when I moved to London was downloading Grindr! I was completely unaware of this app back in Poland and discovering it was life-altering experience. I also began to explore my passion for drag on the East London drag scene. The Glory became an outlet where I could perform, because it’s a super accessible and friendly venue.
I organise a Polish drag show at The Glory called Slav 4 U as my drag alter-ego Polka Dot. The night raises awareness of Metro Charity, an organisation I volunteer with. Their Bezpieczny Rodak programme helps Polish men who have sex with men living in London to access sexual health services. The result of lack of sex education and a taboo around the LGBT+ community means that Poles who come to London and start exploring their sexuality are at risk of contracting STIs and have fewer people to talk to about sex. Sexual health services are often in English, and rarely in Polish – that's where BR steps in to help.
BRUNO, 33, PORTUGAL
Moving to London from Portugal in 2014 allowed me and my partner to have the life together we struggled to start back home. I can work as an architect and and the pay is enough to allow us to be financially independent from our parents. Plus, London is a much more open city where I feel generally comfortable being myself. As a child, I never really saw public displays of affection between people of the same sex or other obvious references, so I was never really exposed to that. It was only much later, while in uni, that people started coming out.
Finding affordable housing is probably the most difficult aspect of living in London. For me it was about creating that sense of physical home here and once that happened, I soon felt like a local, not a foreigner. The uncertainty of Brexit has also been a challenge. But on the whole I have been very lucky since moving to the UK: I have a comfortable life, I enjoy and feel successful at work, and have made great friends. I can only be thankful for the opportunities I have been given and which I have fully embraced.
JEAN-ERIC, 43, BURUNDI
I moved to the UK in 2000. My country was in war and I came to seek asylum. But I also knew that I was gay and I had read that life as a gay man in UK was easier, whereas homosexuality is criminalised in Burundi. I wanted to be free.
There have been challenges living in the UK, especially in my early years as I had to navigate a new country by myself without a lot of financial means. I had to work while studying to make ends meet, which was difficult. My spoken English was basic, but I could write and read English as I learned the language in secondary school. The language barrier created difficulties in terms of finding jobs until I was able to speak English fluently.
Now, I feel completely at home in east London. My best memory is the friends I was able to meet when I arrived in the UK who are still my friends to this day.
ANTE, 35, CROATIA
Before I moved to London in 2018, I was so miserable back home in Croatia. I wanted to achieve something in my profession, so I enrolled for an MA course in London. I felt it would help open up job opportunities, which thankfully it did. Also, I was well aware that if I moved here, I would eventually find somebody.
Although I have good English, I still struggle a bit with small talk. Croatians are more blunt in everyday situations and they tend to avoid "how are yous". If you ask a Croatian, "How are you?", then there's a high chance you'll get the full diagnosis from them rather than just "fine, thanks". I also knew London would be expensive, but nothing can prepare you for some of the costs! I am still speechless about the audacity of some landlords and how much they charge for places that are absolute shiteholes. But things like sexual health are incredibly accessible. I found it amazing how quickly you can get tested and receive results. I can't imagine something like that happening in Croatia any time soon.
My region of Croatia is quite conservative and Catholic, so if you want to get by as a gay man, you'd better blend in and play straight 24/7. But as soon as I stepped foot in London, I felt liberated. I didn't feel observed or afraid anymore, I didn't feel like I had to pretend anymore and it did wonders for my anxiety. I believe here in the UK was the first time that I felt truly happy.
ALFREDO, 34, ITALY
I moved to London in 2007 from Italy. Being in a place where I felt I could be my authentic self and have more opportunities was a big motivating factor. When I first moved here, the most striking thing was seeing queer people. They were there! Being themselves! It was amazing and liberating. I wanted that for myself.
At first, the UK seems a lot more tolerant that it actually is. For the first few years, I often took politeness for acceptance. I was in a bubble and I couldn't see the massive issues that still remain today.
I feel very much at home in London, and I’ve made more good memories here than I can count. Marching in my first Pride in London was something I will never forget. Sadly, though, the abuse I've received since the referendum has tarnished my love for this place.
IBRAHIM*, 23, PAKISTAN
I moved to Norfolk from Pakistan in 2018. I found the legal process of moving to the UK incredibly stressful. Whenever immigrants are scapegoated and smeared in the news, it makes me feel less at home here. The immigration process means I don’t really feel at home here because of how legally insecure I feel, even though everything is in order. This is in contrast with most people I interact with, who just assume I belong here even though in myself I feel quite stateless.
The British NHS has been absolutely fantastic and have nothing but praise for the general and sexual health care, especially with how good staff are at making you feel comfortable enough to talk about very awkward things!
Before moving to the UK, I had never knowingly met another gay person in Pakistan because of how underground the community is, which was incredibly isolating. But my most cherished memory of living here has been falling in love and marrying the love of my life.
* Names have been changed for confidentiality.