Monday, June 23, 2003

Dear Sir or Madam,

I have a very severe criticism to make about your life insurance screening procedure. I have left your bank feeling upset and humiliated and am writing to you to complain.

Yesterday I made an application for a loan secured against my mortgage at the Lancaster branch of HSBC. The loan was agreed. I also decided to take out life insurance against it with HSBC (although I was not told that an option would be to take out life insurance with another company). I was asked some questions which were presented to me on a computer screen and told that if I didn’t want to answer them in front of the mortgage advisor I could put the answer in a sealed envelope. As most of the questions were fairly simple, I didn’t feel I needed to do this.

However, towards the end of the list of questions I was asked if I was homosexual. As a matter of fact I am gay. However, I don’t believe that anyone should have to reveal their sexuality to another person – it should be their choice – a matter of basic human rights. I refused to answer this question. I was then told I could write the answer and put it in a sealed envelope – which was clearly futile – as by refusing to answer I had signalled that something was amiss, and had therefore as much as said I was gay anyway. Had the question occurred earlier – or had I been warned I would have been asked about it, the sealed envelope option would have been more viable. Putting the most sensitive and embarrassing question at the end therefore lulls people into a false sense of security and makes the use of the sealed envelope a redundancy. But that’s probably why it was put last wasn’t it?

In many parts of the country, people don’t like to reveal their sexuality to others – they could get beaten up for it for example. Imagine if that question was asked in a small local branch of a bank, where the people who worked there knew lots of people in the community? Imagine if I was a married man who had occasional gay affairs. Do you think that I would want to answer that question with my wife sitting next to me?

In addition, I found the wording of the question to be offensive – I am not homosexual. I have never used that word on myself, nor does anyone I know use it. I am gay. There is a difference. Homosexual is a word which contains negative medical and legal connotations. Gay is a word that people who liked people of the same sex gave to themselves – homosexual is a word that doctors who thought we were medical freaks gave to us in the nineteenth century. Times have changed a lot since then. Hopefully you can see why homosexual is not an appropriate term to use on the questionnaire.

Also, I take offence at being singled out as possibly being more at risk from dying because I am “homosexual”. If I had answered “no” to that question, would I have then been asked “So as a heterosexual man, do you have promiscuous unprotected sex with lots of women?” If not then why not? Why are only gay people singled out as possibly being at risk if they’re promiscuous? Why not everyone? If a question about sexual activities must be asked (and really it shouldn’t be anyone’s business), then a fairer one would be simply “Do you have unprotected sex with more than X people a year?”, or even left as “Have you tested positive for HIV?” As the question stands it is discriminatory, insensitive and offensive.

I doubt that some gay people will answer the ‘are you homosexual’ question truthfully anyway – they know that if they do, there will be more intrusive questions and most likely a higher insurance premium. It also removes the power of the customer – why on earth should I have to tell the two women who interviewed me that I’m gay when I don’t know if they’re gay or straight? It’s unfair. So some people will simply lie – and then HSBC will have created a situation where gay people either deny their identity (and are made to feel guilty and ashamed) or be penalised (when promiscuous straight people aren’t).

When I complained about the “are you homosexual” question, the woman who interviewed me told me that “All the other banks ask it.” This argument simply doesn’t follow. If an injustice exists – it should be changed, and that’s all the more reason why HSBC should set an example. One hundred years ago if a British woman had wanted the vote she would have been told “Well all the other countries don’t let women vote so that’s the way it is.” Obviously, things don’t have to be set in stone. Times have changed – and anyway, with combination drug therapies people who are HIV positive are living longer. I should point out that I was only applying for a 5 year mortgage anyway! And as it happens, there are insurance companies who don’t ask about your sexuality – so it’s clearly not a necessity.

By having the question appear on a computer screen, I was unable to direct my complaint to anyone specific – I don’t know who decided that the question needed to be asked, and the two women who interviewed me were clearly so embarrassed about the whole situation that they changed the subject very quickly. Clearly, using a computer to ask difficult questions is the bank’s way of diffusing human responsibility.

Therefore, I would like a human and personal response to this letter. I would like to know why HSCB can justify this invasive question in terms of a) asking it in the first place b) using the word homosexual instead of gay c) not being bothered if I am promiscuous and have unsafe sex if I was heterosexual (therefore showing discrimination).

I will be contacting the gay rights group Stonewall about this issue, as well as a number of contacts I have in the media. I have written three books on gay issues in the past couple of years and am in the middle of a further one on homophobia in public life. A chapter for that book based on the “are you homosexual” question would make for interesting reading.

PS – your underwriters might want to be made aware that black people have a higher incidence of HIV that white people. Would they therefore like include a question such as “are you black?” on your screening questionnaire. Clearly not – such a question would be quite rightly viewed as racist. So why can you justify asking a similar question about sexuality?

Please change your policy – show the world that you are a progressive bank and it will get you more credit and support. It will also stop your customers and employees from being put in such an intolerably humiliating situation.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Are you upwardly or downwardly mobile? Upmystreet.com is insidiously fascinating and horrible at the same time. You can use it to see what your postcode says about you - it'll even tell you what foods you buy and whether you watch ITV a lot. Spy on your friends before visiting them, to decide whether or not it'll be safe to park your car outside their home. I entered all the postcodes I've ever lived at to see what it had to say about me:

Aged 1-18 Type 41: Better-Off Council Areas, New Home Owners

Aged 18-21 Type 44: Multi-Occupied Terraces, Multi-Ethnic Areas

Aged 21-25 Type 37: Multi-Occupied Town Centres, Mixed Occupations

Aged 25-31 Type 3: Mature Affluent Home Owning Areas

I'd agree with affluent (just), but mature? Surely not.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

During my first visit to America in the early 1990s, I was with a group of people who were trying to figure out why people were prepared to go on talk shows and tell all. At the time, the talk show was just taking off - so there was still much hand-wringing about it. On the whole, the conflict-based, under-class ones were yet to make an impact, but the signs were there. I've had a fascination with talk shows since then. The trashier the better. They're a guilty secret that even I, a trash addict, don't like to talk about.

However, in an attempt to intellectualise it all, I am reading "The Money Shot: Trash, Class and the American Talk Show". It's an entertaining read - trying to make sense of why people go on them (there are four types of guest, including evangelicals who have a message to spread, and moths who are attracted to the flame of celebrity), where the producers find them (they sometimes employ 'stringers' - people with large social networks who can rustle up guests at half an hour's notice) and how producers 'fluff' the guests backstage in order to get them to provide a 'money shot' (a raw display of emotion). Talk-shows are a lot like porn, it seems.

British talk shows are still fairly tame, compared with American ones. I don't know if Kilroy is still running - Kilroy is a perma-tanned, semi-suave man who looks like a gigolo-turned used car salesman. Trisha (or Trasha) features lie detector tests and people from council estates.

The book characterises talk-shows as pseudo-events (my new favourite word) - opportunities for voyeurism which have a surface impact or the appearance of an impact. Let's face it, a lot of our lives are now governed by psuedo-events. The death of Diana - a psuedo event for everyone except her friends and family. Tatu's lesbian kiss - a psuedo event. Hello magazine - a psuedo event. Big Brother - a three month long psuedo event. Welcome to the Matrix.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

People who have sex in public lavatories should face prosecution and jail terms of up to two years, say the Tories.

I would be happy for cottages to fall out of use. It doesn't really bother me when I go to a public loo and see men cruising or having sex or whatever, but I can see how it would bother plenty of other people.

However, realistically I can't see the situation changing, even if it's made illegal. Instead it will result in more homophobic violence, or safe sex workers being afraid to give out condoms to people in cottages, incase they get arrested. I've read the House of Lords debate that took place yesterday and that's one of the things they were complaining about.

Barroness Blatch: "Some homosexual charities even send so-called "outreach workers" to stand outside known cottaging grounds to hand out condoms to the homosexual men who come there for sex."

Her use of "so-called" speaks volumes for the distaste she feels about people who do this job.

Also note that Baroness Blatch says that public toilets should be "free from seedy and, frankly, disgusting practices". Is she disgusted at gay sex, or at cottaging per se? I'd argue the former - I've been doing academic research on the House of Lords and homosexuailty for some time now - and a number of Lords are openly homophobic.

Anyway, a possible solution - open up affordable gay saunas in every town and city in the UK. Use them to promote safer sex and a sense of community. Give gay men (who want it) a place where they can have sex in a friendly, safe, warm, clean environment. Make it legal to have sex in them so police raids can't take place. I know that sounds idealistic and some saunas are far from friendly, clean or safe - but if there is at least an alternative on offer, it may help to reduce cottaging, or at least give young people another choice that won't result in arrest.

Friday, June 06, 2003

In honour of "boring" (yet strangely fascinating) Jon on Big Brother, I ask bloggers (and then retreat to a safe distance), what things about yourself do most other people find boring?

Here's my list: using millions of words of data to analyse language use, driving in the countryside for miles to visit some ruined abbey for 15 minutes, talking endlessly about Lynne Redgrave and Rita Tushingham, worrying about my hair, making guests sit through hour long tapes of B movie trailers, complaining about minute cases of perceived homophobia in the media, comparing different incarnations of Star Trek and snobbing over Habitat furniture. Not all at the same time though.

Meanwhile, my fussy-old-lady local paper is "up in arms" because we're allegedly going to get a lap dancing palace, porn cinema and huge sex shop. It's Babylon! And a local night club is in trouble because it was been showing naughty films on "three plasma screens" in the boy's toilets. At least there was plenty of loo roll to hand...

Sunday, June 01, 2003

Hurrah for 28 Days Later (just out on DVD), at last a British horror film that I can feel proud of. The opening sequences in a derelict London are some of the best pieces of cinematography I've seen in a while. OK, so it gets a bit ropey towards the end, and the plot is like the three George Romero films merged into one, but I don't care.

When I was aged 15-18, I was obsessed with lots of weird ideas: 1) that I was involved in a Big Brother-type experiment and nothing around me was actually real, 2) that time-travel was possible and any minute now I was going to be visited by my older future self, 3) what I would do if a disease wiped out everyone except me. I was quite miserable at the time and believed that everything would be better in the future... I read everything about the future I could get my hands on, and used to write down predictions about what my life would be that far-in-the-future year 2000. But I was also obsessed with the possibility of the future turning out to be horrible - so I carried around 1984, Farenheit 451 and Brave New World like they were my Bibles.

This was all probably due to self-absorbed adolescent free-floating angst and my choice of movies at the time (Night of the Comet, Day of the Dead, Demons). When The Truman Show came out, I was furious - I'd had that idea years ago!

So 28 Days Later, with an empty Britain, terrorised by zombies is a welcome addition to a horror/sci-fi genre that I've always had a soft spot for. I persuaded the boyfriend to watch it with me last night (he hates horror films so I had to promise to warn him when the nasty bits came on). He had nightmares. Fortunately, I am desensitised so I didn't. It was nice to see my home town mentioned in the film, even if it was just on a motorway sign.

Speaking of my home town, it has been in the National and International Press this week, when a bull literally ran through a china shop. The place in question is called GB antiques and if you ever visit me I will probably take you there without you even asking - it's a huge antique centre which you could spend hours in, selling a mixture of "proper" expensive antique stuff and 1970s pensioner kitsch (I always go for the latter). It's where I found my Blue Lady picture, and quite a lot of my furniture was bought there.

But next door is a livestock auction place, and last week one of the bulls escaped and managed to get inside, wrecking havoc. Sadly, it was killed. Our local newspaper, shocked at actually having a big story to report for once, tut-tutted at the American media who descended on the place and were only interested in exactly how the bull was killed, what calibre weapon was used etc...

And speaking of American-bashing. Last week's episode of Enterprise was another right-wing festival of backward values. The cast encounter a race of aliens who have 3 genders. The third gender is needed for the other two to procreate, but it has a very low social status, treated like a pet. Mr Trip teaches one of them to read and puts the concept of freedom and self-actualisation in its head. The alien claims asylum with the crew of Enterprise. However, shockingly, Captain Archer refuses to grant asylym and the alien kills itself. Then Archer gives Trip a dressing down, telling him what a naughty silly boy he was for interfering in the alien culture and how it was his fault that the alien died. Then the episode ends. The not-so-implicit message being - "don't mess with or criticise other cultures, even when you find their practices abhorrent, although it's OK to trade with them. It's OK for other people to suffer, because they're not US and don't count."