A curious story emerges sheepishly from the bushes in Bristol, shaking the leaves from its hair. The Downs in Bristol are one of the oldest informal public open spaces in the country – conserved for more than 140 years by their own act of parliament. They include woodland and grassland, and spectacular views of the adjacent Avon Gorge.
As a part of managing that site, a management plan is now proposed – apparently the first one since 1861, so it’s probably not before time. This involves cutting back quite a bit of scrub. Scrub is a generic term for bushes and vegetation that is too small to be dignified by being described as trees. It’s also well-used by rangers, as it can be used euphemistically to avoid the rabid reactions of well-intentioned locals. People in general really don’t like the idea of cutting down trees, although much good conservation management does involve some tree felling. Many people hearing that ‘they’ are about to cut down loads of trees will rush to get the pitchforks ready and man the barricades. But scrub management? It sounds so harmless. Who cares about that? Nobody. Or do they? It appears that the scrub on The Downs is so popular amongst men engaging in sexual activity, that concerns were expressed by the city council’s lesbian, gay and bisexual group that this action was potentially discriminating against gay and bisexual men. Now, it’s actually pretty impressive that Bristol City Council took the trouble to consult so widely with Downs users that this issue arose. Doubtless there were no end of other comments, probably far more critical: after all, that’s the idea of consultation. But probably remarks such as ‘More litter bins, shoot dogs on sight! Signed Cpt. Blenkinsop RN(Rtd)‘ are not headline-worthy. To their credit, Bristol are not making too much of a big deal of it, are sticking to their plans and seem to be willing to have sensible discussions with groups such as the Terrence Higgins Trust and the city’s own Rainbow Group of lesbian, gay and bisexual council staff. And it also seems that there’s support for the council’s stance from the wider gay community too – on wittily-named gay blog Queerty, the complaint is given little support. A typical commenter robustly says of the matter:
It’s 2008 not 1958. If you can’t find a house, apartment, motel, hotel, or even a car to have sex, then you shouldn’t be having sex. Outdoor sex is nothing more than a fetish carried out by a handful of people who need to take it inside. Have sex in your own garden for Christ sake.
It’s a bit of a worry if every scrub-bashing exercise needs to be audited for homophobic tendencies. But is there perhaps any more to this story than meets the eye? It certainly is an area where this issue seems to have simmered for a while. The Terrence Higgins Trust, which has offices in Bristol, regularly sends teams of workers up to The Downs to hand out safe-sex advice. This caused some controversy locally last year when people complained that the Trust was encouraging sexual activity by handing out free condoms. Another story from 2007 is slightly odd, and a little worrying. In June 2007 four officers from Avon Fire & Rescue Service were involved in an incident on the Downs where they were apparently shining torches onto men engaged in sexual activity. This wasn’t part of their duties, and they were subsequently disciplined for it. This caused some media criticism. The head of the Fire Service received a huge amount of correspondence as a result and said:
Many of the responses I received were nothing short of hysterical homophobia… The reaction we got from the media [shows] that homophobia is evidently still widespread in our society.
It’s probably a good thing that the incident concerned was nothing more than shining torches, but this pattern of recurring stories about The Downs does lead one to suspect that there is a pattern of intolerance amongst some people in Bristol. It’s probably no different to many other places, but The Downs has allowed them to focus their homophobia on a particular place and a particular group of people, thus giving this kind of prejudice a public outlet more regularly than might otherwise be the case. It also works the other way: if people feel they are being discriminated against, they will be more likely to protest when things happen – like scrub bashing – that might in other contexts seem entirely innocent. Anyway, there’s nothing new under the sun. See this picture from another public toilet on The Downs, and the accompanying story: