GAY TIMES December 2004

Terry Sanderson’s new autobiography “The Reluctant Gay Activist” is now available on Amazon

It was Deborah Orr in The Independent who put it in an interesting way, when she wrote: “It is much easier to be unlucky – as far as the ill-luck of being a victim of a random hate attack is concerned – when you are gay, than when you are straight.”

She was referring to the brutal killing of David Morley by a gang of youths on the South Bank in London. David Morley – Cinders to his friends – was a gay man who had been working in the Admiral Duncan pub on that fateful day in 1999 when it was bombed by a loony fascist by the name of David Copeland. On that occasion, Cinders had escaped with cuts, bruises and post-traumatic stress. His second brush with such seething homophobia, however, proved fatal.

The murder of David Morley, and the frenzied attacks on other people in the vicinity on the same night, were just an extreme example of what is happening on a daily basis around the country. The low-level bullying, the routine beatings, the frightening intimidation, the cat-calls and insults don’t generally make it into the papers. The people on the receiving end have to put up with it as best they can.

All attempts to measure the extent of anti-gay hate crime show that it is increasing. One government report showed that 38 per cent of gay men and women had either been victim of or had witnessed crimes committed by homo-haters. A report from the Metropolitan police showed a 15% rise over a year.

Whether this is because recent police initiatives have encouraged more people to report attacks, or whether it is simply that more attacks are taking place, is yet to become clear.

Take the case of the playwright Alan Bennett, who now regards the situation as so awful that it has prompted him to finally come of out the closet. Mr Bennett revealed in The London Review of Books that he and his partner, Rupert Thomas, were set upon by two youths while on holiday in Italy in 1992. After being beaten with steel scaffolding, Bennett and Thomas sought shelter in a cafe until the ambulance came, and Mr Bennett was taken to hospital where he received 12 stitches to his head.

He was later interviewed by the caribinieri, who like the doctor and the cafe owner, immediately assumed that Mr Bennett and Mr Thomas had been soliciting. “There is no longer any doubt about this crime in either of their minds,” wrote Mr Bennett, who is 30 years older than Mr Thomas, “this oddly matched couple have been up to no good; what this sorry-looking, middle-aged Englishman is not saying is that on that seedy promenade some advance had been made, a gesture even, and the honour of the Italian male impugned. The wound I have received is virtually self-inflicted, an entirely proper response to Italian manhood.”

Alan Bennett says he has found it hard to write about the assault until now. “To be attacked, beaten up or otherwise abused, and to find the police response one of indifference, is a not infrequent experience of homosexuals, and blacks, too. But reluctant to be enrolled in the ranks of gay martyrdom, reluctant to be enrolled in any ranks whatsoever, I kept quiet about this adventure.”

Alan Bennett’s perception of the police reaction is not uncommon. He was not doing anything provocative or illegal, but still he felt he was being regarded as the criminal rather than the victim. Imagine then the hesitation of those who are beaten up or robbed while they are cruising or cottaging. How can they be sure that they won’t get a hostile or humiliating reception from the police from whom they are seeking help?

Naturally the police have tried to offer reassurance. Whenever the boys in blue want information from the gay community they always pledge that no questions will be asked about why we were in a particular place at a particular time. We are told that the victims of violent homophobes will be treated sympathetically. But how sure can we be of this? How effectively do the politically correct pronouncements that come from police authorities filter down into the ranks?

According to a report in The Times, “a national assessment centre rejected more than 1,200 out of 6,300 potential police recruits because they failed crucial tests and so were suspected of being racist, biased against other minorities or sexist.”

This should be reassuring. It suggests that many of the police recruits who would formerly have sustained and reinforced the notoriously macho “canteen culture” in police stations will never now make it into uniform. But the apparently rigid selection procedure is less reassuring when you open The Liverpool Daily Post and read that the Assistant Chief Constable of Merseyside is investigating 22 constables and support staff over “abhorrent” material found in their workplace emails.

The Press Association reported: “Offensive emails about blacks, gays and women sent by police officers range from ‘disgusting’ to ‘minor jocular stuff’. Thirty-five police officers and support staff from Merseyside Police face the sack after the discovery of the racist, sexist and homophobic emails.”

It’s a difficult business but, to be fair, there are great efforts being made in some police forces to eradicate homophobia – or at least make it an unacceptable part of the way officers work.

Reporting these efforts in the BBC Online Magazine, Tom Geoghegan revealed that “All new applicants to police forces in England and Wales are now given the option to declare their sexuality, in a move welcomed by gay campaign groups.”

But is it safe to do so?

The article quotes PC Andy Hewett of Lambeth Police in London who is not only an out gay man, but has also revealed his HIV status – the first policeman in this country to do so.

“There has definitely been a culture change since I joined 11 years ago,” he says. “The language and the terminology evident in the canteen among senior officers would not be tolerated today.”

Andy spends two hours with every new police officer and council warden in the borough to “discuss and challenge stereotypes around lesbians, gays and HIV”. But even he admits that his experience is not necessarily typical, and some forces in other parts of the country still have a long way to go. Even so, there has been rapid progress.

Tayside police have invited a retired police constable, Vic Codling, to teach its Human Resources department about being more inclusive. This invitation is quite a surprise to Mr Codling who says he would probably have been sacked if he had come out when he joined Durham Constabulary in 1971. “There has been a dramatic improvement,” he is quoted as saying. “But it’s still not right. There are still forces where no-one is openly gay. And there are still a number of examples of prejudice. Officers have had their property damaged by colleagues because it was suspected or known they are gay.”

Andy Hewlett thinks that the perception of the police as being unsympathetic to gay victims of crime is lagging. “I talk a lot to gay groups and their perceptions are still 10 years behind what the police are actually doing,” he says.

Let’s hope he is right and that the gay people most in need of their support can feel absolutely confident that the police will be on their side.

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