By Mike Thomson
BBC Radio 4
Police officers are being trained to deal with homophobia in the workplace. The first journalist allowed access to the course reveals here what goes on.
Gay officers march at Pride events
A group of 22 assorted police officers and civilian support staff gather in a small room above Bishopsgate police station in the City of London. They're not here to solve the latest murder or gold bullion robbery but to learn how to arrest homophobia within their ranks. All have asked to remain anonymous.
At the front of their makeshift classroom is Vic Codling, a grey-haired Geordie who spent 31 years in the police before retiring recently. A burly no-nonsense man, with broad shoulders and a square chin, he's about as far from a stereotypical gay man as it is possible to get. But he soon makes clear this is not because he's trying to hide anything.
"When I was 18 I worked in a factory on Tyneside," he says. "I can tell you it was twenty past three on a Thursday afternoon while I was marking a piece of stainless steel metal out that I realised I must be a poof.
"I was very worried about that because Tynesiders talked about queers and poofs as if they were a disease. So I was very careful about how I looked and used to check as I walked past shop windows in case I minced."
Vic's candid personal revelations lead one officer present to reveal that he is gay. Others talk about how they are here to find out more about recently introduced regulations that forbid them from discriminating against homosexual colleagues at work.
The Employment Equality Sexual Orientation Regulations came into force at the end of 2003 but with little publicity. Many in the room admit they have little idea what the new rules are and how it affects the way they should deal with gay and lesbian officers.
'Handbags at dawn'
Vic splits all those before him into groups. Rank plays no part. Superintendents team up with PCs and civilian administration staff with hard-bitten detectives.
Each group is given a test scenario to see how they view a range of imaginary situations involving gay officers.
One group insists that they see nothing wrong with regularly referring to fights involving gay men as "handbags at dawn" over the police radio. "It's a common expression in the force," says the group's leader.
Vic disagrees and insists such remarks can cause great offence. But he is also keen to point out that many gay and lesbian officers have much more to deal with than ill-judged words.
"A member of the police staff was handcuffed to a chair and assaulted with a police baton. That was so that he might tell the officer assaulting him who else was gay at that station.
Campaigns have sought to tackle discrimination in the force
"The response from within the organisation to this was very swift. But many gay officers and staff say you don't always get that reaction."
Vic tells the course, which is run by the City of London Police, the worst types of homophobia tend to occur in rural forces where fewer officers feel free to admit to colleagues they are gay. Although overall things have got a lot better, there is still a long way to go.
It is hard to find fault with such a well-intentioned course that aims to get rid of prejudice against an estimated 10% of the police force. But as the day draws to a close I start to wonder whether, given that the course is entirely voluntary, Vic is merely preaching to the converted.
It's a point made to me by several people present. One officer insists those with the most prejudicial attitudes towards gay colleagues are the least likely to ever attend a course like this. However, most think the course well worthwhile.
Nearly all suspect gay and lesbian officers will sometimes find life tough in the police, an organisation which is rather conservative in its views and run along military lines.
Given the police have been famously accused of being institutionally racist, is it possible, I ask one officer, they are also institutionally homophobic? "Oh yes," came the reply. "I have no doubt about that."
In his view, the police have been recruiting a higher than average ratio of people with sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes for decades.
"Some of those people now occupy quite senior ranks and of course their personal values are the same as they always were," he says.
"They may have signed up to the changing, espoused values of the organisation. But if deep down, as a result of your socialisation and upbringing, you are homophobic as a 20-year-old then you are probably still going to be a homophobe when you are 40 or 50."
More is the pity that such people do not seem to be present here. But their more politically correct colleagues could perhaps raise the subject at lunch and try to change the infamous "canteen culture" that way.