BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 16:11 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Is gay bashing on the rise?

Vigil in Trafalgar Square

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Just as gay and lesbian people are starting to enjoy equal rights, the number of attacks against them seems to be rising. Why?

Ten years ago, a nail-bomb exploded in a gay bar in the heart of London, claiming three lives and maiming dozens more, the final act in a series of attacks on the capital's minority groups.

The intervening decade has seen significant steps in changing attitudes and legislation that give gay people - and their civil partners - equality enshrined in law.

But now another shadow has been cast over the UK's gay community. A series of homophobic attacks, at a time when crime figures suggest such incidents are on the rise, has mobilised people to voice their anger.

Over the weekend, candlelit vigils were held in London and Liverpool, at the scenes of two of the most recent acts of violence to make headlines, and also in Brighton and Norwich, while gay venues across the country held a two-minute silence on Friday evening in an act of solidarity.

London, 25 Sept: Ian Baynham, 62, beaten in Trafalgar Square, later died
Liverpool, 25 Oct: PC James Parkes, 22, suffers multiple skull fractures after attack by youths

Of the thousands who gathered in London's Trafalgar Square - at the spot where Ian Baynham was attacked in September, later dying from his injuries - some headed afterwards to the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, the scene of the nail bombing 10 years ago.

Although it looked like business as usual, some punters were in reflective mood. Jeff, 32, said he sensed "more tension" in the last 12 to 18 months and some people had stopped coming into central London as a consequence. He said he had always been wary about showing public affection to his civil partner, for fear of inviting abuse, but even more so recently.

"I'm nervous when we're out and about in case we draw attention to ourselves and get a bad reaction from someone."

One 28-year-old, who asked not to be named, said he and his boyfriend had recently been threatened with a weapon and foul language.

Montage of pics of victims
Assaults and murders have made headlines

The pair had been getting off a bus when a man with a knife began spouting insults, calling them "queers".

Such incidents have always happened, but are they happening with more regularity now?

There are no national figures for homophobic crime, but individual police forces have reported an annual rise in their latest figures - 40% in Merseyside, which covers Liverpool, and 34% in Strathclyde, which includes Glasgow.

Third-party reporting

In London, where there was a series of attacks over the summer on people outside gay bars in the East End, there has been an 18% rise, mostly in common assault and harassment, prompting Mayor Boris Johnson to seek assurances that enough is being done.

The police say this rise, at least partly, is due to improved relations with the gay community. After decades of mistrust and a resistance to reporting homophobic crime, gays and lesbians are coming forward in greater numbers, say police. Some forces have introduced third-party and online reporting in an effort to address the under-reporting of these incidents.

'In recent years it's true that there has been a big drive by the police to encourage gay people to come forward and report hate crimes but I'm not sure that accounts for all of this increase,' says editor of QX magazine, Cliff Joannou.

'In areas like Shoreditch in London, there seems to have been a significant rise in incidents, particularly violent ones, and that is an area where many gay bars have opened up in in recent years. Whether this is a case of the local residents of the area clashing with the new communities that are moving in, I'm not sure.

The perpetrators do seem to often be teenagers, primarily, and it is sad that there seems to have been a growing acceptance of the word 'gay' as an insulting term.'

People are now more likely to report incidents to the police, says Phil Nicol, who works at a London-based advice service that receives complaints of abuse from people in cities across the UK such as Glasgow, Manchester and Belfast. It ranges from name-calling in the street, neighbours hurling objects through windows, damaging cars, to serious physical assault.

"A lot of people feel a lot more comfortable with the police, because they have specially trained lesbian and gay officers and there's a better understanding among people of what homophobia constitutes, that it isn't only physical."

But gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell sees a more worrying picture. The higher level of reporting to police has masked an accompanying rise in attacks, he believes. This is partly due to more people coming out as society becomes more accepting, plus there's probably a backlash happening against equality legislation, he suggests.

"As more people come out they become more visible and more easily identifiable. That makes them easier targets for people who want to target them.

"The second thing is there's probably an element of people who are losing what they have until now taken for granted - their right to be homophobic. They are angry and it's a last desperate gasp from people who are used to doing what they like to gay people.

"I remember there was a similar backlash in the US in the 60s, a big rise in racist attacks in the wake of the civil rights movement."

Michael Cashman
Michael Cashman MEP, who played one of television's first gay characters, Colin in EastEnders, says religious homophobia has a huge impact in influencing attitudes among young people.

'Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred - 'we don't hate these people but they're not equal'. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that's so dangerous. And it's a message echoed by sections of the press.'

He thinks the real figure is probably double the official one, because up to three-quarters of gay men and women simply don't report because they still don't trust the police. And he expects this spike in offences to last two or three years before subsiding again.

A link between gay equality and the rise in homophobic abuse is also identified by Ben Summerskill, chief executive of campaign group Stonewall. Civil partnerships, he says, have reminded people who harbour prejudices that gay people are everywhere.

And he is particularly drawn to the fact that many of the antagonists are in their teens or early 20s. To him, that suggests a link with school where he says homophobia is still going unchecked.

Youngsters looking for scapegoats may be turning their fire on gay people because other forms of prejudice have become unacceptable.

"For years people said schoolchildren used words like 'Paki' and 'spastic' and there's nothing that can be done about it, but when schools said these expressions were completely unacceptable, they stopped using them.

"We know from our work with schools that - partly in the shadow of Section 28 [a now repealed law which prevented councils from promoting homosexuality] - many schools still feel ambivalent about addressing homophobia, even when they want to."

This "serious problem" in schools is hardly helped when BBC Radio 1's Chris Moyles is allowed to use the term "gay" as an insult, he says.

Perhaps the experience of Liverpool explains the paradox of rising tolerance at a time when homophobic incidents are growing.

Carl Alderdice, who organised Sunday's vigil, says the city has become much more gay-friendly, although it is still some way behind Manchester. But he knows that with greater prominence comes greater risk.

"Liverpool could have a [gay festival] next year and it's getting its first official gay quarter. This means we could become more of a target so we need to make sure the police are aware of that and we hope they have more visible policing on the streets."

Below is a selection of your comments:

I think levels of gay hate crime are a very good barometer of how intolerant wider communities are across many issues. I was attacked in South London in February. I was seen leaving a gay bar and within 10 seconds had been punched off the pavement and onto my back in the road. My attackers were some disaffected kids with no respect for anyone or anything. Solving this type of hate crime requires zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour and much more effort on the part of the police, schools, councils, politicians and the media. We need to be much tougher on such yobs. My attackers are still walking the streets. I wonder how many people they have assaulted since me?
Neil M, London

It annoys me somewhat to hear people say that the upsurge in hate crimes is simply down to increased reporting or improved relations with the police. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that this is the case; indeed even if it where true that there is increased reporting, it just goes to show that the problem of homophobic crime is actually worse that we thought.
Nick Ridley, Belfast, Northern Ireland

It's not just in schools. I work in media, and the word 'gay' is used as a catch-all negative, for anything from bad, wrong, weak, to pathetic, fake or overly-emotional. It creates an incredibly oppressive atmosphere in which to work. Is it any wonder I'm closeted at work? Perhaps even more worrying is that I don't feel able to report this to HR for fear it will be seen as pedantic whining rather than a valid concern
Ava, London

My partner regularly receives insults from teenagers [aged 13-16] as he travels to and from his place of work. He now suffers from a phobia and will sooner walk another direction than pass these thoughtless youths. It really is not fair as he is one of the most gentle guys you could ever meet. I was walking with him a couple of months ago, and it happened to both of us, the first time I have heard it. I turned around and challenged the teenager [appropriately and in a constructive fashion]. Hopefully he will think twice before repeating his abuse. This clearly points to lack of education at the school level, the term 'gay' being often used as a common playground insult. Head teachers need to be brought to account, before more are unnecessary attacked.
David Croft, Chesterfield

I'm sure that a turn to the right in politics and the implicit acceptance of the BNP goes hand in hand with an increase in homophobic attacks. Recent events very much put me in mind of how things were in the late 70s. It's for the average straight type like me to stand up and say no, not acceptable, whether we are talking about homophobic or race crime. It's all hate.
Alyson, Chester UK

I deplore ANY violence, but find the reasoning (if you can call it that) behind such behaviour completely irrelevant. Why is someone who thumps someone else any worse because he does it due to his victim's colour, or sexual preferences, than he is if he does it because the victim has a fat wallet or looked at his wife the wrong way?
Megan, Cheshire UK

I would agree that there is an increase in the use of the word "gay" as a derogatory term, particularly amongst teenagers. Many of them seem to use the word without realising its implications. The meaning of the word has been "hijacked" in much the same way as it was previously. Only not in a good way.
David Williams, Yeovil

I know we often use the word "homophobic" but really should we? Are they actually scared of us? Are gays just like spiders or snakes? I'm not sure how much it stands but just using a word like that gives some form of legitimacy to those people. Racist is in a way such a crude word that it is obvious that its a bad thing but homophobic doesn't really get it across to me and makes it sound like these people are hitting out against something they're scared of. The case is they are small minded and refuse to accept that there are people outside of their norm. Its not fear, its stupidity.
Tris, Nottingham, UK

I think it's pathetic. I think religion should back off and let people think for themselves. Its OK for a guy to like a guy, Its their decision I believe that we should respect other peoples decision.
Gemma, Watford

I think the rise in hate crimes is awful but is simply mirroring a general rise in crime levels caused by incredibly poor conviction rates. If people think they can get away with it, then they're more likely to try.
Michael, London, UK

I teach in a secondary school and am still correcting "spastic" or "spaz" on a daily basis. If anything it merely stops them using it around adults and encourages them to use it more when being "risque" around their friends. Limiting their vocabulary will not change their views, and today's teenagers still generally believe homosexuality to be wrong, weird, dirty or funny.
Claire, Bristol

Another example of a homophobic attack was the recent news story of the two pro fighters dressed in drag being targeted by a man on the street. Although that story ended happily what if instead of being dolled up cage fighters they were, transvestites, transsexuals or people who looked just a little bit gay? The fact that the word 'gay' is used as a common insult is a huge factor because it instantly paints homosexuality as a negative. But it's mainly just 'us and them', the fact that ignorant people need targets and gay people; being a minority are an easy choice.
CJ, Nottingham, UK

Am I alone in thinking that all the efforts some gay and lesbian people make to draw specific attention to their sexuality could actually be counter-productive? It is claimed that gays merely want to be treated in the same way as non-gays, but if this is so, why the need for special festivals and a tailor-made district of a city (Liverpool in this case) set aside for them? In fact it could appear that some gays want privileges denied to non-gays; imagine the outcry if a non-gay person were to suggest a "straight Pride" festival or a "straight quarter" in their local town?
Helen, Kent

I find it a little bit sad that some of these attacks take place very close to gay venues and yet nobody seems to assist. Have we become a little bit sheep-like in our fear of these "Packs"? Maybe, as in the case of the original Stonewall riots, we should ensure that if any of our number is attacked we group up with the intention of defending and maybe fighting back. Bullies always go for numbers smaller and weaker than themselves. I for one would be happy to give some of these guys a fair wallop back should they try something on. Come on guys, lets stop being victims.
Glen Campbell, Bournemouth

My parents brought me up to respect differences and I think that unless parents and schools take more responsibility for the moral wellbeing of children, ALL types of hate crime, yobbish behaviour, drunken violence and gang related crimes will continue. There is no excuse for the behaviour and my boyfriend and I have had glass bottles thrown at our heads from moving vehicles of younger drivers so I know what it feels like to be afraid, however where is the authority figure in these people's lives? It's not parents or schools and the police are seen as enemies and nothing more. Who guides the morals of our future leaders?
Rob, London

Hate crimes against gay and trans-gender people are on the rise. I have been the victim of verbal abuse and threats of violence during the last eight months for the first time despite living in the same property for 20 years. It has only ended because the youth is now on bail pending a court case early next year. Verbal insults have been fairly rare but have happened over the years. However, never before have I had to endure such a hateful sustained attack just for being who I am. The police along with the victim support unit have been great but my local council who were my first port of call for the anti-social behaviour weren't interested and made me feel like I was making a big deal out of nothing, which in turn lead to the abuse continuing for such a long time. With such a serious attitude in law towards racial hate crimes it would appear the gay and trans-gender minorities are next on some people's hit list.
M, Buckinghamshire

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