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Cruising for hate-crimes

The recent murder of a gay man in London was tragic. But how could anybody seriously claim that homophobia is on the rise?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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After the murder of a gay man, Jody Dobrowski, on Clapham Common, there have been warnings about the rising tide of homophobia. An investigation in the Observer reported ‘a big increase in homophobic attacks’, and warned that ‘for many gay people harassment remains part of daily life’ (1).

The murder was a tragic case. But how could anybody seriously claim that homophobia is on the rise?

Some seem to be forgetting that homosexuality was a criminal offence until 1967, and police would raid gay clubs and cart off their occupants. Former editor of Gay Times, Colin Richardson, was quoted in the Observer piece as saying: ‘I can remember days when if the police were blazing their lights across Clapham Common, it was to intimidate the gay men who gather there. Now, it would be in pursuit of a case of violence against someone.’

There is in fact no evidence that homophobic violence is on the rise. After the Clapham murder, there were reports of a ‘spate of violent muggings’ targeting gays on the Common – but this turned out to be two other incidents, one in mid-September and one earlier this month. Yes, homophobic hate crime has risen by 8.5 per cent in London over the past year. But the tally of 1246 incidents for 2004/5 isn’t huge for a city of seven million people, especially given the nature of many of the incidents. The Metropolitan Police takes a broad-brush definition of homophobia, as: ‘any incident, which is perceived to be homophobic by the victim or any other person (that is directed to impact upon those known or perceived to be lesbians, gay men, bisexual or transgender people).’ (2)

An analysis of homophobic incidents recorded by the Met in 2001 showed that the largest proportion – some 35 per cent for men, and 50 per cent for women – involved threats rather than violence; another fifth involved criminal damage or theft. As a Galop spokesperson told me, a threat could include ‘somebody shouting “dyke” in the street’, or graffiti insults on a wall: ‘the police are interested in hearing about all of it. Graffiti should be taken very seriously.’ And there were some odd anomalies in the Metropolitan Police stats: four per cent of the perpetrators were a partner or ex-partner, and some of the attacks involved sex. It seems that almost every incident against a gay person can be defined as homophobic.

Straightforward crimes can also be classed as hate-crimes. Galop told me that it is handing on reports to the police of cases such as ‘a man being robbed on a cruising ground’, because this is about ‘exploiting a weakness, a perception of gay men’. Meanwhile, a man being picked up at a bar and assaulted is apparently homophobic because ‘sex is about power’.

While the police once raided gay clubs to arrest people, today they cruise them to encourage the reporting of hate crimes. In Merseyside there was a 133 per cent increase in homophobic hate crime between 2001 and 2004, mainly due to the hard work of its officers. A spokesperson for Merseyside police told me that initiatives include: ‘A police surgery at a gay club every fortnight, to build relations between the police and the gay community’; ‘meetings every three months at gay venues, to enable better access’; ‘a self-reporting pack, so that you can report homophobic crime anonymously’; ‘the Merseyside “Shoutline” where those who have been a victim of crime because of their sexuality can speak to someone, or report the crime, in confidence’.

While employers used to discriminate against gays, today they are called upon to serve their particular needs. In a Department for Trade and Industry-supported briefing paper, the gay rights organisation Stonewall warns employers about the hefty responsibilities they face in order to comply with new equal opportunities legislation. ‘Almost every aspect of employment policy and practice throws up specific problems in relation to LGB [lesbian, gay and bisexual] people’, it says. It recommends that employers set up gay ‘networks’ for their workers, for mutual support and ready recourse if discrimination occurs. And there are warnings about the pitfalls of ‘indirect discrimination’, which could even involve something like a free crèche: ‘statistically [gays and lesbians] are less likely to have children than heterosexuals’, ergo the crèche discriminates against them (3).

It is still uncomfortable to be the only gay in the village, but in cities where most gay people live, real prejudice is negligible. The police employs openly gay officers to work with the gay community, and one public face of the Metropolitan Police is the gay deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick. A Stonewall survey found that only 6.8 per cent of people expressed public prejudice against gays or lesbians, compared to 14 per cent against travellers or gypsies (4). Gay couples can walk hand-in-hand in many cities without drawing a second glance; they can invite their partners to works drinks without putting their job in jeopardy. Sporadic attacks do happen, but they are mercifully rare. And all this is to the good.

What isn’t so good is the way in which gays and lesbians have become shock troops in the campaigns of the new elite. The promotion of the issue of homophobia by everybody from the Metropolitan Police to the Tory Party, and the supposed remedy of re-education, marks the changing of the political guard.

At a time when traditional institutions are suffering from something of an identity crisis, the gay issue is a shorthand way in which they can distance themselves from the past and show that they’re ‘with it’. Hence Tory Steven Norris’ support for a gay museum in London, or the party’s gay and lesbian summit for young people in March 2003.

Features of gay culture that developed in backstreet ghettoes and underground cellars, and expressed the community’s marginalisation, are now celebrated across the board. Camp, as cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote in 1964, is a ‘love of artifice and exaggeration’; camp is ‘disengaged, depoliticised’, and sees everything in inverted commas (‘not a lamp, but a “lamp”‘) (5). Symbolised by the rise of Queen Graham Norton, with Elton John as Queen Mother, camp has become chic in a culture that revels in irony, disguise and frivolity. Rather than gays getting out of the ghettos, everybody else wants to climb in to join them.

The new elite doesn’t believe in much, but ‘tolerance’ is one of the few things it can hold to. According to its brand of illiberal liberalism, anything goes except for pariah views about sexuality or race. The campaign against homophobia is an attempt to discipline the public (particularly the white working-class male section of the public). One Stonewall publication on prejudice recommended that officials ‘target marginalised areas of white majority society’, explaining that ‘young white unemployed men are more likely to act out their prejudices through violence’ (6). Much was made of the skin-headed suspects in the Clapham case, and these were seen as the working-class rule rather than the exception.

The term ‘homophobia’ suggests an unnatural psychological perversion. While sufferers of arachnophobia might need forced exposure to spiders, homophobes apparently need exposure to the exuberances of gay culture – the ‘gay and proud’ marches, and initiatives such as the London gay museum, or London mayor Ken Livingstone’s plan to educate the capital’s schoolchildren about gay and lesbian lifestyles.

If there isn’t so much prejudice now, there might well be once Livingstone has done his worst. This sexual correctness onslaught is far more likely to breed problems than is the gay couple living next door.

Whatever the changes for the better, there are new barriers to equality today. Gay rights organisations urge employers to make special allowances for gay workers, and cry homophobia every time a gay man has his mobile snatched. Instead of free and easy equality, gays and lesbians have become a drag act cheered on by the authorities.

(1) ‘I’m afraid I can see a big increase ahead in homophobic attacks’, 18 October 2005

(2) Homophobic violence, Metropolitan Police

(3) The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations, Stonewall

(4) Understanding prejudice, Gill Valentine and Ian McDonald, November 2004

(5) Notes On ‘Camp’, Susan Sontag

(6) Understanding prejudice, Gill Valentine and Ian McDonald, November 2004

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Topics Politics

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