What should you do if you are on the receiving end of homophobic abuse?
It was late in the afternoon on a Saturday, the weekend of a record-breaking heatwave. My partner and I had made the most of the scorching weather with friends on Hampstead Heath.
We could not have been more relaxed and at peace as we ambled down Parliament Hill, contemplating rounding off an enjoyable afternoon in a local restaurant.
It was 5.38pm when we boarded an overcrowded east-bound London Overground train to make the 20 minutes journey home. All seats taken, we found a space to stand in the front carriage. As we set off my partner and I were making lighthearted conversation, when suddenly we were interrupted by an angry voice from the seat behind us: ‘Just shut up will you, I don’t want to be listening to your boring conversation.’
We were hardly speaking too loud, but anyhow, my partner initially apologised, just to shut the guy up. It was soon clear that his unsolicited interjection was an excuse for a confrontation.
‘Shift out of my sight, I don’t want to see you faggots in my face,’ the man yelled.
‘What the hell did you just say?’ I asked, calling for him to repeat what he said for the benefit of the rest of the carriage. ‘You heard,’ he muttered.
My heart was racing, but I knew I had to stay calm and take in as much as I could: clean-shaven, short dark brown hair, a dark blue polo top with thin white hoops and a silver tooth in the lower left jaw. His stocky 5’8" build told me to be wary of getting involved in physical contact.
Received wisdom says you should do everything you can to avoid confrontation. That’s impossible in a crowded carriage where there’s nowhere else to run; besides, I had no intention of caving in to bullies.
‘We are not going anywhere’ I retorted, and turned to my partner to resume the conversation where we left off, but with one eye on this unpredictable, seething character now reduced to repetitive mutterings of ‘faggot’. After about a minute, bolted out of his seat to stand between the doors, staring at us intensely.
We got off before him at Canonbury. We had stood our ground and were unharmed. But throughout the evening, nothing could stop my mind from replaying the 20 minutes over again. Couldn’t I have reached for the phone, or spoken to the driver via the emergency intercom? I couldn’t let it go. We had suffered abuse and public humiliation, and let the perpetrator get away with it.
At the time, the verbal abuse didn’t feel as serious as it should have done. I doubted that the police or the driver would take me seriously. My phone was somewhere in my bag. And I had no idea where the emergency call button was until a few minutes later. After a year’s commuting in these new trains, I had never bothered to wonder.
After deliberation, the next morning I googled London Transport police, and called them. To my surprise, the operator took my details with efficiency and understanding. I was given an incident number. Within minutes I was called by the LGBT liason officer from the local Islington branch. I was surprised to find I was being taken seriously.
There was no need to explain the emotional distress that my partner and I felt. The officer was both empathetic and businesslike, and was determined for me to take a statement.
One evening the following week, the police officer came to the house and took our statements. In a two-and-a-half hour session, we went through the incident, recalling as much detail as possible. It is strange how my partner and I could not agree on basic details; perceptual blindness, as psychologists call it, is perfectly normal.
Most impressively, the officer invited us to fill in a statement describing how the incident affected us emotionally. Even so, with our combined recollections, we could give near-accurate details of where we were located in the train, the time we boarded, the appearance and movements of the assailant, and how far into the journey we were when the trouble kicked off. This was more than sufficient for London Transport Police to locate on the suspect on the CCTV footage.
We were informed that the suspect, if caught, would be charged under Section 4 of the Public Order Act.
The liason officer gave us contact details of Victim Support and organised for leaflets on coping with hate crime to be sent to us.
The thought mattered, even if I didn’t need their help: luckily I had a network of people I could talk to. The police distributed a press release about the attack and appealing for witnesses among local media, and the story was taken up by three local newspapers as well as the LGBT press. Despite this, no witnesses came forward, so no posters were put up.
In the event, suspect was never caught. We didn’t get justice, but that did not diminish the importance of reporting the incident. Research repeatedly shows that the frequency with which LGBT people experience homophobic or transphobic hate crime is shockingly high.
Stonewall’s 2008 report shows in five gay and lesbian people was a victim of abuse in the three years to 2008; a more recent survey in London found 12 percent of LGB people to be victims of abuse in the year up to 2011.
In the same year, the total number of homophobically motivated attacks reported to police nationally rose to 4883. Yet it is hard to get the true picture because LGBT people are unwilling or unmotivated to report crime to the police.
The Stonewall study found that three in four LGBT people did not report crime to the police, mostly because they think the police won’t be able to do anything about it, or don’t think it’s serious enough to be reported.
Each reported incident becomes a statistic, which in turn tells the police and politicians how to deploy their resources and understand the true severity of hate crime. Not reporting an incident makes it certain that homophobic behaviour goes unpunished, and probably even encourages the perpetrator to reoffend.
Some older folk may still bear hostility towards the police, whose only concern would be to routinely harass the gay men in parks, while turning a blind eye to hate crime.
Times have changed in the last 20 years. I experience support, understanding, and a desire to see justice done on my behalf. Hopefully the doubters might take heart from this Special Police volunteers’ discussion forum, where members discuss their pride in tackling abusive homophobes. Perhaps it is the job of regional police forces to communicate this culture change, beyond, say, simply raising a pride flag in the middle of May.
A more disturbing statistic: one in three LGBT people reports changing his/her behavior as a result of experiencing homophobia.
In spite of all the legislative progress of the last 15 years, there are only a few tiny metropolitan enclaves where same-sex people can comfortably be themselves and show affection in public.
Even that is optimistic. The appalling news of another vicious attack in a ‘gay-friendly district’ shows that nowhere is risk-free. If we want to stop this, it is our duty to report what we experience or witness.
What else can be done? We could certainly do with safer trains like those on the Overground line, in which one long doorless gangway joins all the carriages, and high-resolution colour CCTV cameras are behind every electronic display. We also need more inspectors ‘on the beat’.
The Crown Prosecution Service, too, needs to reassure those who fear giving the evidence needed to convict a criminal, because public knowledge of their sexuality will put them in danger. The CPS understand this situation and will request the court to impose media restrictions. See their information pack information pack for more details
The CPS has started measuring conviction rates and unsuccessful outcomes recently.
Safer trains, more inspectors ‘on the beat’, tougher sentences, and supportive police forces are all important, but all this merely deals with the consequences of a society that still endorses homophobia.
The education system, the law and the media treat us as lesser individuals. The best place to challenge prejudice that fuels the hate is in our schools. We must ensure all children are exposed to the reality of different families and relationships from a young age.
We must make schools an environment where LGBT people are not just tolerated but empowered to be open about who they are, and protected with strong sanctions against bullies and homophobic language.
However, thanks to loopholes in the equalities bill secured by Christian lobby groups, the Church of England and the Catholic Church from Gordon Brown and maintained by the current government, we are failing miserably in this aim. A good proportion of our schools are turning out a generation whose vicious homophobia has been barely challenged.
The media must take homophobia seriously too. The news and current affairs team of our state broadcaster, the BBC, has never held the judiciary and government to account on their record on protecting LGBT people. The debate over same-sex marriage, whipped up by the media, shows support for segregation, and even a complete reversal on all rights legislation is still alive and well.
With the police and crime commissioners’ elections coming up in the UK, one question remains for the West Midlands Police in particular. Can you give assurances that homophobia will be rooted out wherever it is seen?
When Channel 4 exposed hate preachers calling for gay people to be thrown off cliffs (and indeed, death to all infidels) in its 2008 Undercover Mosque documentary, the West Midlands Police and the CPS tried and, thankfully, failed to prosecute the programme makers for ‘undermining community cohesion’. Have any lessons been learnt beyond apologising for such gross stupidity?
Generally, we are moving in the right direction. But it shows the battle to overcome homophobia will only be won if all of us – LGBT community, authorities and legislators – play our part beyond offering empty platitudes.
The circumstances of my incident aren’t a guide for how you should react. To report a crime that has already happened, call 0800 405040. When a crime is happening, or you are in immediate danger, do not hesitate to call 999. See the British Transport Police website for more details.
You can also make a statement at your local police station. If you think you are not being taken seriously, ask for someone else.
Stonewall’s guide for victims of homophobic hate is a vital resource. Standing your ground and answering back is likely to escalate the situation and invite violence, because the people you are dealing with are probably looking for an excuse to fight in the first place.
If you are in a similar situation, backing away to a safer part of the train may make it easier to call 999 or contacting the driver. And yes,being on the receiving end of verbal abuse isan emergency. I learnt that, had I raised the alarm, the driver would have stopped the train at the next station and waited for the police to arrive.
When raising the alarm, be clear and concise. Say clearly to the operator, ‘I want to report homophobic hate incident.’ In an emergency, tell the operator you are being threatened, whether you are in immediate danger, and if you can’t talk, say so. State the name of the train operator, the destination of the train and which stop you have just passed. Give a basic description of the perpetrator: skin and hair colour, facial features, age, height as well as type, color or pattern of clothes. Mention any distinguishing features.
If the case goes to court, you may be called as a witness by the Crown Prosecution Service. If you find this is a problem, and you are worried about being ‘outed’, tell them. They will press for media restrictions if necessary. Read their information pack for more details.