When I surveyed young LGBT+ adults over the past two weeks to gather views about police attitudes to members of their community, it was both shocking yet unsurprising to hear the negativity of the majority of responses:
“I have no faith in the police to protect the queer community.”
“How can I feel safe when repeatedly our community is shown that we are second best?”
“Is that a joke? They don’t care whether we live or die.”
Many police officers join the force because they are dedicated to justice and protecting citizens, so where have these feelings come from and why do these views seem to be so prevalent in such a supposedly progressive society?
When asked about whether the police are institutionally homophobic, home secretary Priti Patel admitted that ‘There are problems with the culture within the Metropolitan Police’ and that ‘We're not seeing one-off incidences’. According to Stonewall’s statistics on Hate Crime Rates in England, Wales, and Scotland in a poll including 5000 LGBT people in Britain, 81% of Queer and transgender youth have been victims of hate crimes but four in five anti-LGBT hate crimes and incidents go unreported, with younger LGBT people being particularly reluctant to go to the police.
It’s obviously the fault of the victim for not trying hard enough to get justice, right? Well, if we look at the historical context behind the relationship that LGBT+ persons, the police, and the heteronormative society - a society made for, by and upheld by straight people - you will find that there is much more than what meets the eye.
For those of us who were and continue to be failed by heteronormative school system that doesn’t teach any other history aside from straight, white male history, here’s is a condensed version of queer history from the mid-20th century up until now:
- During the 50s and the Cold War the Lavender Scare (a series of witch hunts against homosexual men and women) creating a highly tense atmosphere for many
- The Wolfenden Committee meets in 1954 – a key meeting leading to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967
- In 1967, the Sexual Offences Bill sees the decriminalisation of homosexuality and homosexual sex became legal for consenting adults over 21 years old in private after 164 years of being punishable by death of imprisonment
- 1981 – the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Britain
- Section 28 is introduced in 1998 by then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, stating that local authorities “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish materials with the intention of promoting homosexuality” – this extended to schools and community spaces.
- The turn of the 21st century saw gay couples allowed to enter the armed forces
- Section 28 is repealed in 2003
- ‘Civil Partnership Act (2004)’ allows gay couples to enter civil union-ships
- ‘The Equality Act (2006) makes discrimination against lesbians and gay men illegal
- ‘Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act (2013)’ allows lesbians and gay men to enter a marriage that will be recognised under British Law
- The UK Government announced new pardons for a wider group of people previously victimised under previous homophobic laws in 2022
The LGBT+ community has dealt with many more centuries’ worth of distrust, discrimination and denigration causing many to withdraw into secret spaces from which members of the community have started to emerge in the latter decades of the 20th century. Treatment from the police has only aided, if not instigated and maintained, this rejection and suppression. Today, many find it hard to trust the police with such matters as hate-crime and discrimination. Arguably, members of the QTIPOC community find it harder due to the triple-edged sword of homophobia, sexism and racism.
These aren’t just preconceived notions that have sprouted out of nowhere, fed by false news. The LGBT+ community has seen this mishandling and lack of care in real-time. The Stephen Port case from 2016, where four gay men were drugged, raped, and murdered by Port, is a heart-breaking example of police disregard for Queer lives. The police grossly mishandled the cases from misidentifying a victim on “key evidence” CCTV tape to disregarding the family of Jack Taylor, the last of Port’s victims, who were the first to link the four cases together. This was despite two officers working on the Taylor case already having worked on two of the previous murder cases, as well as ignoring damning information given by suspicious friends of Port.
Yet, it doesn’t stop there. The Nilsen Case (1983), branded a notorious case by Justice Croom, presiding judge for the Nilsen Case, is another botched example of justice. After the identification of Stephen Sinclair – a homeless man from Perth, Scotland – the profile for Nilsen’s following targets were rent boys (underaged sex workers), male prostitutes, vagrants, and tramps. This was perpetuated by a growing homophobic hysteria in the 1980s due to the AIDS epidemic. Although arrested in 1983 for six counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder, the police had interviewed Nilsen four years earlier in 1979 for a possible count of attempted murder. Charges were dropped but had the police monitored Nilsen closer fifteen lives could have been spared.
Would this have happened if the victims were straight “respectable” men of society? I’ll let you answer that in your own time.
Here are the findings of the aforementioned survey of young LGBT+ adults’ perceptions of the police:
- 43 participants reported that they were a victim of a hate crime
- When asked where these incidents took place, at school was the main context
- If the participants were a victim of a queer/trans hate crime 77 participants said they wouldn’t report it to the police
- Much reasoning behind why participants wouldn’t go to the police stem from:
- Lack of trust
- Don’t feel they would be taken seriously
- Feeling unsafe around the police due to race
- Don’t feel that as much care would be given if the attack was verbal opposed to physical
- Being told by society that “as a queer person you should brush it off and appear unaffected”
- The police having a history of mistreatment towards queer people
- Regarding personal views of how participants thought hate crime reports from queer and trans persons were being handled by the police, participants thought the police:
- Aren’t “aware and properly educated on this matter. Moreover, because majority of the police workers are "white cisgender men", there's a certain aspect of toxic masculinity involved as well and thus, lead to hate crime.”
- Dismissive of such reports
- View Queer and trans hate-crimes as unvital and unnecessary
- 102 participants don’t trust the police to handle a Queer/trans hate-crime report with sensitivity and care
What’s more, those who work within the police also must deal with the institutional homophobia and transphobia often found in casual police talk. For too long the culture in police stations has regarded real-world hate speech as friendly banter between “mates”. The Gay Police Association (GPA) was specifically founded in 1990 by Constable James Bradley in all 52 UK Police Forces to “represent the needs and interests of gay and bisexual police officers and police staff.” GPA was put in place on the basis of three main objectives: promote equal opportunities and offer advice and support to and for gay and bisexual men and women as well as to improve the relations between the police service and the wider gay community. The original GPA had its funding cut during the 2014 austerity measures but was succeeded by The National LGBT+ Police Network which is still in place as of today to continue the intended work of the original Gay Police Association.
Changes are being made, more acceptance is shown, and society is slowly beginning to deconstruct its institutional homophobia and transphobia to become a society and a country made for all, a refuge for those who need it. Yet still the questions stand: Will we ever have faith in the police? Will we ever feel safe? I can only hope that the future will see more progress with the treatment of Queer people.
Article dedicated to:
Stephen Dean Holmes
The eight unnamed victims of Dennis Nilsen and those who have died due to the police misconduct and mishandling, on the basis of homophobia