Is gay bashing on the rise?
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
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.
Assaults and murders have made headlines
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.
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.
WHY LONDON'S EAST END?
'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.'
"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."
DOES THE MEDIA PLAY A PART?
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.'
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."