Gay Londoners see attacks rise
Time Out investigates the recent dramatic increase in attacks on gay Londoners and venues in the East End.
'We were on our way to the George and Dragon [in Shoreditch]. One Asian guy started shouting “Gay guys! Are you fucking gay?”
Suddenly there were ten of them. They surrounded me. When they were just about to beat me up, a car stopped and some more Asian guys came out of the car and shouted, 'It's not worth it, they are just “batty boys”. So they let us go, but they still threw a couple of bottles at us.'
Homophobia Facebook site
This is one entry, among dozens, that has appeared during the last few months on the Facebook site 'Homophobia in E2'. The group was set up last summer to log a wave of homophobic crime that has hit the Shoreditch area over the past year.
Another entry reads, 'A car rushed by and the guys in the car shouted: “You faggots, dirty bastards.”' The site details dozens of other accounts of verbal abuse, as well as stories of victims being pelted with bottles, stones and eggs.
In one particularly vicious incident the George and Dragon was stormed by a gang of Asian boys.
'I was pouring a drink, then I turned round and there were 30 kids pouring into the pub. They began hitting everyone,' says Richard Battye, manager of the pub, talking to Time Out about the incident. Although no one was hospitalised, the pub's doorman was badly beaten.
Battye believes the storming of the pub was revenge for the sentencing in April of 15-year-old Islam Nazrul, for his part in a brutal attack on a 21-year-old art student, Oliver Hemsley, in August 2008.
Hemsley had been walking to the George and Dragon and was yards from the pub when he was stabbed eight times in the back by a gang of five youths. One blow pierced his heart, another his lungs and a third damaged his spinal column.
Nazrul was sentenced to ten years for his part in the brutal assault, which left Hemsley paralysed from the neck down.
Although it has never been proved conclusively that the attack on Hemsley was a homophobic crime, it is hard not to see it as part of the tide of violence that has engulfed the gay community in the East End.
This type of crime is not new in the area: in 2007, a gang hurled homophobic abuse at two men walking home along Hackney Road. Both men were attacked and one of them was stabbed
in the leg.
But it is the frequency and intensity of the recent attacks that is shocking. More than 12 months on, fear still lingers in the streets near where the attack took place. 'I advise people not to walk alone here, and to take cabs home,' says Battye.
In October, the George and Dragon and the nearby Joiners Arms, another gay pub in Hackney Road, set up boxes for customers to report incidents.
The accounts on the Facebook site reflect the statistics. Homophobic incidents have risen by 20 per cent in Tower Hamlets: there were 60 reported in the 12 months to June 2009 across the borough, compared to 45 the previous year.
And while recent figures from the Metropolitan Police show that homophobic crime has risen across London, Shoreditch seems to have seen a particularly steep escalation in such incidents.
So why has the area's gay community suddenly become a target?
Picture, first, a Saturday night on Shoreditch High Street. Crowds spill from the bars and pubs, music pumps from a white-lit gallery.
But these glossy venues rub shoulders with swathes of crumbling housing estates that wind through the area like frayed threads. Despite the fashionable quiffs and trainers, the area has some of the worst levels of poverty and unemployment in London.
Delwar Hussain, a writer who grew up near Shoreditch, says the attacks are the result of the friction that has arisen between relatively wealthy incomers and those who have lived there for decades.
'It's to do with encroachment of the City into the borough, as well as wealthier local people leaving the area,' he says. 'This has left a group of immobile people who have few opportunities to get jobs and move out.'
It's easy to see how resentment might flourish between these two groups, with the gay community being a visible and open target.
'The gay scene in Shoreditch is very flamboyant in what is still quite a traditional area,' says Time Out's Gay & Lesbian editor, Paul Burston, referring to the area's large Bengali, mostly Muslim, population, which makes up a third of the borough.
Intolerance of gay people
'It's a very sensitive issue but in general the community is quite conservative,' says Dr Stephanie Eaton, a member of Tower Hamlets Council. 'There is a distaste for gay people and gay lifestyles and a lack of tolerance here.'
Nearby, the East London Mosque is silhouetted against the skyline. Muslim leaders have condemned the attack on Hemsley: 'There is no justification, in any language or any belief, for savagely setting upon a young man like this,' said Councillor Abjol Miah, leader of the Respect group on Tower Hamlets Council and a respected member of the mosque.
While it's highly unlikely that the gangs who are responsible for these attacks are devout mosque-goers, the incidents are taking place against a cultural backdrop in which homosexuality is viewed at best with suspicion, at worst as an evil that needs to be eradicated.
The mosque's bookshop sells the work of leading Islamists who are notoriously homophobic, such as Sayyid Qutb.
Burston is concerned that the council has been slow to tackle the problem because it feels the need to be sensitive to the Muslim community.
An insider in Tower Hamlets Council, who wished to remain anonymous, told us: 'The issue is so sensitive that if I was to even raise the fact that these crimes are being committed by Bengalis with the complicity of the community I would be regarded as a racist.'
That criticism is strongly refuted by Tower Hamlets Council: 'We are not denying that Bengali young people are involved in these crimes,' says the council's deputy leader, Joshua Peck, 'but the borough has a large population of Bengali people. It simply reflects our population. Hate crime is perpetrated by all parts of the community. There are bigots in every community.'
Peck points out that recent attacks on customers at the Joiners Arms have also come from black and white youths: 'It is far too simplistic to attribute this to faith.'
Is religion the culprit?
Mohammad Shakir, media and communications officer at the East London Mosque adds, 'There is no tolerance of homophobic behaviour as far as the mosques are concerned. The religion of Islam does not approve of homosexual relationships, or adultery, or sex outside marriage, or drinking alcohol, or taking drugs, or gambling - there is no reason we can see why a Muslim should single out gays or lesbians.
'Increasingly such attacks are linked with drunkenness, which is becoming more prevalent among “Muslim” youth. Our Mosque has a very large congregation, and an exceptionally high proportion is young people, but even then this only represents a small number of the youth population in Tower Hamlets.'
'Religion is a red herring,' says Delwar Hussain. 'I know the potency Islam has when used as a motive for such attacks but these kids are doing it for the same reasons as white working-class boys - economic reasons. However, there is a feeling that parts of the community don't condone the attacks but might agree with the sentiment.' He adds: 'It's time the Bengali community stood up for their neighbours.'
Perhaps things are finally moving. Since the summer, there have been meetings between the council, police and locals to address the issue; there is extra lighting and there are more police patrols.
But in Shoreditch's gay bars and pubs, there are fears that the gay community will continue to be targeted. 'We are not shaking in fear,' says Battye, 'but the pressure needs to be sustained by the police, and people need to keep on reporting incidents.'
Councillor Eaton puts it more bluntly: 'I am terribly concerned about what is going on. We have to do something urgently, or someone is going to get killed. It's a tragedy waiting to happen.'
A charity has been set up to raise funds for Oliver Hemsley's care. For information visit www.artagainstknives.com.