Homophobic violence in London

Gays and lesbians may have greater legal protection than ever before, but anti-gay hatred is still claiming lives, says chief executive of Stonewall Ben Summerskill

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    Ben Summerskill's original Time Out report on gay killer Colin Ireland

    Soho, Shoreditch, Vauxhall, Stoke Newington. They’re all magnets for London’s gay communities in their manifold twenty-first century guises. As we cheerily reassure ourselves, London is one of the most tolerant cities in the world. It’s true that many of the countless thousands who arrive here every year – often to make the capital a permanent home – are refugees from homophobia elsewhere, either in Britain or abroad. But the murder of Jody Dobrowski in October 2005 was a tart retort to anyone who, perhaps prematurely, was beginning to believe the hype. The 24-year-old barman was kicked to death in the middle of Clapham Common just because he was gay. As he lay dying alone in the freezing cold, the last words he heard were homophobic taunts.

    Crown prosecutors have recently acknowledged that successful prosecutions involving homophobia have risen more than 150 per cent in the two years since Jody’s death. But the Home Office admits that 90 per cent of anti-gay crime still goes unreported. People can blame the police themselves; even though their subsequent investigation under a media spotlight was thorough, it took the Met four days to make contact with gay community organisations after Jody’s murder.

    But at Stonewall we’re still convinced that the crucible for much anti-gay hatred remains Britain’s schools, where homophobic bullying festered unaddressed for 20 years under the protective shadow of the Conservative government’s notorious Section 28.

    The School Report, research conducted among more than 1,100 secondary school pupils by Stonewall last year, found that two-thirds of lesbian and gay pupils have experienced direct bullying at school, a figure that rises to 75 per cent in faith schools. Ninety seven per cent of gay pupils regularly hear remarks such as ‘poof’, ‘dyke’ and ‘bender’. And one in three of those bullied identify adults in their schools – not fellow pupils – as the ones doing the bullying.

    Since launching our Education For All programme, now supported by 70 major teaching and children’s organisations, Stonewall has been in contact with young people from across the capital whose educations are still being blighted by hate. A 16-year-old pupil from west London explained that his school finally found a solution to his being beaten up regularly – he was accompanied home by a security guard. A 14-year-old girl from a faith school explained that, since confiding in a friend that she might be lesbian, teachers had forced her to sit outside the changing room at the beginning and end of sports lessons while the ‘normal’ pupils got changed.

    One thing these pupils tell us repeatedly is that the incessant use of the word ‘gay’ as an insult demeans and frightens them. That’s why Stonewall, and others, have refused to allow on-air yobbos like Radio 1’s Chris Moyles to parody our concerns for young gay people as those of po-faced Spartists.

    No one thinks Moyles, who boastfully uses ‘gay’ as an insult, should be locked up, except possibly in a gym. What we do think is that no one should have licence to transmit homophobic language on a morning radio show specifically targeted at millions of young people by a public-service network.

    And if anyone needed a reminder that some people running London’s schools collude in the bullying, they only needed to witness a repulsive demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament last year. Dozens of primary school children were corralled to protest against new protections which mean that gay people can no longer be turned away from hospitals or hotels. Forced to stand in the freezing cold for hours, creepy Christian fundamentalists stood over them with posters saying ‘Don’t corrupt us’.

    Jody Dobrowski’s killers eventually received exemplary sentences, something Stonewall successfully campaigned for in 2003. But gay people in London still have lower levels of confidence in the police than in most parts of Britain.

    As a young reporter for Time Out 15 years ago, I covered the Colin Ireland serial murders. Two gay men were murdered before the Met even acknowledged the victims were gay.

    It took another death before hapless detectives made any connection between the killings. Ireland’s killing spree eventually claimed five lives. Will it never happen again? Only if all Londoners – from schoolteachers to radio-listeners – make sure it doesn’t.

    Ben Summerskill is chief executive of Stonewall.

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