It's 2015, equal marriage is here and almost every political party is gunning for the gay vote. But queer men and women still live in fear on our streets
I still look at the selfie I took the night a man spat at my face in the street. In it, I’m posing lasciviously (or my own interpretation of ‘lascivious’ anyway: I was never good at exuding allure) in my kitchen wearing a halter-neck crop top, chiffon blouse and skintight trousers. I posted it on twitter one evening last July in conscious parody of the type of “at home with...” celebrity photo shoots you see in magazines. While waiting at the bus stop near my flat in Camberwell an hour later, a young guy on a bike cycled past me on the pavement, then spat at me. Homophobes are always spitting and shouting about anal sex: it’s like kink, without irony or hard-ons. I ran. I ran until I was heaving and hid in my local Pizza Hut for an hour. Looking at the photo now I still feel a sting of embarrassment – humour so quickly torn down to humiliation, social media sass mutated into cowering shame. This is the effect of street harassment. I deleted it from Twitter.
I’m lucky, of course. I’ve been threatened with serious violence many times but I’ve never been badly injured. To consider yourself lucky for not being assaulted is a warped way of perceiving things but it is one LGBT people internalise, often from childhood. Between 2012 and 2013 less than 4,500 incidents of hate crime against LGBT people were reported in England in Wales and less than 750 were reported in Scotland. However, National Crime Survey data indicates that 35,000 incidents went unreported.
Trans people face the worst realities; police records suggest transphobic hate crime in London alone may have risen by 44 per cent in 2014. The street is too often a battleground for trans people just to live their lives. Their bodies are subject to both psychic and physical violence. In the trans community, reference is sometimes made to “passing privilege” – the idea that some trans people can ‘pass’ without being identified on the street as trans and more easily avoid violence than others. The term is controversial within the community itself but for all of us its implications are damning. Many trans people feel freedom from violence is a kind of privilege. Something is very wrong.
This is an issue that affects most LGBT people, most days of their lives. On bus stops and in supermarkets. Yet it’s hardly been at the forefront of mainstream political discussion under the last government. Never mind, we’re told. Didn’t you hear? Gay people can get married (except in Northern Ireland)! Parliament has graciously allowed us to declare our love! For richer for poorer, in sickness and in hideous jewel-coloured waistcoats. We’re liberated now, darlings! This is what we heard and, yes, marriage equality was important. But more importantly for the next government is a commitment to tackling the endemic problem of violence and harassment against LGBT people.
There are some positive signs, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 16 month long project to tackle under reporting of hate crime. As Commissioner Evelyn Asante-Mensah puts it in this statement: “Everyone in Britain should feel confident and sufficiently empowered to recognise and report incidents of hatred, hostility and harassment and yet we know that for LGB and T people this is very often not the case. It is difficult to tackle crimes that are not reported. Therefore, addressing under-reporting is crucial.”
The LGBT Consortium’s announcement in February that it was launching a community-led partnership of 31 LGBT charities nationwide to tackle hate crime in a holistic way – through education outreach, community partnerships and victim support – is also encouraging. The criminal justice system is insufficient; joining up of these kinds of services in local communities, places of worship and schools is crucial to ending violence: there is surprisingly little information on perpetrators of hate crime but it is known, for example, that most are under 25.
“For me, victimhood is as much a state of mind as anything else. Though grateful, I don’t want to have to be supported or seek help because of other people’s bigotry. It enrages me.”
A man threatened to stab me once; I called the police. They took my favourite coat for DNA evidence and lost it, I complained that my statement inaccurately recorded me saying the man was white but spoke in “rap slang” (making me sound like a 50 year old UKIP voter) and they never found him anyway. The same story is common among friends. As grumbles with policing go, these are very white and middle class. For some parts of the LGBT community, particularly people of colour and sex workers, the police are often not perceived to be protectors but complicit in a wider structure of political oppression.
As Travis Alabanza, BME officer for the King’s College London LGBT association, explains, the intersection of identities is important: “The statistics and analysis around LGBT people reporting crimes to the police is seeped in whitewashed privilege. I‘ve grown up with direct encounters of the police inflicting harm on me. Just because suddenly, in that moment, I’m being called a homophobic slur doesn’t mean that the police won’t be racist. There should be third party support. Support for victims of abuse that is led by and focused upon LGBT People of Colour. Support that exists outside of a police force that is seeped in institutional racism.”
You can now report hate crime online without dealing directly with the police (withholding your details if you do not wish them to be passed on) and several charities offer support services. However, for me, victimhood is as much a state of mind as anything else. Though grateful, I don’t want to have to be supported or seek help because of other people’s bigotry. It enrages me. A huge part of dealing with the fear of violence is recovering a sense of power against those who try to intimidate me. Online images of the ‘Bash Back’ movement in North America, videos of gay gangs in Washington DC – or slogans of the Swedish Antifascistisk Aktion like “he called me a faggot so I called him an ambulance” can be electrifying. They appeal to a visceral need for vengeance, a fantasy in which the street as a political space is reclaimed. I haven’t entered an urban park alone after 7pm since I was 14 years old (nowhere to run) and I have friends who still won’t hold hands in public. A violent demand for these rights fulfils something an incident report form cannot – even if it’s just social media posturing.
I recently saw this YouTube rap battle between south London queer artist Liv Wynter and a regular at Don’t Flop, the UK’s largest battle rap tournament. It is an environment where homophobia and misogyny form a regular part of the conversation (Wynter’s opponent Pedro opens with “you got a tattooed chest, I’ll stab through your stabproof vest. I’ll fucking attack you. You wanna have black group sex”). In contrast, Wynter herself opens by stating that she has come to “draw attention to your complete predictability and the standard instabilities that come with performing masculinity”. She anticipates, exposes and challenges her opponent’s jibes before each of his rounds – “you’re gonna insinuate I’m gay, as if that’s insulting in some way. You’re gonna try and make me hate parts of my body or my face”.
The video has over 60,000 views and counting. Asking Wynter about the response, she said that she believes many LGBT people, particularly women, have found the video empowering as an inversion of the discourse of a hostile space. “You can’t say this stuff to someone at a bus stop but you can in a rap battle”, she explains. She and her friends still sat through a dispiriting day in which many of the preceding battles featured transphobic jibes and rape jokes – though, interestingly, Don’t Flop took the step of banning these kind of comments when it shared her battle video on Facebook: a first in its seven year history.
Inroads like this can be encouraging, even if small. The stark, sickening details of violent hate crime – broken bones, permanent blindness, sexual humiliation, internal bleeding – it can almost be too overwhelming to process. But they must not be ignored as long as they go on and it is not for LGBT people alone to solve this problem for ourselves. We grow up in a straight society and it is for society as a whole to remedy. Yet even faced with streets saturated with darkness, LGBT people must look for dimly lit avenues of hope, of progress.
Change only comes from mutual understanding and respect. If I’m a white bisexual man, I must listen to the separate experiences of women, of people of colour, of trans people and to and stand alongside them, even when those experiences are different to mine. If I’m straight I must listen to LGBT people and seek to challenge the everyday prejudice in my own life – as a politician, a parent, a teacher or even just as a friend. This is as important as any policy announcement. It is also tiring, difficult and painful – a fine balance between forbearance and ferocity is needed - but I’d sooner have that than fear, shame and deleted selfies.
LEIGH FONTAINE, 28 (@cocofemmefontaine)
Drag queen and stylist
“I find myself excusing actions when trying to recall notable experiences that I would consider prejudice. As a mixed race, gay, drag queen there are not many boxes I can tick on the privilege card. But I found it hard to recognise events of prejudice; I've kind of realised that I often dismiss homophobic slurs as a normal part of my existence.
My sexuality has been questioned, challenged and ridiculed from a young age. The odd shout out of ‘batty boy’ or ‘faggot’ hardly registers. I shouldn't expect or accept it but unfortunately I have come to. One occasion that I do remember clearly was around 5 years ago waiting for a night bus in Camden at 2am with some female friends. A few black men came up and started harassing us and hitting on the girls before turning their attention to me: ‘Oi are you gay?’, ‘mate you're disgusting’, ‘you're a fucking disgrace to our race’. It's with the last insult that he decided to spit in my face. I clearly remember feeling intimidated, I clearly remember no one around me stepping up to my defence and I clearly remember not questioning why it was happening. Plenty of my friends had been beaten and harassed for their sexuality, now it was my time to have a story.
I faced by completely ignoring them, not even reacting to wipe the saliva running down my cheek. I'd dealt with racism before, I'd stood up to it, I'd felt empowered by it. But I felt completely powerless in this situation, maybe it was the years I struggled coming to terms with my sexuality – or maybe just because I'd not had enough alcohol that evening.”
“I'm over the pain and the bruises, I'm over the six weeks I couldn't suck my boyfriend's bomb dick because my face hurt too much. But I want all that money and time back.” – Ronan
“3 years ago, my boyfriend-at-the-time and I, walking home late one night from a Eurovision party were set upon by a gang of about ten teenagers, right at the end of my road I was punched to the ground and kicked in the head repeatedly. I lost consciousness.
At the hospital, after CT scans and X-rays, they told me I had fractured my skull and cheekbone. No, I corrected them. THEY had fractured my skull and cheekbone. I didn't simply fall down in the road like all of the other injuries in A&E that night. Busy and overworked, they didn't seem to care about the distinction, but it was important to me.
Do you know how much time I had to waste and earnings I had to lose, because of that attack? Making police reports. Attending various hospital clinics (for my eye, my head injury, the cuts and bruises, going to the dental hospital because I might have needed maxillofacial surgery). I had so many more fun things to be doing. The injustice of it all was maddening. I'm over the violence, I'm over the pain and the bruises, I'm over the six weeks I couldn't even suck my boyfriend's bomb dick because my face hurt too much. But I want all that money and time back.
I became, simply, enraged at straight society. I would do my best to insult and belittle and antagonise even my well-meaning and utterly bewildered straight friends, lashing out at them seemingly at random. I had loud obnoxious sex in my house, on the off chance it might antagonise or make uncomfortable my never-less-than-totally-accepting housemates. I sought out every opportunity I could to be abrasive to those I witheringly dismissed as cishets.”
“It’s the feeling you get when you’re walking from the bus stop to your house, and it’s 3am and you’re feeling waved and you see someone up ahead. You immediately start to think about what you look like, and whether it’ll be safer to try and pass as a boy or girl. Like one of those things is safer. And your train of thought is do I wanna be a girl? Does that person look like a rapist, or does he look like someone who wouldn’t hurt a woman? Do I wanna be a boy? Does he look like someone who wants to fight or mug me? Or if I put my hood up and head down and move a little lower in my trainers will he just walk past.
I guess it’s like code switching, it’s the train of thought that stems from always being spoken to at bus stops, or heckled at on the streets, it’s trying to work out how I can present myself in a way that’s gonna get the least amount of kickback. And to be honest it fucking sucks. We all know we should be able to look how we want, where we want, but we also all put our hoods up at the bus stop.
In my rap battle I thought about all those dickheads at bus stops and what I wanted to say to them. The satisfaction of saying ‘yo fuck you, fuck this attitude, fuck you if you wanna call me a dyke and say I’m ugly and fat: I honestly don’t care anymore. Calling me a dyke isn’t insulting, sorry, and I don’t care what you think about my body because it’s mine and its covered in scars and fucking badass tattoos and my lover loves it and so do I’.
Learning to say ‘fuck you’ is incredibly hard but it is one of the most liberating experiences. Ever. Unfortunately the reality of this is that some people don’t like being told fuck you. I’ve told men to fuck off before and felt the violent repercussions. I guess as queer people we’re always walking that line between saying ‘fuck you’ and keeping your hoods up.”
“As someone who identifies as neither male or female, I’m very aware that harassment isn’t a phase in my transition, but likely the reality for the rest of my life.” – Caspar Heinemann
WAIL QASIM, 22 (@wailq)
Activist and writer
“Facing harassment in Soho isn’t anything new or surprising for me, or for many of my friends. Whether it’s because of my orientation or my skin colour I have come to expect a certain level of threats and attacks, especially late at night. But I have never felt that reporting any of this to the police would be a good idea. Not least because they themselves have been responsible for harassing and abusing me in the past. But also because I never really thought anything would come of reporting it to them.
Unfortunately I had all of this and more confirmed last year while observing a stop and search taking place just off Old Compton Street. The police were clearly pissed off that I took the time to make sure the guys being stopped were okay, but given that it was quite late and there weren’t many people around I stayed to make sure they were safe. This is when someone approached me, I think he must have noticed what I was doing and he immediately started shouting in my face that I was a ‘poof’.
At first I thought obviously the police would step in and I looked over at them naively expectant. They could all see what was going on, that the guy was getting more and more aggressive and closer and closer to hitting me. But they did nothing. When I tried to walk away he followed and I could still see the cops watching as I had to start running away from this guy who continued to shout at and threaten me. I’ve never been more sure that the police aren’t there to help me when this kind of attack happens. Taking on the bystander position is utter complicity in the attack. I might be a poof but at least I’m not a cop.”
CASPAR HEINEMANN, 21 (@angstravaganza)
“To think about street violence faced by trans people, it is vital to work with an expanded definition of violence that doesn’t stop at the physical, but accounts for the dozens of micro-aggressions many of us experience on a daily basis. As well as homophobic and transphobic abuse, one of the primary forms of harassment I face is people openly speculating on and discussing my body. This triggers gender dysphoria and operates as a very literal objectification, a regular reminder that my body is not my own.
The extent to which misogyny is at the root of most gendered street harassment has become evident to me as someone who is read as both a femme boy and a masc girl. Despite being on the transmasculine spectrum, the most threatening harassment I have faced has been a result of my femininity. When read as a girl, there is anger at my failure to correctly perform femininity – when read as a boy, there is anger at my femininity. Both are manifestations of misogyny. I come off lightly, while trans women and femmes bear the brunt of misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.
As someone who identifies as neither male or female, I’m very aware that harassment isn’t a phase in my transition, but likely the reality for the rest of my life. This is also the case for other trans people who are non-binary, have no interest in passing as cis, or lack the resources to do so. This intersects with class and race, as people who cannot afford to transition or who reject white Western modes of gender presentation are disproportionately affected. Many resources for trans people focus on how we should change to avoid harassment – the focus needs to be on how the world can change to welcome us.”