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Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes in the UK
Via Instagram (@josh.ormrod and @curtis_stewart_)

Young gay men share horrifying stories amid rising UK hate crimes

In light of a spate of violent attacks, victims and experts speak on the atmosphere that may have emboldened homophobes, and how the LGBTQ+ community is coming together to resist hate

“I was with my sister and her friend, who were visiting. We were talking home and I wanted to make sure they got back to the hotel safely. A few minutes after I dropped them off, that’s when it happened,” Curtis Stewart, 19, tells Dazed. Walking home in central Liverpool in the early hours of June 14, Curtis was violently attacked. The attacker was a man, accompanied by three women. “They shouted something, and I tried to walk quickly to get away from them, but then he ran towards me and hit me, headbutted me, then hit me again.”

Curtis isn’t alone. Police are investigating a string of attacks against young gay and bisexual men in Liverpool in recent months. Josh Ormrod, 19, was left similarly bloodied and bruised after a man attacked him in the city centre three nights later. The man, who was eventually charged, shouted a homophobic slur during the attack. This violence has shaken the city, prompting LGBTQ+ people and allies to march in protest.

Attacks of this nature aren’t confined to Liverpool. Over the summer, there has been a wave of violent hate crimes against men who are presumed to be gay or bisexual in Britain’s cities. In July, a student in Cardiff was left “in a pool of blood” after being assaulted in the street. In August, two gay men were attacked and robbed in the middle of Edinburgh in broad daylight, as onlookers “stood and laughed”. Later that month, three men were arrested in Birmingham after a violent attack in the city’s “gay village”. In Devon, a man was hit in the face with a hammer in a suspected homophobic attack. And in London, a man was arrested on suspicion of murder, which police suspect had homophobic motivations. These are not the only examples.

So why is this happening? Josh thinks it might be a consequence of life returning to some semblance of normality after the pandemic, in which people were confined indoors for long lengths of time. “Having come out of the last couple of years of lockdowns, everybody’s been cooped up, and there’s always going to be those people who will go out and start a fight with somebody,” he says. “Marginalised groups are easy targets. And it’s painfully obvious at the moment that the LGBTQ+ community isn’t being protected right now.” I ask what he means by a lack of protection. “That the government right now is the one that’s in power while this is happening,” Josh explains. “It’s definitely not coincidental.”

Rob and his partner Pat were attacked by three men while visiting Birmingham in August. The men were waiting in a car in the city’s “gay village”, shouting homophobic slurs and seemed to be “looking for trouble”. Like Josh, Rob thinks these attacks are partly driven by people being released from lockdown, but he also sees them as a result of a wider political environment where hostility to LGBTQ+ people is being normalised. “In the last five years, we’ve been living through Trump and Brexit, and now Boris Johnson. Certain viewpoints are back,” he tells Dazed.

The UK isn’t the only place to see incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ violence this summer. Across Europe, many disturbing attacks have made headlines in the last few months, including Pride marches being targeted with violence in Croatia and Georgia, while in Hungary the government’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws have resulted in a rise in homophobic violence. In July, a 24-year-old gay man was beaten to death in Galicia, sparking nationwide protests across Spain. And earlier this month in Madrid, a 20-year-old man was attacked by a group of men who carved the Spanish word for ‘faggot’ into his backside.

Even in this context, the number of homophobic attacks in cities across the UK is alarming. It’s not entirely unexpected, though: the government’s own statistics tell us that from 2015 to 2020, reports of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime rose each year in England and Wales. New figures obtained by VICE World News reveal that the number of homophobic hate crime reports in the UK has tripled, while the number of transphobic hate crime reports has quadrupled over the last six years. 

In 2019, a survey found that acceptance of homosexuality in the UK had fallen for the first time since the Aids crisis, which gay rights activist Peter Tatchell described as a “worrying trend”. These figures were released in the aftermath of an incident in May 2019 on a London bus, in which two queer women were photographed covered in blood after refusing to kiss in front of a group of young men. Three months later, gay journalist Owen Jones was attacked in central London. A judge later ruled he was targeted because of his sexuality and left-wing political views.

In the last five years, the UK has also steadily slid down the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA) ranking of LGBTQ+ rights in Europe. Having topped the list in 2014 and 2015, the UK fell to tenth in 2021’s ranking, with progress described as at a “standstill”. ILGA cited growing anti-trans rhetoric and delays to banning conversion therapy as reasons for the decreasing score.

“LGBTQ+ people often feel that it isn’t worth reporting these crimes because they feel they wouldn’t be taken seriously and that nothing would be done about it” – Leni Morris, Galop

Rising reports of incidents of hate crimes may be understating the problem, given that, according to LGBTQ+ charities Stonewall and Galop, between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of hate crimes go unreported. “Anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes are, on average, more violent than other forms of hate crime, but prosecution levels are low,” Leni Morris, CEO of Galop, tells Dazed. “LGBTQ+ people often feel that it isn’t worth reporting these crimes because they feel they wouldn’t be taken seriously and that nothing would be done about it. Instead, we change how we live our lives to try to avoid becoming victims.”

According to Stonewall, young LGBTQ+ people are particularly unlikely to report hate crimes. Morris think that a fear of discrimination might be factor into this. “It is hard to seek help when you don’t know if you’ll experience anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes from those you are turning to for support, particularly when you’ve already experienced a hate crime,” she says.

Rob tells Dazed that his experience with the police was positive. They were in touch with him “every day” until the men suspected of assaulting him were arrested. Curtis has a different story, though. “At first they were brilliant and very reassuring, but they didn’t keep in touch with me,” he says. “I had to ask them to check CCTV and things like that. Someone actually sent me a video they had taken of the attack, but when I sent that video to police, they didn’t even get back to me for a month. It felt like it was swept under the rug.”

This frustration motivated Curtis to post on social media about the attack. The video he mentions – which he was sent by a stranger – was a direct result of his Instagram post going viral. “I wasn’t going to post about it, but it was definitely the right decision, because the police weren’t doing anything,” he reflects. 

Josh also posted about his attack on Instagram. He has been frustrated at the lack of coverage of some of these attacks in the press. For example, after a man was arrested in connection with a suspected homophobic murder of 50-year-old Ranjith ‘Roy’ Kankanamalage in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, local LGBTQ+ residents were surprised that they’d “heard nothing about” the crime, either from the press or the police. Writer Sean O’Neill tweeted that it was “entirely galling to me that people are investigating for a homophobic murder in a grounds I walk through everyday and it just hadn’t come onto my radar”.

London Metropolitan Police eventually released advice to the public, around two weeks after the murder took place. Gay people were warned to avoid “dimly lit” areas or “listening to loud music”. Curtis says that being attacked has “completely changed” his perspective: “It can happen to anyone. Now I never walk alone at night, or even walk alone during the day, and I always tell my friends where I’m going.”

“At first (the police) were brilliant and very reassuring, but they didn’t keep in touch with me. It felt like it was swept under the rug” – Curtis

LGBTQ+ people feeling scared on the streets is partly what motivated Harvey Bowen to co-organise counter protests in Liverpool on June 22. Harvey, who is better-known locally as drag queen Naya, says that turnout at the protests vastly exceeded their expectations. “The intention was to show that, as a community of Liverpool, people aren’t alone,” he says. “I definitely think we achieved that: the Liverpool gay scene felt more together than before, and I think the community as a whole feels more comfortable speaking out against attacks.”

So what now? Eloise Stonborough, associate director of research and policy at Stonewall, thinks that education should be central to the response to rising anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes. “By embedding LGBTQ+ identities into the education system, children will grow up to accept and champion those of us who are different. This in turn builds a safer world for everyone,” she tells Dazed. “Anti-LGBTQ+ hate won’t stop overnight, but investing in anti-bullying support can help to tackle attitudes which hurt our communities and damage lives.”

It’s true that change doesn’t happen overnight, but while these incidents continue, lives can be changed in an instant. Josh says what happened to him has made him view Liverpool, his chosen home, differently. “I’m a lot more conscious of my surroundings and I’m a lot more wary of people, particularly when I’m on my own,” he says. “I don’t want to move away, but it’s just not the same as it was.”