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Why Is Anti-Gay Violence Soaring in Britain?

The fight to win legal equality for gay people is almost won in
Britain – yet the taste of champagne has been tainted by an unexpected
dash of blood. In the past few years, gay people have finally begun to
exercise the same rights as their straight siblings, yet there has been
a sharp surge in violence against us.

In London, recorded
homophobic attacks are up by 20 per cent. In Glasgow it's 32 per cent;
in Liverpool it's 40 per cent; in Greater Manchester it's 63 per cent.
James Parks is only the latest face to be kicked in by this trend: last
week, the off-duty police officer left a club in Liverpool with his
boyfriend and was lynched by a group of 20 teenagers who smashed his
skull and left him close to death.

In a recession, violence
always rises, and violence against minorities rises more. Attacks on
Muslims, Jews, and black people are also spiking across Britain. But
recorded violence against gay people has shown the most extreme rise.
Last year, an 18 year-old hairdresser in Liverpool called Michael
Causer was sleeping on a friend's sofa after a party when he was woken
up. A witness testified that a group of teenagers yelled, "You little
queer faggot!" They said they were going to cut out his body-piercings
with a knife, and started burning his legs with a lighter. He was found
bleeding to death later, dumped in the road outside, after having his
head smashed in with a hardback book.

At the trial, one of the 19-year-olds tried for the murder said he
was acting "in self-defence" – against a smaller, seven-and-a-half
stone boy with no history of violent behaviour. A witness said that
during the attack, he had yelled: "He's a little queer, he deserves
it!" Yet the jury found him not guilty.

What can we do to stop
this surge? The answer does not lie in new laws; these attacks are
already highly illegal. It lies in changing the culture of two core
British institutions that are still tolerating anti-gay bigotry – our
schools, and our police service.

Almost all the new homophobic
attacks have been carried out by teenagers who are in – or just out of
– the education system. It is not a coincidence that our schools are
the one place where homophobic violence is still absolutely mainstream.
The official schools inspectorate, Ofsted, says that homophobia is "endemic" in our playgrounds and our
classrooms. A study by Stonewall found 41 per cent of gay children are
beaten up, and 17 per cent have been told they're going to be killed
(it's 10 per cent higher still in faith schools). The young people who
attacked PC James Parks were simply taking that culture out of the
playground and onto the streets.

This doesn't have to happen.
Michael Causer's mother, Marie, says: "This generation of infants needs
to be educated. You hear youngsters as young as four and five saying
'Go away, you're gay.' It might be a word to them, but their parents
need to pull them up and tell them that it's wrong. They need better
education to let them know that gay people are no different."

When
this is tried, it works. The Stonewall study found that in schools with
a consistent policy of punishing homophobic language, gay children were
60 per cent less likely to be attacked. That fall in violence could
ripple out from the school gates - but today, only 6 per cent of
schools adopt this policy. The Government should immediately make it
mandatory.

What about the police? There are some terrific police
officers who are appalled by anti-gay crime – I'm related to one – but
they remain too few. A major 2005 study for the Home Office found that
homophobia and sexism are "all but endemic within the police service."
It was "not just in every force we surveyed, but in every part of every
force." One of the authors, Professor Tim Newburn of the London School
of Economics, said: "It is quite clear that gay and lesbian officers
find themselves in a very uncomfortable position in the police service.
... Sexist and homophobic language is now largely ignored and even
tacitly accepted."

Little seems to have changed since the
report. This week, a lesbian police officer called Sergeant Jasmine
Stewart is appearing before a tribunal. She says her colleagues called
her "a poof" and refused to work shifts alongside her. She gave
evidence that a senior officer had said she had caused a "drop in
morale" in the station.

If the police are happy to talk about
"faggots" when the door is shut, what do they do when one of them walks
through the door needing help? In too many cases, they do too little.
To pluck one example: in Brighton a few weeks ago, two gay women – aged
18 and 22 – were repeatedly punched in the face by a gang of thugs.
They went straight to the police – but it was 12 days before officers
appealed for witnesses, long after the trail had gone cold.

Yet
the 2005 report contained some good news. Racist language had "all but
disappeared" from the police force. Why? "Because officers know it will
lead to disciplinary action." Of course some racist attitudes remain,
but they have been driven underground by a tough policy of requiring
police officers to talk about black and Asian people respectfully. It
means there are fewer cases like the Steven Lawrence abomination, and
so fewer murderers walking our streets. The same could be done with gay
people. All it takes is political will.

Of course, any move to
ensure gay people are treated the same as everyone else is immediately
labeled "political correctness" and smothered in exaggeration and
distortion. The defenders of homophobia can no longer, in polite
society, say they think gay people are disgusting and immoral. Too many
people have grasped the simple, humane truth that every human society
in history has had 3 to 5 per cent of people who were attracted to
their own gender, and it does no harm to anyone. So the homophobes have
resorted to other tactics. One that has been growing over the past year
is to claim that gay people who are trying to stop bullying and
intimidation are "the real bullies," trying to "silence" poor embattled
homophobes.

The logic of this argument is rarely spelled out.
Were Martin Luther King and the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan
equally bigoted? The Grand Dragon was intolerant of black people; King
was intolerant of racism. When you put it like this, the bogus
nature of this way of framing the debate becomes clear. To one side,
there are people who believe an entire group of human beings is
inferior and deserve lesser rights, simply because of a naturally
occurring and harmless difference. To the other side, there is a group
of straight and gay people who say sexual orientation is a trivial
subject and we should all be treated the same. Yes, both sides should
have the right to speak freely – but nobody should pretend there is a
moral equivalence.

There are even people who hint that this
violent backlash against equality is evidence that gay people should
have stayed in the closet. With faux compassion, they say – well, this
is what happens if you "flaunt" your sexuality by behaving like
everybody else. Do they realise what they're saying? The great civil
rights advances in the 1960s in the US were followed by a sharp rise in
anti-black violence. Should black people have stayed out of the polling
booths and at the back of the bus to avoid the wrath of racists? The
problem is not with the victims; it's with the thugs attacking them.

We
have come so far in this country thanks to the decency and compassion
of most British people – but we have only reached the half-way point.
The battle to change our laws was a crucial stage. Now we need to
change our institutions. The people who oppose these humane measures
hissing "PC! PC!" – or "it's my religion!" – should know what they are
doing. They are ensuring more innocent people like James Parks and
Michael Causer – or your son, or sister, or neighbour – will be
lynched, simply because they were born gay.

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent. To read more of his articles, click here. You can email him at johann -at- johannhari.com

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