4 November 2009

Killing Fairies

What is going on with homophobia in London? And plenty of other places, while we are at it. Have things gone mad? Have the hateful ones risen on a murderous tide of intent? Has the priceless, underestimated lifestyle-laissez-faire of the metropolis, that magnet that draws so many inside the M25, expired? Homos in London no longer hide in blacked-out bars, they work in every industry (did you know that JP Morgan is ‘quite gay’?), they marry, some breed. Things have moved on, immeasurably. Mr Wilde may be tempted to get out of that gutter if he was still around. So it’s 2009 and a gay man was just beaten on Trafalgar Square – by teenagers – so badly that 2 weeks later he died. It’s worth reading that again: man, gay, beaten to death; by teenagers, Trafalgar Square. It appears extremely likely that their initial interaction was driven by homophobia. There are other cases that I’m sure you already know.

On Friday evening, Trafalgar Square was full. A pleasant, solemn, emotionally-charged October night. We were there to commemorate this death, the killing of Ian Baynham, here 2 weeks previous. A candle-lit vigil forming the perfect public response to the horror that this murder – and all its peers – merits. Hats off to the organisers. Bravo. The happening was beautiful and the turnout thankfully remarkable. I had a sense though, a not-exactly-nostalgic notion, more a feeling of disbelief at being here again. I live in a world, as do most around me, where my sexual, relational behaviour does not negatively impact on anything else in my life. The important civil rights and political issues have been won over. London homos are free. But there we were again, in Trafalgar Square, protesting this time for that most basic of human right – to not be killed on the street simply because someone doesn’t like you. Words really fail to encapsulate the gravity of this. The last vigil I attended at this spot was equally moving, that following the July 7 tube and bus bombings. There are disturbing similarities between the fundamental drivers of both commemorated events. The despise of difference.

As it should, the media is paying this due attention. Very good. Much talk however is of the significant rising incidence of homophobic crime. Not to detract, not for a single second, the horror of Ian Baynham’s murder, nor to devalue, even by one iota, the wrong that homophobia simply is; I, an adult, male, gay London resident, am not happy about this. This is, typically, misconstrued. It is quite probably unfounded. What is being said is that the number of incidents classified as homophobic in nature has risen by 18% when comparing Sep 07-Sep 08 to Sep 08-Sep 09. The media persist, blindly or unashamedly, or both, to stubbornly destroy the logic of crime reporting statistics. It’s easy to blame the process: “oh it’s just statistics, they are often wrong.” In fact, no, they are not usually ‘wrong’. What you think they say may be wrong; simply because you can’t be bothered to think about it. But with the media, regrettably, I don’t think carelessness or ignorance are at play. Rather, the sober reality of a statistic would often desex a story too much. Remember the massive ‘increase’ in teenage knife crime? It was always that bad.

In this case, the number represents the fact that annual reports of homophobic crime in London, as recorded by the police, have increased by 18%. Certain reporters encourage you to explain this in terms of only one of the several explanatory factors: that the actual prevalence has increased. Fear, being the cheapest currency of an unthinking and irresponsible media, is therefore palpable. But hold on, what else could have changed here? Two very important things: first, the proportion of actual incidences that people bother to (or dare to) report and second; how the report compiler then chooses to classify them. You can see that it is very easy for the number of reported incidents to rise by a fifth without the actual level of incidence changing very much at all.

I urge you to not get upset with me by assuming that I am trying to trivialise anything that is genuinely monstrous here. Actually, quite the opposite. What I’m really implying is that the rate hasn’t necessarily increased at all, i.e., it was quite probably horrendously high before. This is much worse. And if you are wondering (as I hope you are), what ‘high’ means, then for the London Met it means 1192 reported incidents in Sep 08-Sep 09. Another hack’s near-universal statistical sin is the use of quoted % change without providing the reader with slightest notion of the starting point. Imagine a pilot telling you the plane is about to dive 60% of its current altitude and leaving it at that. So many (all?) reporters can’t help themselves (or are led by their incompetence) in portraying an increase in something unthinkably dreadful as a ‘doubling’ or a ‘100% increase’, when really whatever it is has just gone up from 1 to 2. If the article you are reading quotes a %- or fractional-change but neglects the starting point, base level or whatever you want to call it, stop reading and wipe your arse with it immediately, and then email the writer to tell them. The 18% increase here means 18% of 1008 incidents (in Sep 07-Sep 08), i.e. 184 more incidents. That’s a lot of pain. And that includes the murder above and 3 further suspected. Quotations of an ever increasing tsunami of hate crime gets even more confusing when you read that the police’s own GPA (gay police association) reported an annual 74% increase in homophobic incidents in July 06. So we have +74% in July 05-July06 and then +18% in Sep 08-Sep09. I am not convinced.

I abhor this misreporting for 2 crucial reasons:

First, it retrospectively portrays such hideousness as being less widespread in the past. It conveys this message based on absolutely no evidence. And it leaves us, quite intentionally I posit, yet even more fearful that yet another aspect of life is getting worse and even more fearful. For me, this bit is simply unpleasant and irresponsible.

More importantly, this shadow-casting journalistic mode removes the one possible source of joy, the sole shred of glimmering positivity in the whole torrid affair: that people are increasingly standing up for themselves (reporting) and something is actually being done about it (police response). The whole thing is utterly shit, for sure, but let’s not under-represent the one aspect that is good. Progress.

This year, as you may know, I became involved in confronting and combating homophobia. Following another hideous incident in East London in August 2008 that you may know about, in which a 20 year old met 7 times with someone’s knife for being queer, leaving him severely paralysed, the infamous George and Dragon was actually ambushed by more than one carload of angrys this May. Things seemed to be getting a bit too serious.

The reaction has been marked and proactive. Tower Hamlets and Hackney councils, through their hate crime divisions have shown support and solidarity. Some feel that they are lacking conviction however, through fear of igniting the possibly incidental but nevertheless characteristic racial angle of homophobia in E2. One would be next-to-ignorant to oversimplify the problem in this neighbourhood down to asian versus gay, but at the same time we are left with a current situation in which there is an effective homo-exclusion zone of approximately one square kilometre, roughly centred on Arnold Circus. There are more than a couple of angry British Bangladeshi lads in this area, who no doubt feel hemmed-in by all the social delights, much of them pretty ‘mo, on the perimeter of their estate, forbidden, inaccessible or just irrelevant to them. Not liking the way others socialise is a problem faced in all cities, multicultural or not; human societies will always fractionalise and find ways to not like each other. But, to attack it for the sake that it is different is wrong. All the holy books say this loud and clear. The local authorities ignore this at their peril. And don’t forget, there will undoubtedly be more than one white, gay fascist in E2, so let’s not get carried away with the racial generalisation. A proactive, involved and wide dialogue is required in E2. No-one owns the streets, they are to be shared.

The police, very mindful of the connection between the two incidents just mentioned above (it is likely the storming of the George was a vengeful attack following further arrests relating to the earlier stabbing), have responded very actively and are begging for more data. They cannot do anything, cannot increase resources if people continue the precedent of not reporting homophobic attacks. The whole point of this campaign is to encourage people to report and tell them how to do it. The police take all of this very seriously, I even know of a case where families have been visited, to their abject shame, as a result of a homophobic egging by their son. The Met are also self-policing: I know of one report of an improper police response to an incident that was vigorously followed up internally. The Stephen Lawrence inquiry has done much to improve things – capitalise on them.

Why all the hate, the abuse, the kickings, why kill? What is homophobia about anyway? I think it’s motivated by at least 2 factors, and they are not necessarily mutually-exclusive.

The first I call the ‘easy target’ phenomena. It is, to the ultimate shame of those that perpetrate it, the pinnacle of dishonourable cowardice. In our socioeconomic fuck up of a society, it is never condonable but remains otherwise comprehendible that angry defavourised youths lash out at others ‘better off’ in their environs. The misguided ones that unfortunately believe the fight out of their predicament should be a violent one often cherry pick the easiest targets. Let’s face facts. It’s less risky to pick on someone who is obviously gay and maybe not the toughest looking passer-by. How many times have you heard of a 100kg ‘muscle-mary’ being gay bashed? Exactly. The attacker would be crushed by just a homosexual handshake. This strategy can go painfully wrong though: I’m sure you heard about the misidentified cage fighting transsexuals. Amusing though this story maybe, these two kids have most probably contributed more against transphobia than anything else I’ve encountered.

The second root of homophobia is altogether more complex, not automatically independent of the ‘easy target’ affect, more controversial and would no doubt provoke a more indignant reaction. This cause, I feel, is intrinsically paradoxical. The thing is with us humans, we are lazy. Indifference rarely speaks its name. The anger required for homophobia demands an energy. Such an energy must have a source. The homophobia therefore cannot be based on indifference. There must be something self-referential burning inside. If you’ve got no uncomfortable feelings inside regarding same-sex sex, then you don’t have anything to drive strong feelings. But lots of teenage boys do. Society, on all levels, from parent, to school, to church, to mosque, to office needs to deal with this head on.

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