why is the relationship between the lgbt+ community and the police still so bad?
To understand, we need to look back.
When Ria was 17 years old, she reported her ex-girlfriend to the police. The relationship hadn’t been that serious and Ria says she was put off by her partner’s possessive nature. After the split, it got worse. “She was sending me death threats,” Ria recalls. “I had just got a new job at the time and my ex kept turning up outside my new work and threatening to post dog poo in the mail there. It was weird shit.”
Not wanting to lose her new job and disturbed by her ex-girlfriend’s behaviour, Ria turned to the authorities. What she experienced was far from supportive. The officer on duty at the South London station sneered at the fact that it was a relationship with another woman. Then she moaned about how “she had wanted to leave early that day so she could try out a new recipe and how she wouldn't be able to now because she had to write up my statement”.
Ria’s interaction with the police isn’t singular. All across the UK and the US, LGBTQ people’s interactions with the police are mixed, veering wildly between positive to full-on abusive. Ria’s example, while distressing and depressingly common, is fairly low-key when compared to the experiences of others, some of whom have been attacked by police or subjected to vilification in the media.
In the 1960s, it was standard procedure that police would raid queer bars and spaces. Then, in June 1969 in New York City, the LGBTQ community fought back against further police violence after the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, was raided by police. What resulted was an uprising that lasted days and that kick-started the gay rights movement.
This event – which marks its 50th anniversary this year — is often seen as a turning point for LGBTQ rights. But five decades later, while things are undoubtedly better for queer people in America, Canada and the UK, interactions between the LGBTQ community and the police are still taut with tension. This Pride season, as police departments all over prepare to march in parades all decked out in rainbows to show their solidarity, the disparity between this display and the relationship LGBTQ people have with law enforcement feels like the rainbow coloured elephant at each and every Pride parade.
"To understand, you need to look back. In the UK, after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the targeting and arrest of gay men by police actually increased."
To understand, you need to look back. In the UK, after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, the targeting and arrest of gay men by police actually increased. “The police had, to a large extent, been looking away,” explains Joseph Galliano, the CEO and co-founder of Queer Britain, a charity working to establish the UK’s first national LGBTQ museum. “But after the 1967 liberalisation, one of the unintended outcomes was a big uptick in arrests, mainly in public toilets -- cottaging arrests.”
Police, Joseph says, would use good looking officers -- “pretty policemen” – to entrap gay men, while there were also “stakeouts of public toilets, where police would hide themselves in the roof cavities and have holes drilled into the ceiling to look down on to what was going on in the cubicles”.
Lifelong LGBTQ activist Peter Tatchell recalls that at the very first gay Pride march in the UK, organised by the Gay Liberation front in 1972, the police were out in force. “They hemmed us in. Some officers were overtly homophobic, mouthing insults and pushing us at times,” he says. “We felt the police were treating us like criminals, which [because of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality] many of us still were.”
In the 1990s, Tatchell co-founded OutRage!, a non-violent organisation that campaigned against police harassment. “At that time the police embraced the then-common prejudice that AIDS / HIV was the ‘gay plague’,” he recalls. “They would raid gay saunas wearing protective body suits, face masks and rubber gloves.”
The hangover from these attitudes lingers today. According to LGBT charity Stonewall, four out of five anti-LGBT hate crimes and incidents in the UK go unreported to police. Interactions like that experienced by Ria, as well as a number of LGBTQ people that I spoke to for this article where individuals felt let down or dismissed by police, appear to be pervasive.
The barriers between the community and police are part of an institutionalised homophobia, argues Kevin Maxwell, a former police officer who left the force after experiencing years of homophobic and racist abuse. “They don't want to acknowledge it,” he argues. “That's the problem.” Kevin, who is now working on a book about racism and homophobia in the police, says that when he reported the abuse, the police turned against him. “They never said to me, 'Let's sit down and talk about it.' Instead they started a campaign aimed at discrediting me. They leaked my personnel file to The Sun to out me! We're not talking 100 years ago. We're talking about a few years ago.”
The ambivalence and rejection of LGBTQ issues by police, Kevin says, is to blame for the botched investigations, specifically in the case of serial killer Stephen Port. Port was convicted for the murder of four gay men. During the investigation, police failed to connect the murders, despite obvious clues that all pointed back to Port. An inquest into whether there was gross misconduct by police, and whether homophobia was at play, is ongoing.
In Toronto, Canada, there was an almost identical incident. Police failed to investigate the disappearances of men, many of whom were people of colour, in the city’s gay village. In January 2018, their remains were found and linked to Bruce McArthur, a 66-year-old landscaper. McArthur has since been charged with the murders and sentenced to life in prison.
The case is the subject of the podcast Uncover: The Village, hosted by investigative journalist Justin Ling. In the series, he explores how the fractured relationships between the LGBTQ community and police exacerbated the investigation.
“In 2017, Toronto police went undercover to arrest men who were cruising in a park,” Justin says over the phone from Canada. “They did this on a trumped-up moral panic around child endangerment. It's total nonsense.”
The police’s failure to apprehend McArthur is at play, too. In fact, Toronto Police Chief, Mark Saunders, even attempted to lay blame with LGBTQ community for not doing more to help catch the killer. This accusation came despite numerous tip-offs about McArthur’s relationships with the men who had disappeared and inaction from the police’s LGBTQ liaison officer. “People in the community are like, 'Hey, something is very wrong here’. In some cases, people are pointing directly at who they think is the culprit. And in most cases it takes them years to catch the guy,” Justin says. “This has not happened once. This has happened multiple times in different parts of the world. That's when you have to start asking yourself: why?”
"The black and Latinx trans women? We’re still freaks that can't use the bathroom. We're still monsters who don't deserve rights. We’re still dead.”
Toronto, like many cities, has also found itself wrapped up in the debate about whether uniformed police officers should march in Pride parades. In 2016, Black Lives Matter activists shut down Toronto’s Pride march to protest the involvement of uniformed officers marching with weapons holstered, given the amount of violence inflicted in people of colour, especially queer sex workers and transgender people of colour. When the organisers of Pride agreed, Toronto police pushed back. “They basically made it all about them,” Justin says, “which is, I think, very typical of that relationship.”
In 2017, Wriply Bennet, a black trans woman from Columbus, Ohio, experienced the brute force of the police when she and three other activists attempted to protest police involvement in Pride. She says that she was forced to make a stand because of the antipathy of cisgender white gay men and lesbians towards the murder of trans women, especially trans women of colour.
She recalls that while an anti-gay Christian group made up of cisgender men were treated cordially by police, when her group stepped into the road to block the parade, they were forcibly and violently removed. The protestors -- dubbed The Black Pride 4 -- were then hit with extreme charges for what was essentially a peaceful protest. “History has changed for white gay folk,” she explains. “They feel safe around police now. Perhaps they always did. They didn't have to really deal with police on a level unless they got caught doing something that was gay. But the black and Latinx trans women? We’re still freaks that can't use the bathroom. We're still monsters who don't deserve rights. We’re still dead.”
The racism and transphobia found in policing, as well as the historic abuse inflicted on LGBTQ folk, is why Natalie James co-founded the Reclaim Pride Coalition in New York. When the New York Police Department apologised 50 years after Stonewall for the raids, the coalition, who had demanded an apology, rejected it.
“We never thought that any apology should be limited to a historic event,” Natalie says, “It's not just an apology we want -- ultimately, it's a systemic change to the policing. Right now, as it stands, the NYPD is antithetical to queer liberation.” She cites the case of Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old trans woman of Dominican descent who recently died in police custody. Her bail had been set at just $500. “We can't have this sort of barbarism within the sort of vision that we're looking for,” she adds.
“Black queer, trans women, gender non-conforming folks. Brown, queer trans women, gender non-conforming folk. Folk of colour. That's who I'm interested in saving now. The whole rest of the world? Y’all seem to be doing all right without my help.”
To protest the police’s involvement in Pride, the Reclaim Pride Coalition organised their own march on June 30th, the day of NYC’s Pride parade. The aim, Natalie explains, is to reclaim some of the radicalism that individuals like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson – the two trans women of colour who instigated the Stonewall uprising – incubated. However, unlike the old Gay Liberation Front and much of the gay and lesbian community, this movement needs to prioritise people of colour, include trans people and non-binary folk. “Unfortunately, a lot of white, middle class gays and lesbians have lost that sense of solidarity with oppressed people,” she says, echoing Wriply’s resignation. “They've become wrapped up in certain fights, which, in my mind, fall short of what we need.”
Indeed, a recent poll by Buzzfeed News found that 79% of LGBTQ Americans didn’t have an issue regarding the police’s involvement in Pride marches. And there are some queer people who have had positive interactions with police. One man from New York, who wishes to remain anonymous, praised police after he called them following an incident of domestic violence. “They didn't shutter anything when they clearly saw that it was a gay domestic abuse case,” he says. “I didn't sense any homophobia or judgement from them, which was nice. It gave me reassurance to call them again when there was another problem with him.”
Another gay man from Scotland recalled an experience from his teens when desperate measures to be intimate meant he was caught having sex by police with his boyfriend in a car: “The officer told us that if he was a straight cop we would have been arrested instantly,” the man tells me. “Turned out he just meant he was gay and empathised with our story and was letting us off, as long as he didn’t see us out here again.”
While these acts of kindness are at odds with the brutality enacted by police 50 years ago outside the Stonewall Inn, you have to ask yourself: Is it enough? Both these men are white. And while we don’t know how different their experiences would have been had they been people of colour, trans or sex workers (or all three), it’s safe to assume that it would have been different. I also reached out to LGBTQ groups in both the NYPD and the police in the UK. Neither responded to comment.
In June 2019, Pride month in the United States, more than four trans women of colour were found dead. So for Wriply, any shift in behaviour by police, or the white LGBTQ community, comes too late. “Black queer, trans women, gender non-conforming folks. Brown, queer trans women, gender non-conforming folk. Folk of colour. That's who I'm interested in saving now,” she says. “The whole rest of the world? Y’all seem to be doing all right without my help.” Kevin agrees: “As a 41-year-old black gay man, where are the two places I've experienced the most hate in my life? The white LGBTQ community and the police. That's ironic! One's meant to hold up the law and the other already knows oppression.”
Undoubtedly, in the 50 years since the Stonewall uprising, things have improved for certain facets of the LGBTQ community. The fact that cities like London, New York and Toronto are even shut down for Pride celebrations is a marvel. When you see police with their rainbow flags and their displays of solidarity, it’s worth celebrating their involvement. But it’s also worth acknowledging the disparities with the police’s involvement and the people in the LGBTQ community who they have forgotten and stepped on to show just how proud they are.