Violence Against Gay People is Still Rife, but the Law and Police Attitudes
are Being Transformed
The Worst of Times
August 13, 2002
By Colin Richardson
If the past is another country then, for people like me, 1990 is Outer
Mongolia. The violent homophobia inspired by the advent of Aids in the early
80s, inflamed by the tabloids and indulged by Thatcherism, had fostered in gay
Britain a siege mentality. And if we may have seemed paranoid, we had good
reason: they really were out to get us.
In 1988 Section 28, the first anti-gay legislation in a hundred years,
became law. The recriminalisation of male homosexuality was high on the Tory
wishlist, and the police were doing their best to make wishes come true. In
the dying years of the 1980s, arrests of gay men for "gross
indecency" doubled. But while the "pretty police" struggled
into their leather chaps, the better to entrap us, something else was
happening: violence against gay people was spiralling out of control.
In September 1989 a gay barrister, Christopher Schliach, was murdered in
his west London home. He was stabbed more than 40 times, his blood drenching
the walls as he fought in vain for his life. Three months later, in another
part of west London, a gay hotelier, Henry Bright was stabbed to death at
home. The following month gay hotel porter William Dalziel was found
unconscious on a roadside in Acton. He died soon after from severe head
So when, three months later, another gay man was brutally killed in west
London, my world exploded. The death of the actor Michael Boothe was one of
those events which, in its own small way, changed things forever.
Michael Boothe was a jobbing actor. He toured with Derek Nimmo, he did
panto with Lorraine Chase and Michael Elphick, he did the occasional telly.
You may have seen him in Dr Who. Michael was also gay. Everyone who knew
Michael knew. His family knew. Even complete strangers knew.
On April 29 1990, a Saturday, Michael went out with a couple of gay
friends. They spent much of the evening drinking in Earlís Court, before
repairing to the Ealing home of one of the party. Around 12.15am, Michael
embarked on the short walk home. His route took him past public toilets on the
edge of Elthorne Park. These were then a well-known cottage or, in
police-speak, "a meeting place for homosexuals". In the early months
of 1990, police had been staking out the toilets, arresting gay men in
unprecedented numbers. The night that Michael walked past, however, the police
were nowhere to be seen.
At 12.40am, a man passing the toilets heard someone call out. In the gloom,
he made out a figure clinging to the park railings. It was Michael.
"Please help me," he said. "Iíve been beaten up and I think
my legís broken."
Michael managed to whisper to the ambulance crew that heíd been set upon
by a gang of around six men. He even managed to give brief descriptions of
them. Eight hours later, Michael died from massive internal bleeding. Det Insp
Richard Woodman of Ealing CID said he had been the victim of "an
extraordinarily severe beating, of a merciless and savage nature". He was
stamped on with such violence that one of his feet was almost severed from his
The reaction of the gay community was angry and terrified. In July 1990,
hundreds of lesbians and gay men marched from the park to Ealing town hall,
where we held a candlelit vigil. Out of that demonstration came the activist
group OutRage, who campaigned for the police to stop arresting gay men and
start protecting them. But inside police ranks something even more
extraordinary was happening. In September 1990, gay officers met anxiously in
private to set up the Lesbian and Gay Police Association (Lagpa).
Twelve years on, almost everything has changed. Official police policy is
to take homophobic violence very seriously and, in large part, police practice
has followed suit. Lagpa boasts hundreds of members. And, until he was
hate-Mailed, we had as commander of Lambeth police the openly gay Brian
For the past five years, we have had a government which, if not exactly
active in pursuing a gay rights agenda, is far from antipathetic. In fact,
they may even be on the verge of delivering a sexual revolution. This autumn,
David Blunkett will unveil his plans for a thoroughgoing reform of sexual
offences legislation in England and Wales. By this time next year, the reforms
will almost certainly be law.
The Sexual Offences Act 2003 follows a string of embarrassing defeats
suffered by the British government in the European court of human rights (ECHR)
at the hands of gay people. In each case, the government was required to
change the law, equalising the age of consent for gay men and lifting the ban
on lesbians and gay men serving in the armed forces. In 1999, with another
defeat looming, a committee was set up to review sex offences legislation. The
committee delivered its report, Setting the Boundaries, in April 2000.
As anticipated, in June the EHCR ruled that a British gay man, "ADT",
had suffered a violation of his right to respect for his private life, under
article 8 of the European convention on human rights. ADT had been charged
with gross indecency after the police discovered video tapes at his home of
him having sex with up to four other men.
The 1956 act defines sex between men as gross indecency and makes it a
criminal offence. In 1967 a private memberís bill introduced certain limited
exemptions: gross indecency between consenting adults in private is now
permissible so long as no more than two men "take part or are
present". Such restrictions do not apply to heterosexual or lesbian group
Setting the Boundaries, on which Mr Blunkettís reform bill will be based,
recommends the removal of this anomaly, and goes a lot further. Its guiding
principle is that "the criminal law should not treat people differently
on the basis of their sexual orientation. Consensual sexual activity between
adults in private that causes no harm to themselves or others should not be
criminal". Hence the report recommends the abolition of the offences of
gross indecency and buggery.
This is truly revolutionary. If this becomes law, gay men will cease to be
sex criminals, given dispensation to realise their desires in limited
circumstances, and will become instead equal citizens who enjoy the protection
of the law.
That we have got here at all is remarkable. We owe a lot to those who took
the government to court and to the election in 1997 of a relatively
enlightened administration. But what really made a difference, I think, was
Michael Bootheís murder, and the spontaneous protest which followed. When
British gay people took to the streets in outrage, it was a defining moment.
Within weeks, the Metropolitan police agreed to hold meetings with lesbian and
gay campaigners. Arrests of gay men for gross indecency began to decline, and
are now at an all-time low. The government will be abolishing an offence that
is hardly enforced any more.
The only thing that hasnít changed so dramatically is the level of
violence against gay people. In the past month alone there have been four
murders of gay men in England, each apparently motivated by hatred of
homosexuality. But there have been no protests, no marches. We are content to
trust the police to do their best.
The past is indeed a foreign land, and I for one treasure my exit visa. But
for some people, as the recent murders or a quick scan of the tabloids remind
us, the pull of the old country remains irresistible. Twelve years ago can
sometimes seem like yesterday.
- Colin Richardson is a former editor of Gay Times. The police
reopened the Michael Boothe case in April, with a £15,000 reward. Anyone
who has information can call the incident room on 020-8358 0400. CDRedit@aol.com