A short history of distrust and tension between police and the LGBTQ+ community

A Met Police officer looks towards people crossing the road

Tension between police and the LGBTQ+ community has always existed, never more so than during the revolutionary Stonewall uprising in 1969.

Pride events in the decades since have used their power to try to ensure they are free from any policing tensions – but distrust in the authorities has grown in recent years.

Police attending Pride events in uniform is a topic that’s aroused contention, but a short look on how UK police have let down the LGBTQ+ community may explain why.

Tension at Pride events

In July this year adverts appeared at bus stops along the route of the Pride in London parade declaring there is “no pride in cops”. 

Previously, tension at the London event has occurred with LGBTQ+ activists being stopped by stewards and police.

Human Rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell recently called for an outright ban on police marching in uniform or with police banners at this year’s Birmingham Pride. 

“Police wrecked the lives of tens of thousands of gay and bisexual through decades of malicious homophobic persecution,” Tatchell tells PinkNews.

“All these men deserve a police apology and until that happens the police should be banned from marching in uniform at Pride parades.

“Individual officers are welcome to march in plain clothes, but not the police as an institution. No apology, no participation.”

Pre-partial decriminalisation of homosexuality 

Full decriminalisation of homosexuality didn’t happen until 2003 in England and Wales, 2008 in Northern Ireland and 2013 in Scotland.

The partial decriminalisation of homosexuality under the 1967 Sexual Offences Act only decimalised being gay under certain conditions – such as “private homosexual acts” between men aged over 21, but at the same time imposed heavier penalties on street offences. It was these that police in the UK enforced.

The act was the first gay law reform since the Buggery Act 1533, which criminalised anal sex between men. All other sexual acts between men were outlawed in 1885. 

Research by Peter Tatchell found in 1966 some 420 men were convicted of gay crime and gross indecency. But by 1974, that number had reached more than 1,700 convictions. 

Tatchell believes officers “preyed” on LGBTQ+ people as they saw them as “easy pickings”.

He said arresting queer people “was a sure fire way to boost arrest figures and a force’s reputation as tough on crime”.

“Right through to the late 1990s, police forces across the UK witch-hunted our community. They raided gay bars, clubs, saunas and even private birthday parties. 

“We were being arrested for behaviour that was not a crime between straight men and women. Gay men were nabbed by the cops for smiling and winking at other men, chatting up guys and even for same-sex kisses and cuddles.”

Tatchell said police used tactics to target the community such as “pretty police” to entrap gay men, and diverted resources to hunting the community down. 

Often, Tatchell claims these arrests would be due to something as innocent as a “good night kiss at a railway station”.

Terry Steward, who grew up in the north of Ireland but moved to London in the mid-1970s, remembers a time when police officers did little to support LGBTQ+ people. 

In The Guardian he recounts a house he lived in being firebombed, but when the police turned up and found the occupiers “were just queers” they turned around again. 

“In the early 80s I was arrested for importuning in a public place – arrested by two officers who followed me into a public toilet,” he wrote.

Steward claims he was innocent, but regardless he was convicted and fined £20 – but even now, with homosexuality “legalised”, his criminal record for a crime that no longer exists, remains. 

Failure to investigate 

The murders committed by serial killers Dennis Nilsen and Stephen Port – and how their crimes were approached by the police – add to the LGBTQ+ community’s lack of faith in the UK’s law enforcement.

Port – known as the Grindr killer – drugged, raped and murdered four young men who he targeted on queer dating apps between 2014-2015.

He disposed of their bodies near his home in east London and police failed to fully investigate the deaths.

An inquest revealed there were “failures which cannot be overlooked” when it came to police handling of the investigation. 

Nilsen targeted gay victims in the late seventies and early eighties, when he murdered at least 12 men and boys and attempted to kill seven others.

The serial killer was jailed for life in 1983 after police found human remains clogging the drains outside of his home. 

Peter Tatchell’s research found 50 murders between 1986 to 1991 where evidence pointed to a homophobic motive.

According to Tatchell, police investigations that followed these murders were mostly “wholly inadequate”.

A spike in hate crimes

Data released in 2021 by Vice World News showed a 210 per cent increase of reports of hate crimes based on sexual orientation over a seven-year period.  There were 6,363 reports between 2014-15 – compared with a massive 19,679 in 2020-21.

Reports of transphobic hate crimes rose by 332 per cent during that same period, with 598 in 2014-15 and 2,588 in 2020-21. 

This year reports of homophobic hate crimes have more than doubled in five years shooting from 10,003 in 2016-17 to 26,824 in 2021-22.

Transphobic hate crimes similarly grew by 240 per cent, from 1,292 reports in 2016-17 to 4,399 five years later, in what is also believed to be the largest increase ever seen by the authorities. 

Before the change in legislation, Peter Tatchell says police threatened to expose people as LGBTQ+ people if they did not plead guilty to crimes. 

“So many did not contest the charges. They were exposed anyway,” he tells PinkNews.

“Police would leak the person’s name, address and workplace to the media. As well as being jailed and beaten up in prison, many were violently attacked by homophobes, sacked from their jobs and rejected by their families.

“This resulted in these men suffering mental breakdowns, committing suicide or becoming alcoholics.”

Despite the law change, the rise in hate crimes is a daunting reality that more needs to be done to protect the LGBTQ+ community, and fast. 

2022: Where are we now?

More than 50 years after the uprising at the Stonewall Inn, the queer community continues to fight for justice.

This year PinkNews reported how London’s Met Police was put under special measures after several scandals revealed “serious or critical shortcomings” in the force.

Scandals include the handling of the murders of Port’s victims, and a damning report from the Independent Office for Police Conduct which exposed a disturbing pattern of homophobia, bullying and harassment within the Met.

The Child Q scandal, in which a Met Police officer strip-searched a Black schoolgirl while she was on her period without another adult present, showed huge problems with how minority groups are treated by authorities.

So it came as no surprise when Pride in London stated uniformed police officers would not be welcome to march in its parade this summer.

Pride in London told The Guardian: “We work hard to strike a balance between the very real and legitimate concerns from members of our community, and being as welcoming as we can.

“We agree that the police uniform undermines that balance, and as such we are aligned that it should not feature in our parade.”

Birmingham Pride has confirmed uniformed police will be allowed to march at its event this year.