Who's stalking gay men?
The case of the 'gay serial killer' may have provided the authorities
with a politically perfect crime, argues Peter Ray
On 15 June, at a dramatic midnight press conference, the Metropolitan Police
announced that they believed a serial killer had murdered five gay men in
London and would kill again. At least three of the killer's victims it seems
enjoyed sadomasochist sex and four frequented the pubs and clubs of London's
The announcement was the signal for a tabloid blitz of moralising and voyeuristic
sensationalism. Leading the way in the tabloid assault was London's own
Evening Standard, keen to suggest that the 'secret lifestyle' of
the gay sadomasochist was inherently 'a dangerous game', as if gay men were
in some way asking for it. The paper's crime correspondent, Gervase Webb,
wrote an article, headlined 'A serial killer in the twilight world of gays',
about one of London's oldest gay bars, the Coleherne in Earl's Court:
'Although countless homosexuals live their lives in monogamous relationships,
there are others who prefer "the scene"; the predatory, risky
and anonymous world of multiple sexual partners and hasty sex with strangers
typified by the Coleherne.
'Such men, statistics show, are often unwilling to heed the "safe sex"
message put out to combat Aids. For them the risk is part of the thrill.'
(16 June 1993)
While painting a gaudy picture of gay promiscuity, Aids and death as the
background to the murders, Webb was careful to exclude the 'countless' gays
who live in 'monogamous relationships' from the 'risky' world inhabited
by the serial killer and his victims.
The liberal papers criticised the tabloids for their sensationalism, arguing
that it will not help to catch the killer. However they, too, went along
with the distinction between respectable, monogamous homosexuals and the
promiscuous, cruising clones and sadomasochists.
The Independent on Sunday quoted Andrew Saxton of Capital Gay,
criticising the press coverage of the serial killer story:
'London's gay scene is not just about SM men with handlebar moustaches and
leather caps. We've got gay swimming groups, gay cycling groups, gay gardening
clubs, and a varied cultural life drawing upon a rich cultural heritage.'
(20 June 1993)
No doubt, but where does this leave the 'SM men with handlebar moustaches
and leather caps'? The same paper's editorial reinforced the message: 'After
a week of headlines following the trail of a serial killer in London, the
unknowing heterosexual could be forgiven for thinking that homosexuality
equals seedy nightclubs equals sadomasochism equals Aids equals murder.'
The Independent on Sunday's point is that not all gays are like that.
True, but tens of thousands of homosexual men do cruise both seedy and fashionable
nightclubs all over Britain every week in order to pick up strangers and
have sex with them, some are HIV positive and some are sadomasochists. Are
they to be held responsible for the violence committed against them?
So it would seem. By chance the annual Gay Pride festival took place in
London in the middle of the furore about the serial killer, and, despite
the coming together of tens of thousands of lesbians and gay men, a similarly
defensive response to the media panic predominated. A speaker from the London
Lesbian and Gay Switchboard summed up the message from the platform when
she urged gay men 'to think of safer sex in a wider way'. Safer sex is 'not
just wearing a condom', she said, 'but introducing the man you're going
to go home with to your friends; make sure you've both been seen before
you go home; if you're not there with a friend, introduce him to a stranger...'
and so on. She was loudly cheered.
The speaker, of course, was trying to give some sensible advice (which to
most gay men on the scene would have been as obvious as it is impractical),
but the political message coming from the Gay Pride platform and from the
bigoted tabloids is much the same. Play safe and nothing will happen to
you. In other words, whether the recommended behaviour is lifelong monogamy
or introductions at the bar and condoms in the bedroom, the burden of responsibility
for the dangers faced by gay men lies with the victims.
Gay London Policing (Galop) is a quango which has made a name for itself
as the link between the police and the gay scene. At Pride, Galop director
Jeremy Clarke responded to criticisms of police handling of the murders
by telling me that gay men must take a share of responsibility for the problems:
'One would have to put it back on the gay community. The sense of complacency
that there is about violence and serious sexual violence that's going on.
People are still putting themselves at risk.'
For the Metropolitan Police, the murders could hardly have occurred at a
better time. For the past year or so, as part of the attempt to improve
their tarnished public reputation, the Met have been trying to shed their
macho, anti-gay image. Equal opportunities policies have been instituted;
a Lesbian and Gay Police Association has received official recognition;
Commissioner Paul Condon has attended a meeting with lesbian and gay representatives
and promised to discipline gay-hating officers; six of the force's divisions
have begun monitoring queerbashing attacks.
The police are now politically correct and the serial killer provided them
with an opportunity to build on these changes and present themselves as
the 'protectors' of the gay community. At the 15 June press conference the
cop leading the inquiry, Chief Superintendent Ken John, went so far as to
say that 'We feel we owe this to the gay community. We have to warn individual
practising homosexuals...that somebody who is prepared to attack their community
is about in the city'.
Too many people have been prepared to take this volte face at face value.
Few have questioned why the police should have changed their attitude so
dramatically over the past year.
Galop has urged gay men to talk to the police if they have information,
insisting that gay men now have nothing to fear from them, at least as far
as this case is concerned. Galop's belief in the police's newfound desire
to protect the gay community goes so far as directly assisting the police
in an operation to deter 'cottaging' in a particular public toilet in Brixton.
The Met invaded the Gay Pride festival with hundreds of plainclothes police,
ostensibly looking for the killer. In previous years such a heavy police
presence would have provoked resentment if not outright hostility, but this
year even many lesbians and gay men who are cynical about the police were
resigned to the idea that 'someone's got to do something'. The change of
mood was unmistakeable, as one PC put it: 'The barriers are coming down.
Even the public order officers were walking through the stalls and talking
to people.' (Pink Paper, 25 June 1993) 'Public order officers' is
a euphemism for the riot police.
Some radical voices have criticised the police, but for not doing enough
to detect those responsible for crimes against gays. Fair enough, you might
say, the serial killer has got to be stopped. But the mood created through
the discussion about the serial killer has far wider implications. Reality
has been turned on its head. The lifestyles of gay men are being pointed
to as the problem, and the police held up as the solution. Yet the truth
is that the same police and legal authorities have brutalised the lives
of homosexuals on a scale that a lone killer could never match.
Amid all the invitations to the police to extend their 'services' to the
'gay community', everybody seems to have forgotten that the police are there
to enforce the law and that the law defines all public homosexual
activity as criminal.
The 'predatory world' described by the Evening Standard is 'risky'
not least because it is illegal under any one of many different laws. Chief
among them is the celebrated 1967 Sexual Offences Act which far from liberating
gay men has been used to prosecute, fine and imprison thousands for the
victimless crimes of 'gross indecency' and 'importuning'; in other words,
cruising and having sex, or even just flirting with and chatting up strangers.
These are crimes for which there are no heterosexual equivalents. Homosexual
activity in gay bars and clubs is also of dubious legality and there have
been many raids by the police since 1967.
By criminalising homosexuality in public in this way, the state codifies
in law the antique prejudices against gay men and lesbians, and maintains
the second-class, ghettoised and often semi-secret status of homosexual
There have been recent moves to amend the 1967 act, in particular to lower
the age of consent for homosexual men, which currently stands at 21. Sir
Ian McKellen, the actor and representative of gay lobbying group Stonewall,
was last year invited to Number 10 to discuss the issue with John Major.
This is the apparently liberalised climate in which the police can now loudly
proclaim their new commitment to protecting homosexuals.
However, none of this means that male homosexuality is being decriminalised.
In practice the law is being reinterpreted, to create a new division. On
one side is the 'gay community', a small minority of respectable, middle
class men who aspire to the essentially family values of monogamy, moderation
and gardening and who are to be 'protected' by the law and the police. On
the other, there are the majority of gays, many of whom cannot afford to
be 'out' and many whose sexual tastes are simply incompatible with the narrow
horizons of family life, who are to be criminalised in a new and more intense
fashion for their deviant, 'twilight' lifestyles of cruising or sadomasochism.
Serving the 'gay community' is the cover for cracking down on these homosexuals.
Police Commissioner Condon has stated recently that while the law may remain,
consensual sexual behaviour is not a 'policing priority'. Galop insists
that arrests for cottaging and cruising in London have fallen. Perhaps,
but that is part of the current charm offensive and a small price to pay
for regaining the moral authority to police people's sex lives.
Elsewhere in Britain, out of the spotlight, police persecution of gays has
continued unabated this year. In June alone gay men reported an agent provocateur
in the cottages in Kent; in Cornwall and south Wales, crackdowns on gay
beaches; surveillance operations in Coventry's cruising grounds. In May
in South Yorkshire van loads of police raided a private gay party in a house
near Barnsley. Thirty-eight men were arrested and held overnight, police
claiming that 'sexual apparatus' had been seized and threatening charges
of 'conspiracy to commit gross indecency'. The sexual apparatus turned out
to include a pair of leather trousers.
And then there is Operation Spanner. In March, just three days after the
first victim of the serial killer was discovered, the law lords upheld the
1990 convictions and prison sentences handed down to five men for assault.
The men were all gay sadomasochists arrested as part of Operation Spanner.
Their crime had been to engage in entirely consensual SM sex.
Operation Spanner was a deliberate witch-hunt on the part of the police
and the courts. The police received no complaints about the defendants'
behaviour because all the participants consented and their sex took place
in private. It seems that in 1987 the Obscene Publications Squad (OPS) came
across a video the men had taken of themselves (which the OPS admit was
not being circulated commercially as pornography). The OPS then mounted
a three-year investigation to bring the men to court for a showtrial which
culminated in the House of Lords in March. Lord Templemann dismissed the
men's consent as a defence, asserting that 'society is entitled and bound
to protect itself against a cult of violence. Pleasure derived from pain
is an evil thing'.
Outlawed in March by the highest court in the land as an evil cult from
which society must protect itself with heavy prison sentences, by June sadomasochists
were being asked by all sides to give information to the police hunting
the killer which would include details of their illegal sex lives. At a
press conference on 21 June Chief Superintendent John refused to offer an
amnesty from prosecution for SM gays who came forward, promising only that
their information would be treated in the 'strictest confidence'. Many are
understandably reluctant to talk to the police in these circumstances. If
this reluctance impedes the police enquiry into the murders, no doubt the
authorities and the media will conclude that these notorious deviants prefer
the thrill of their 'risky', outlaw lifestyle to being responsible and cooperating
with the now politically correct protectors of the 'gay community'.
Fears about a serial killer must not be allowed to confuse what is really
at stake here for homosexual men and for the authorities. The police are
no more interested in the welfare of homosexuals than they were one or 10
years ago. They are very interested in taking the opportunity to improve
their battered public image, and at the same time strengthen their authority
over the lives of those defined as sex criminals - cruising gays and SMers
in particular. It is an opportunity that should be denied them.
Gay Pride steward helping the police with their inquiries
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993