Criminal Injustice

The Homophobic Bias Of The Criminal Justice System

Peter Tatchell reveals the victimisation of gay men by law-makers, police and judges

Ninety-six years after the trial of Oscar Wilde, the anti-gay laws which led to the imprisonment of one of the greatest writers of the nineteenth century are still on the statute books. Every year, thousands of men continue to be prosecuted for victimless gay behaviour. Despite moves towards closer integration with Europe, Britain still sanctions a level of institutionalised police and judicial discrimination against its gay and bisexual citizens which is greater than in any other European Community member state.

My own recent research, based on official Home Office figures, demonstrates strong evidence of homophobic bias in the criminal justice system. It shows that in England & Wales during 1989 consenting homosexual relations between men over the age of 16 resulted in:

* 3,500 prosecutions.

* 2,700 convictions and 380 cautions.

* 40-50 prison sentences.

Most alarmingly, 1,503 men were convicted of the gay consensual offence of "gross indecency" in 1989, compared with 887 in 1955. In other words, there were over one and a half times more guilty verdicts in 1989 than in the mid-1950s when male homosexuality was still totally illegal and Britain was gripped by a McCarthyite-style anti-gay witch-hunt.

Among those victimised in 1989 were 31 men aged 21 or over who were gaoled for consensual gay sex with other men aged 16-21. Dozens of teenagers were also penalised: 185 were convicted, 147 cautioned and 23 imprisoned for the predominantly gay consensual offences of buggery, soliciting, gross indecency and homosexual procuring. These prosecutions of teenagers make a mockery of the government's claim that Britain's harsh anti-gay laws exist to "protect" young people. If that's the case, why are these teenagers being prosecuted?

In 1989 the criminalisation of men for consenting gay behaviour cost the taxpayer:

* 12 million for 3,500 prosecutions.

* 1 million for the imprisonment of 40-50 men.

This squandering of public money on the prosecution and punishment of gay men for victimless acts comes at a time when most police forces are facing budget crises, and when thousands of serious violent crimes (including queer-bashings) are being left unsolved.

Anti-gay bias within the criminal justice system is indicated by the following evidence, that I have extracted, from the government's criminal statistics for 1989:

* 30 per cent of all convictions for sexual offences are for consensual gay behaviour - though this behaviour comprises only 13 per cent of recorded sex offences.

* Men who commit consenting homosexual offences are four times more likely to be convicted than men who commit heterosexual and violent sex offences.

* The average police clear-up rate for the mainly consensual gay offences of buggery, homosexual procuring and gross indecency is 97 per cent, which is 28 per cent higher than the average clear-up rate for rape and indecent assault on a woman. This extraordinarily high clear-up rate for victimless homosexual offences is, at least partly, suggestive of a police vendetta against the gay community.

* Compared with men who have consenting sex with girls under 16, men who commit the consensual offence of gross indecency with partners over 16 are five times more likely to be prosecuted, and three times less likely to be let off with a caution.

* Convictions for the victimless homosexual offence of gross indecency rose by 106 per cent between 1985-89. According to the Home Office, this can be partly explained by the decision of some Chief Constables to "target" these offences. Comparable heterosexual behaviour is rarely, if ever, targetted by the police.

* As a result, the number of convictions for gross indecency (a consensual, gay-only offence) was more than three and a half times greater in 1989 than in 1966 - the year before the ostensible decriminalisation of male homosexuality.

* Men who have consenting sex with 13-16 year old boys nearly always get charged with "indecent assault" (despite the boys being willing participants); whereas an "indecent assault" charge is almost never bought against men who have consensual sex with girls in the same age range.

* Prison sentences for consenting homosexual relations with men aged 16-21 are sometimes as long as for rape, and often twice as long as the gaol terms for "unlawful sexual intecourse" with a girl aged 13-16.

This homophobic bias of the British criminal justice system is increasingly out of step with the rest of Europe. Last year, for example, newly-democratic Czechoslovakia lowered the age of consent for lesbians and gay men to 15; thereby ensuring parity with the age of consent for heterosexuals. In Britain, however, we continue to have more laws against gay sex than any other country in Europe, East or West. We also prosecute more men for consenting homosexual behaviour than any other European nation.

With closer European Community ties planned for 1992, now is the time to campaign for 'Equality With Europe'. As Britain joins the process of greater European integration, lesbians and gay men have a right to expect European standards of equality. That means an equal age of consent for everyone, including homosexuals (16 like the Netherlands); partnership rights for couples of the same sex (as in Denmark); anti-discrimination legislation to outlaw job refusals and dismissals (similar to France); and laws against incitement to hatred to stop anti-gay abuse (along the lines of Ireland). Nothing would better commemorate the centenary of Oscar Wilde's trial in 1995 than the repeal of Britain's anti-gay laws and the enactment of full equality for the lesbian, gay and bisexual citizens of this country.

+ 1989 is the latest year for which full information is published. The figures quoted are based on official Home Office statistics for the predominantly gay and consensual offences of soliciting, buggery, homosexual procuring and gross indecency (plus estimates of indecency offences under common laws and local authority and public transport bye-laws, which are not listed in the official figures). Since some of these offences occasionally involve heterosexual behaviour, coercive sex and young people under 16, such cases have been subtracted from the total to produce the quoted figures for consenting homosexual behaviour with men over the age of 16.

The Pink Paper, 26 October 1991.

Reprinted in "At Your Own Risk - A Saint's Testament",

Derek Jarman, Hutchinson, London, 1992.
Published: 26/10/1991