Blogit / Kolumnit
Blog: LGBT+ History Month blog - PC Andy de Santis reflects on community relations
Keskiviikko 23.2.2022 - Andy De Santis
Andy de Santis is an officer based in Westminster who works on Safer Neighbourhoods and volunteers as a Met LGBT+ Adviser. As part of our series of blogs for LGBT+ History Month, he reflects on the history of the relationship between the authorities and the community and how things have changed.
PC Andy De Santis. Foto: Metropolitan Police
“There is a reason that gay people need the respect and the protection of the police. We’ve been a prosecuted minority for thousands of years, and that threat never ever goes completely away. We feel it still.”
Quote from Four Lives (television drama on the Stephen Port case)
And now in 2022 we find ourselves in the midst of another LGBT+ History Month, where so much more could be said about the quote above, from a programme that depicted a terrible case. Yet, if we do not acknowledge and learn from history, we are condemned to repeat it. The Met as an organisation wants to regain the trust and confidence of communities by learning from its past.
On a blog post that I was invited to write previously for the internal Met forums, I talked about some of the history about the community with the police. It’s important to remember that in other countries (some with links to the Commonwealth), the community still faces criminalisation and more abuse.
In Brazil, where I’m from – my trans siblings are still being murdered at a fast pace. Count yourself lucky if you have never had to be alert to what you wear or holding the hand of your partner in public because you are afraid to attract unwanted attention. Even more if you never had to google if the place you’re travelling to is safe for LGBT+ people.
Yet, as we finally appear to be coming to the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, it feels timely and even necessary, to remember the community repercussions of a past pandemic.
At a time when the community was already struggling with criminalisation, HIV started to become an issue. The first reported death in London was noted in 1981 – but only confirmed a year later to be down to a HIV-related illness.
The news drove the community into a panic; there are three incredible episodes worth listening to on this from season two of the podcast ‘The Log Books’ by Switchboard LGBT+ Helpline, a long standing support service.
Documentaries were released, centred around the life of LGBT+ people and calling HIV 'the gay killer disease'. The extent of the disease was also blamed on the 'promiscuous nature of the gay community for spreading it across the world'.
News headlines were not kind, making it difficult to those living with HIV and for those losing loved ones to the disease.
The stigma around it still exists in modern times, with a poll in Time Magazine in 2019 showing that almost half of British people would feel uncomfortable kissing someone with HIV, while 38 per cent would feel uncomfortable going on a date with someone who is HIV positive.
The irony is that the government issued scary adverts back in the day labelled 'Don’t Die Of Ignorance', yet research like the poll quoted shows that there is still a persistence in ignorant views, which saddens me.
As we know today, HIV is not as easy to transmit – being on medication can prevent transmission and there is also PREP, a new medicine to protect against transmission.
It’s also worth remembering that the best form of prevention is awareness, and this includes everyone, so it’s good to check your sexual health regularly.
On the back of this came Section 28, at a time the community was stigmatised and discriminated against. As they fought for equality, the government introduced Section 28, which prohibited local authorities and schools from promoting (or educating) about homosexuality.
At that time, about 75 per cent of the population believed that homosexuality was mostly or always wrong. Police attitudes became increasingly hostile with bars and clubs being raided. Undercover officers were placed inside LGBT+ 'safe spaces' and the community was criminalised.
These were tactics that we would certainly question today, but that was common practice at the time. Not having community members as part of the police, was probably was not helpful when it came to understanding their consequences.
The whole criminal element to being LGBT+ dates back to 1533 when, during Henry VIII’s reign, homosexual sexual acts between men were made a crime, and then again in 1885 when during the Victorian era, any display of affection between men was outlawed.
In this atmosphere, more than 15,000 gay men were convicted in the decades that followed legalisation in 1967. By the 1990s, gay and bisexual men, trans people, drag performers and some lesbians continued to be arrested for public displays of affection. For more about this history, I’d recommend Peter Tatchell’s brilliant article.
The Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) in London was raided frequently, and the blue gloves that we still wear when dealing with incidents can trigger a terrible memory for the community. This is because, as HIV infections grew, the community perception then was that police officers were treating them as 'sub-human'.
On one notorious raid on the evening of 24 January 1987, after three decades of actions like this and at the height of the epidemic, 35 police officers donned blue rubber gloves, raided the pub and carted customers into waiting vans outside.
Many arrests were made on that day on the grounds of drunken people in licenced premises, and this was also a catalyst moment where the negative press generated forced police to reconsider their approach and relationship with the LGBT+ community.
There is so much about history that we could cover, and I share these examples to help understand the past, changes to public attitude and perception, and where we stand now. This year has been educational with TV programmes such as Four Lives, It’s a Sin and Des, programmes that I feel every copper could benefit from watching.
However, it is important to recognise that attitudes have changed. I am one of the LGBT+ advisers within the Met and I am so proud and enthusiastic about this role. Colleagues have reached out to me to explain terminology or even cultural aspects of the community that they don’t understand or don’t know much about. I have assisted in catching suspects who cause harm to the community, through the knowledge and experience I have as an officer and community member. This has also been made possible by investigating officers trusting my advice, when approached.
On a more recent occasion, when a man under arrest shouted homophobic abuse at officers, even though it was not directed at me, I had their support when I said I wanted him further arrested for that matter. It was an incredible experience, where I felt that my colleagues really understood that the language and behaviour is not welcome in our organisation and society. The person was found guilty of the offence, due to the amount of evidence and statements provided, including my own.
Being an adviser also helps in interactions with LGBT+ victims where they can see my badge and understand that I walk in their shoes. Finally, I regularly go out to the community to help them understand my work as an officer, and how I can support them.
Yet we can only do so much, as we need colleagues and allies wanting and willing to work with us to help us improve relations. I’d urge anyone who wants to get involved to reach out to the Met LGBT+ advisers on their local borough where they live. This call out also goes to the community, as we depend on your knowledge and support to be able to police effectively.
More recently, the Home Office has announced an extension to its 2017 pardons scheme, which will potentially encourage those criminalised for offences no longer on the statute book to come forward.
As if living with a criminal history was not difficult enough – and although the move seems bold and necessary – I wonder if this a positive.
Can we simply erase years of conflict and marginalisation with a pardon - what do you think?
It can be easy to dismiss history as identity politics, but for some people, such as myself who are part of the LGBT+ community and an immigrant; it’s very much a reality that we face.
I hope you enjoyed this 'quick dive' into the past to mark LGBT+ history month.
For those who want to find out more, the following are well worth dipping into:
Podcast: The Log Books
Andy De Santis