Disclaimer: This article contains an example of homophobic propaganda. Reader discretion is advised.
I’m writing this article on August 4th. For those of you who don’t know, that means it’s Pride Weekend in Leeds. As one of the biggest Pride events in the UK, it’s a good time for the LGBT community to celebrate the overcoming of the challenges, abuse and violence it and its predecessors faced to allow it to enjoy its rightfully broadly accepted place as normal human beings in a functioning society.
However, as I write this, I and many others in my position have something oddly difficult to consider. You see, I am a bisexual male, but also a prospective police officer undergoing selection for the special constabulary (an auxiliary unit of volunteer, part-time, fully empowered police officers) and as I sit writing this at home (it’s sodding down with rain so I’m content expressing my pride by watching everyone get soaked on their Snapchat stories) I’m reminded of Pride’s origins.
You see, Pride started because police officers, in the past, routinely victimised, brutalised and, in some cases, murdered gay people.
Of course, this article will not concern itself with officers that broke the boundaries of the law. I pity not those who used excessive force in their duty, or made their own law, or broke it wholesale. Those officers will deservedly find themselves rotting in the nastiest portion of whatever hell there may be. This article only concerns itself with those who, at the time, followed the law to the letter.
With this said, there is no use sugar-coating the fact that, if I was to be a police officer in England and Wales before 1967 (in the not so distant past) I would by duty-bound to lock up someone purely for being homosexual—with their sentence likely being chemical castration (such as what happened to Alan Turing) or quite a serious amount of prison time. This Pride month then I’m certainly over the moon to see that West Yorkshire Police have a significant positive presence at Pride. Whether it’s the officers taking part in the parade itself, or the force being considered one the UK’s best LGBT-friendly employers (according to the charity Stonewall), I’m certainly happy with how far we’ve come as an institution, but can’t help reflecting on the lingering legacy that the police were probably the single greatest threat to the LGBT community in the past.
However, with a great deal of reflection I can’t help but pity those officers who, as I mentioned earlier, were legally and duty-bound to enforce the law at the time, at least in the UK. Failure to do so would be a dereliction of duty and could in itself lead to dismissal and likely victimisation or investigation for “gross indecency”. Not all of them will have been homophobic nutcases and would probably have a great deal of sympathy to the very same community they were ordered (lawful orders at the time, I may add) to victimise. Moreover, homophobic beliefs and prejudices were a product of the intense anti-gay propaganda at the time and also the legislation placed upon the Police to enforce. As I mentioned above, Police are only duty-bound to enforce the laws that are there, and they didn’t create the “gross indecency” law. That was the lawmakers and judiciary of the time which created and interpreted that law to discriminate against the LGBT community. If history is to single out police officers as the root cause of the entirety of the LGBT community’s horrendous treatment then it is mistaken. As the anti-gay PSA from the 1950s “Boys Beware” (see below) shows, it was every institution of society—the media, government, the family, and so on, which were undertaking a concerted effort to victimise non-heterosexual individuals.
Now the defence, “I was just following orders” was one which was rightfully thrown out for such acts at the Nuremberg Trials. I’m not trying to justify or defend the actions of police officers in history. As the title of this article states, we shouldn’t just pity the officers of the time and let them off with a slap on the wrist. What I argue for is a recognition that, although their actions are rightly condemned, the police serves to enforce the beliefs and judgements that society as a whole makes. As such, it’s unfair that law enforcement as an institution catches most, if not all, of the flak historically. Institutions such as the Church, the courts, Parliament, the media and ordinary people of the time all should consider themselves to have blood on their hands.
Of course, there is an elephant in the room here. In many places around the world, there remain police officers who, as part of their duty, are required to persecute, brutalise and assault homosexual and trans individuals. Likewise, however, these officers do not create the law or the conditions in which such brutal acts can be carried out. That much is fostered by the society where these atrocities lay their head—for example, persecution in Russia does not originate or find its legal legitimacy within the police force, but certain pieces of legislation and the Russian leadership, as well as cultures, norms and so on. As such, those who oppose violence against LGBT people in Russia should rightfully condemn to an extent the police force, but also concentrate their condemnation and efforts towards Russian leadership and legislators who allow such acts of brutality to be legal within the particular society.
As such, I find myself, on this soaking wet but nevertheless humid day of Pride concluding that officers of the law throughout history deserve their fair amount of condemnation, but also a level of pity. They, after all, were, and are, a product of the homophobic society of which they live in and we should pity them for living in such a backwards way. In the same way as we might pity those living in Victorian London for not being able to treat TB, we should pity officers for not being able to live in a society where, generally speaking, folk are accepted for who they are, as well as condemning them for failing to resist such a society.