How Lucky Am I: Victim, to Researcher, back to Victim

This article plots a course from being a victim of hate crime to passionately researching hate crimes; in doing so, the author relives shared victim experience.

David Wilkin is a Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Leicester; considered as a mature student, although (in his words) any prospect of attaining maturity remains a distant concept. Following a long career in public transport and business he is now impassioned to understand why people can be so fervent in their abuse of others.

How lucky was I? I recall as a child how much I loathed the bus or train trip to school. I wore black-framed, National Health Service (NHS)–issued, heavy spectacles with thick lenses and I had a psychological disorder which resulted in unusual mannerisms. Little wonder then that I was a victim of hate and abuse. If I had been an abuser, I would have sought a similarly ‘soft target’. So, to avoid this daily obstacle-course of abuse, I gave up going to school. I intercepted school reports suggesting that I should ‘pop-in occasionally’ and forged my father’s signature on the related receipt slips. I left school not knowing how to construct a grammatical sentence but I could complete a form. So I joined the railway: a stable work environment from which I eventually did learn that grammar was not simply my mother’s mother!

Cab interior of Flying Scotsman
Author on the footplate of the famous Flying Scotsman locomotive, 2016.

My perspective of what a victim was changed over the succeeding 30 years. From having been a victim, I now witnessed victimisation. As a train driver I was involved in two suicides. At the subsequent inquests, I learned how these victims had been traumatised by the harshness of life until they could no longer cope. I had my apology ready for the parents of one victim, a 15-year old girl. But they apologised to me first and I don’t know which of us cried the most. I recall that moment in detail, notwithstanding that it was 25 years ago.

Working in public transportation, you observe a range of human behaviours at all times of day or night; from altruism to unbelievable cruelty. Some of these acts were latterly to become termed as hate crimes: some perpetrated on minorities; on rival football fans; on disabled people. Of this final category, I once witnessed a man in a wheelchair being pushed on to the electrified track by a group of youths. I turned the power off and, with others, got him to safety. He was scared, shaking, crying and inconsolable: this was to become another haunting memory. Latterly, I managed railway operations and became a consultant to the industry. Understanding the difficulties faced by disabled customers was one facet of my work. I started to comprehend the daily hostility faced by some on our services. After leaving the industry, I gained qualifications in Criminology and wanted to further explore disability hate crime (DHC) through postgraduate research. I found that although public transport is an established environment for triggering hate crimes that this was an under-researched subject.

I am now performing that research. To date, I have spoken with 62 victims and witnesses, via interview and focus group mediation. There have been times when they have shared sketches of human behaviour at its worst. Their honesty in sharing this is humbling. Victims have recounted appalling remarks regarding their impairments, disclosed psychologically hurtful strategies and physical violence. All this targeted against people who already feel physically weakened, frightened and isolated. Already physically drained by having to propel a wheelchair and manoeuvring it onto a bus they then have to negotiate a safe location to park their ‘chairs. As if this were not enough, then they are further burdened with undeserved experiences of being told that you are an encumbrance on the state, that you will delay the bus and even that you stink. These are unwelcome additions to your journey from fellow passengers and additionally sometimes even from staff. During my research I heard from people who regularly suffer abuse that would stun most non-disabled people albeit if it only occurred rarely.

I came to experience people sharing their experiences through innovative techniques which I had not previously considered as customary methods of communication. Participants pointing at imagined abusers to illustrate their experiences, or drawing diagrams of where their abuser stood on the bus, or seeing people use video to explain their abuse because they had no other way of imparting it. Being involved in the dynamic of a focus group where two or three people relate their experiences through the tears of their pain and realising that you too are shedding tears, that you too are becoming a victim again through the sharing of their pain. Even though I did not directly experience their victimisation, it brought back recollections of previous encounters in my life from over fifty years ago, burned into my memory forever; sharing the horror of being victims together, although decades of difference divided our experiences.

On a lighter note, there was the wheelchair-bound victim who proudly wanted to give me a practical demonstration of when he confronted a young male abuser on a bus. This young man had refused to vacate the dedicated wheelchair space and then exhibited threatened violence against my participant. My contributor beckoned me closer to him and said: ‘I held him by the throat and told him what I thought of him’. To add realism to this demonstration he grasped me by the neck and had to be dissuaded from continuing with his resourceful demonstration. He then apologised profusely. Strange, that either emotionally, or physically, I was once again a victim of hate crime: even if only secondarily.

However the depth of my particular distress, it was nothing compared to that suffered by the participants to my study. Once I have completed the collation and analysis of data I will compare these experiences with the equality objectives and duty of care to safeguard all passengers which is incumbent upon regulatory authorities and public transport providers in the UK. My aspiration is to discover if any shortfalls of meeting statutory obligations are evident and, if so, does this increase the risk to potential victims of disability hate crime? If safeguards are not being applied to protect all passengers who use public transport, especially disabled people, then this will be communicated to the UK Department for Transport and key agencies within the public transport infrastructure. This is to provide a research-based incentive in the hope that vulnerable customers will be looked after and also encouraged to use public transport; sometimes the only method of independence to which they have access.

I began this blog by asking how lucky was I to have been a victim of abuse. I finish by discovering that no experience, no matter how distressing, is unique in this world. Someone, somewhere, will have endured it as well. In this criminological exploration of human experience, being able to share experiential knowledge of victimisation has been helpful to both the participants and to the researcher.

 

Contact

David Wilkin Postgraduate Researcher,

Centre for Hate Studies: Department of Criminology, University of Leicester.

Email: drw24@leicester.ac.uk

Twitter: @DavidRWilkin

Website:

https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/criminology/people/phd/david-wilkin

 

Copyright free images: from author

For LGBT People, Criminal Justice Equality Remains Elusive

While same-sex sexual activity is no longer criminalised in much of the Western world, and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people is growing, full equality for LGBT people before the law and criminal justice systems remains elusive.

Matthew Ball Author image

Dr Matthew Ball, Crime and Justice Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

 

 

While same-sex sexual activity is no longer criminalised in much of the Western world, and acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people is growing, full equality for LGBT people before the law and criminal justice systems remains elusive. Taking stock of some of these inequalities in Australia, the USA, and the UK reveals some startling insights into the extent of this inequality, and highlights where criminal justice practitioners, governments, and communities must continue to fight for change.

The ‘Bathroom Bills’ recently proposed in some US states are clear examples of recent attempts to reinforce legal inequality. These laws intend to force people to use public bathrooms that match the sex on their birth certificate, whether or not this aligns with their gender identity. These laws specifically (and deliberately) intend to expose transgender people to possible legal sanctions simply for using facilities that align with their gender, and force them to use facilities in which they may be at risk of violence. In Queensland, Australia, the homosexual advance (or ‘gay panic’) defence was only removed in March 2017. This legal defence allowed murder charges to be reduced to manslaughter if the deceased ‘made a pass’ at the perpetrator, to which the perpetrator reacted violently. This was an acceptable legal defence for a gay hate crime – one that South Australia has yet to remove. These laws play on old ideas that LGBT people are deceptive or predatory, and pose a threat, whether to children or heterosexuality.

While governments have recently expunged the criminal records of those convicted under sodomy laws, and issued formal apologies to LGBT people for government and police behaviour, for many LGBT people, the damage to their lives has been done. They may have lost jobs – or been unable to apply for others – because of their criminal record. In some jurisdictions, despite having had consensual sex with another adult who just happened to be the same sex, they may have had to register as a sex offender. The historic criminalisation of LGBT people thus casts a long shadow.

It might be less surprising that LGBT people remain the victims of some truly horrific hate crimes. The recent murders of fourteen-year-old Giovanni Melton and eight-year-old Gabriel Fernandez, allegedly committed by their fathers who feared having gay sons, highlight the extreme family violence often directed at LGBT people. Hate-motivated violence from strangers also remains a significant issue. For example, while there is debate over whether to classify the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in the US as a terrorist attack or hate crime, the fact remains that most of the 49 victims were Latino LGBT people.

These are certainly extreme events and receive significant media coverage. However, the everyday forms of victimisation that LGBT people experience often remain overlooked. In Australia, it has taken recent debates over marriage equality and the Safe Schools anti-bullying program to expose the largely invisible undercurrent of homophobia and transphobia impacting on LGBT people. This has been lent some political legitimacy by prominent politicians such as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who has very publicly stated that ‘It’s OK to say No’ to marriage equality. This has also limited progress in other areas where LGBT people experience significant victimisation. Evidence suggests that LGBT people experience domestic violence and ‘revenge porn’-related offences just as much, or at higher rates, than non-LGBT people, and yet this research has not translated into visible public campaigns to address these offences.

A key aspect of the inequalities experienced by LGBT people in the criminal justice system is their interactions with police. Unsurprisingly, given the historical role of the police as a source of injustice and discrimination in their lives – whether by arresting them for same-sex sexual activity, failing to take their victimisation seriously, or committing acts of violence against them – many LGBT people remain reluctant to report victimisation to the police. This has a very direct impact on their access to justice.

Police services have taken great strides in many respects to improve their relationships with LGBT people. I’ve spoken to many police officers who demonstrate a real commitment to change. The Queensland Police Service recently released a powerful video of officers talking about the struggles they have faced as LGBT people themselves. In 2016, Constable Mairead Devlin, a transgender police officer, raised a rainbow flag to celebrate International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) at Queensland Police headquarters. Similar visible symbols of support are not unusual across the UK and USA, with police services increasingly participating in LGBT-related campaigns, such as Wear it Purple Day or IDAHOT. While these attempts to shape the ‘public image’ of the police can be dismissed as symbolic, these symbols are nevertheless powerful. They may actually lead to a victim of hate crime reporting to police as opposed to suffering in silence.

But healing the historical rifts between the LGBT community and the police is challenging. Even where significant progress has been made over decades to do so, it only takes one incident – or one homophobic or transphobic officer – to open up old wounds. The violent arrest of Jamie Jackson Reed, a young gay man, at the 2013 Sydney Mardi Gras Parade, which was filmed and subsequently circulated online, led to questions about just how committed police were to LGBT people, even in the Australian city considered the most progressive on these issues. Incidents such as these have a disproportionate impact on the levels of trust LGBT people have in the police. And they only entrench the difficulties that LGBT people experience accessing justice.

The barriers that LGBT people encounter accessing justice also appear in the harshest part of the criminal justice system – imprisonment. And nothing illustrates this more than the experiences of transgender inmates, who have long encountered significant and unique inequalities here. Transgender inmates have been uniquely impacted by our long-standing tendency to house male and female prisoners separately, based on the sex assigned to them at birth and not on the basis of their gender identity – regardless of whether or not they have undergone any kind of hormonal, surgical, or social transition. This means that transgender prisoners have continually experienced institutional misgendering, and had restricted access to gender-appropriate clothing or personal items, hormones, and transition processes.

These policies have had serious and compounding impacts on transgender inmates. Not only have they impacted significantly on their mental health, but they have also put them at risk of violence from other inmates. The unique vulnerabilities of transgender inmates have often led to them being housed in high-security areas or solitary confinement, not because of any wrongdoing on their part, but for their ‘protection’ from other prisoners. The resulting increase in security measures governing their lives in prison has further limited their ability to express their gender identity while incarcerated. Coupled with the isolation that comes with such housing, it has only increased their risk of suicide.

Though prison authorities are increasingly recognising and responding to these unique needs, as suggested by the recent UK Ministry of Justice ‘Review on the Care and Management of Transgender Offenders’, and the guidelines issued by the US Department of Justice, change is not yet widespread. In some jurisdictions, limited information about the policies underpinning the treatment of transgender inmates is available, and little is known about the experiences of transgender inmates themselves. And the rights of transgender inmates to access surgery and other treatments as part of their transition remains hotly debated in some contexts.

While the injustices discussed here are significant – and certainly not exhaustive – important changes have occurred to improve equality for LGBT people in the criminal justice system. And the pace of change is tied to broader social gains addressing other inequalities facing LGBT people. After all, efforts to improve reporting and response rates for homophobic and transphobic hate crimes are only effective as long as there is a broader social commitment to eliminating homophobia and transphobia.

However, those seeking to address legal and criminal justice inequalities face the danger that the broader social appetite for equality for LGBT people extends only to more ‘palatable’ issues such as marriage equality, or violence prevention, and not less popular issues such as the treatment of transgender prisoners. Meaningful change in the interests of justice obliges us to pursue goals that may not be immediately embraced by the public at large. Those who fought against criminalisation, and who sought to separate in the public’s mind LGBT people from the ‘sex offenders’ and ‘perverts’ they had long been associated with, faced similar problems.

Major gains have only occurred because LGBT people have had their voices heard, their unique experiences of legal and criminal justice acknowledged, and because police, government, and community leaders have recognised the need for business as usual to change. These must remain key components in the struggle to achieve greater justice and equality for LGBT people.

 

Dr Matthew Ball is a researcher in the Crime and Justice Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. His research examines sexuality, gender, and the criminal justice system, and he has published widely. Matthew is the author of Criminology and Queer Theory: Dangerous Bedfellows?, and co-editor of Queering Criminology.

Email: mj.ball@qut.edu.au

Twitter: @Dr_Matt_Ball

Copyright free image: from author.