Police demand DNA samples from gay men

Men convicted of victimless homosexual offences three decades ago are threatened with arrest if they refuse to provide samples for the national DNA database.

Manchester, London, Northumbria and West Midlands police are visiting the homes of men convicted of consenting same-sex behaviour and demanding they provide DNA samples. The convictions date back three decades and were under the homophobic "gross indecency" law that has since been abolished.

According to reports I have received from the victims, police officers turned up unannounced on their doorsteps. They were handed letters requiring them to give DNA samples to be stored on a police data base alongside the DNA of murders, rapists and child sex abusers.

The men were warned that failure to comply could render them liable to arrest.

This DNA sweep is supposedly part of the government’s crackdown on serious violent and sexual offenders, using powers under the Crime and Security Act 2010. These powers were intended to ensure that everyone who is deemed to pose a threat to the public has their DNA matched against the DNA from unsolved crimes and has it stored on the national DNA database to check against future crimes. 

Police have apparently lumped gross indecency - the victimless offence that was used to jail Oscar Wilde in 1895 - with violent sexual assaults and child molestation. This law was only repealed in 2003.

The DNA collection is code-named "Operation Nutmeg". It is sanctioned by the government and the Association of Chief Police Officers. This makes it likely that similar DNA dragnets are happening in other parts of Britain. We don’t know about them yet, because the victims have not alerted anyone. 

Men convicted of the now repealed consensual offence of gross indecency are, in effect, being rebranded as serious criminals and treated on a par with vicious, violent sex fiends.

They are being forced to go through the trauma of police abuse all over again.

The letters and threats left one gay man in Northumbria severely traumatised. He was arrested and convicted at the age of 17 for a consenting offence. Now, nearly 30 years later, he’s being forced to relive his past homophobic persecution by the police. He was the victim of bigoted policing in the 1980s. Once again he’s being equated with serious sex criminals who are a menace to the public.

He wants to remain anonymous because he fears repercussions. He told me:

“I am now 45 years old with my own business. I have been in a relationship for over 10 years. Dragging all this up from my past has made me depressed. I now can't sleep or eat since it happened. I feel like stopping it. I am sick of it. I’ve been suicidal.”

He is not the only victim to come forward.

Another man, Stephen Close, who now lives in Salford, was arrested and jailed for "gross indecency" in 1983, when he was 20. He was in the army at the time and was abused by military police and subjected to violent assaults. He eventually confessed to having sex with a fellow squaddie.

Although homosexuality was partly decriminalised for civilians in 1967, it remained an imprisonable military offence until 1994. Close was jailed for six months and discharged from the army with disgrace.

Greater Manchester police claim his offence falls within the list of sex crimes that require DNA samples to be taken.

Close said:

“How long must I endure this burden? Will I ever be able to lead a normal life without worrying whether my past will come back to haunt me?” 

The letter to Close from Greater Manchester Police states:

“Through investigation of police records you have been identified as a person who has a previous conviction, which falls into one of the above categories; and from whom we now wish to obtain a DNA sample....

“The sample once taken will be processed and place on the National DNA Database, where it will be retained and may be subject to speculative searching either immediately or in the future.

“You will be asked to consent to provide a sample. If you do not consent at this stage I require you to attend a police station within 7 days. The time and date of your attendance can be discussed with the person delivering this letter.

“At the police station the sample may be taken with the authority of a police officer of the appropriate rank. If you fail to attend the police station as required you may be liable to arrest.”

Since these DNA trawls have been exposed, Manchester and Northumbria police have claimed the men were only targeted because they have other convictions, in addition to gross indecency. But it is hard to believe that Close’s conviction for a minor theft, for example, makes him a threat to the public.  Moreover, the victim in the West Midlands is adamant that gross indecency is his only conviction.

The Home Office now appears to be suggesting that the three police services have gone too far. A spokesperson said:

“Forces seeking DNA samples from people convicted solely of consensual acts which are no longer criminal is (sic) going against both the intention of the legislation and the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) guidance.”

To resolve the matter, perhaps the Home Secretary and the respective Chief Constables should announce a halt to this homophobic DNA harvesting and write personal letters of apology to the men affected? The DNA samples already collected should be destroyed.

Inadvertent cock-up or homophobic conspiracy? You decide.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the human rights organisation, the Peter Tatchell Foundation

The convictions were under a "gross indecency" law that has now been abolished. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA