Now meet the real gay mafia

Gay taxis, gay funeral directors: people make money out of keeping homosexuals in a ghetto

I've often found it helpful to seek an outsider's perspective on complex issues, and so while pondering the possibility of a gay mafia, I decided to take my sister out for a night at one of London's hottest gay nightclubs. She confirmed my suspicions. In a heavy night of partying, she saw a happy, exciting community that thrives despite being oppressed. She saw the beautiful people, the cutting-edge fashion, the unadulterated fun; she went home in disbelief that we still picket parliament demanding more. A recent survey found that 65 per cent of gay people regularly lied about their sexuality to avoid being beaten up, but in spite of that we've adopted a lifestyle that heterosexuals envy. Pure genius or an own goal?

I believe that there is an explanation for the gay lobby's lack of political progress, in changing both the statute book and the hearts and minds of the public. The responsibility lies with a small group of businessmen who have a major financial interest in keeping lesbian and gay people on the fringes of society - where they are most profitable. Welcome to the real gay mafia.

Gay business, or the "pink pound" as it has crudely become known, is big business. Richard Branson owns Britain's largest gay nightclub, and hundreds of other investors are opening gay shops, restaurants and bars in the knowledge that fortunes have already been made by tapping into the gay market.

Many people believe these companies provide powerful examples of how integrated society has become; how successful and accepted gay people are in Tony Blair's Britain. Not so. Homosexuals need so many exclusively gay businesses precisely because they are not an accepted part of mainstream society. Gay people voluntarily opt out of society in order to escape from homophobic abuse. By using gay taxi firms, gay doctors and even gay funeral directors (look under F in the Gay to Z business directory: there are a dozen in London alone), gays are able to live a life relatively free from prejudice.

A significant number of businessmen are trying to stall the progress of gay rights campaigners for as long as possible. A handful of companies are using their financial muscle to penetrate campaigning groups and subtly ensure that all their resources are focused on legal reforms so that social prejudice is left unchallenged. With prejudice left intact, segregation continues and gay businesses thrive and make money.

Stonewall, the leading gay rights organisation, has an annual budget approaching £1 million, much of which is raised through the business community. Sponsorship, advertising and corporate fund-raising deals bring in enough revenue to fund a slick campaign, a spacious suite of offices in central London and a regular stream of champagne receptions and events.

In return for their generosity, major donors are often rewarded with a place on Stonewall's board of directors and, because the organisation has supporters rather than members, these positions are the only official way to influence Stonewall policy. A quick glance through the organisation's literature will show that yesterday's sponsors are today's decision-makers; and most of those involved have financial interests in lucrative gay businesses.

By giving financial donors the only voice in setting the agenda, gay rights organisations have left themselves open to a serious charge of having a conflict of interests. Can it really just be coincidence that most groups are fighting exclusively for legal reforms and ignoring calls to tackle social prejudice, while accepting money from a business community that thrives because of social inequality?

In a survey by YouthSpeak, the gay rights youth group which I chaired for a while, it was found that 84 per cent of young people valued social changes over legal reforms, and that over 70 per cent thought that most gay rights organisations put too much emphasis on trying to change laws. This reflected a growing trend in the gay community which recently provoked the formation of several new organisations to focus on social campaigns. Existing organisations have famously clashed with these new groups, and maintain that their own, unsuccessful, attempts to lobby parliament have been the single greatest contribution to the gay rights cause to date.

One Stonewall volunteer, who has asked not to be named, said: "You have to bear in mind that gay businesses only exist because of the niche market which is created by gay people being a socially excluded group. If we managed to get ourselves accepted, the gay pubs and shops would probably fold, and Stonewall would lose a large proportion of its funding."

The Pink Paper, the leading free gay newspaper, is funded entirely by advertising. One former editor, Andrew Saxton, remembers a series of occasions when advertisers' interests were items for discussion at editorial meetings. "Although our news coverage was never substantially censored, I think there's a fine line between censorship and honest journalism, and I had to fight hard to keep us on the right side of that line."

This will not surprise those whose actions provide the gay press with regular stories. Duncan Hothersall is a pivotal figure in Scottish gay politics but has found the gay press to be reluctant to cover events north of the border unless there is a commercial link. "One example was the first Gay Pride march in Scotland which 10,000 people attended," he said. "The Pink Paper only gave it a brief mention, and that focused on the launch of Quentin Crisp's new brand of whisky which was only a small part at the end of the event."

Gay Times is widely acknowledged to have far higher editorial standards than its rivals because the £2.50 cover price enables journalists to remain independent from advertisers. The editor, David Smith, believes that his magazine gives a more balanced view than any of the free gay newspapers, but cynics have pointed out that the publisher, Chris Graham Bell, also chairs the Gay Business Association. While Smith insists there is no conflict of interest here, it is surely no coincidence that the magazine features gushing tributes to gay businesses, while barely finding space for campaigns against homophobia in schools or for regional groups involved in the gay rights movement.

Perhaps it is naive to talk about a gay rights movement at all; a gay rights industry would be a more accurate description. While ordinary gay people yearn for a day when they can live without fear of violence and discrimination, the gay mafia seems to be profiting, in all senses of the word, from continued inequality.

The tragedy of modern gay politics is that those who sit on the gay rights platform are, for whatever reason, allowing their agenda to be dictated by a handful of people who have a vested interest in delaying progress.

While political parties must adapt to win the widest support, the role of pressure groups is to maintain an ideological stance and fight the opposition. This is simply not possible when the oppressed and the oppressors become entangled.

The ultimate irony of the gay struggle is that true victory demands that gays surrender their gay identity, and with it the gay taxis and funeral directors that provide them with temporary shelter from homophobia.

While gay companies insidiously continue to govern the policies of gay rights campaigners and the press, a temporary shelter is all it is possible to achieve.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers