Stigma creates fear of reporting attacks

Jason Bennetto reports on Plymouth's insular gay community in Plymouth
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The Independent Online
It is said that you can get all of Plymouth's gay activists into two taxis. As in most of Britain's provincial cities few homosexuals are willing to stand up and be counted.

Instead most of the city's homosexual community prefer to restrict their public exposure to nothing more obvious than the lights of the city's three gay and lesbian pubs and one gay club.

"The general attitude in Plymouth is one of fear and lack of confidence. Gay people are scared of stirring up homophobia and don't want to stick their head over the parapet," said Jonathan Madley, a social worker and one of the city's few publicly outspoken gay men.

"If you held a gay pride rally in Plymouth about five people would turn up," he added.

But just after midnight on Tuesday that changed. The insular world of the West Country gay community is now under the spotlight. The catalyst for change was the severely beaten bodies of two men who were found lying 200 yards apart in the city's Central Park.

Terry Sweet, 64, died shortly after the police arrived. His attackers had slashed his genitalia and face and savagely hit him around the head. The other as yet unidentified man, who is believed to be in his 40s, has similar injuries. Last night he was still unconscious and in a critical condition in hospital.

Yesterday three men were being questioned by police. Mr Sweet lived alone and was well known within the Plymouth gay community. He had spilt with his wife several years ago.

A friend said yesterday that he had seen him alone in the park an hour before he died. The man added that Mr Sweet often cut through the park to go home after the pubs closed and did not go there for sex.

Yesterday the area where the bodies were found was cordoned off. The park is one of the three main "cruising" areas in Plymouth where gay men and some supposedly "straight" men meet for sex. Also close by is a public toilet used for "cottaging" or sex.

Earlier this year the toilet was the target of a police operation. But the police now want the gay community to help them. They have set up a confidential telephone line, manned by social workers, for people to ring and give details of previous beatings.

There have been numerous attacks on gay men, particularly in the past six months, but the police only get to hear about a handful.

Bob was one of those victims. As he left the park one night a gang of youths set upon him. He did not contact police because when a similar thing happened he says he was told by a detective, "if you go there what do you expect". "People are scared to report things, they don't want the stigma or retribution and the usual `don't care' response from the police," he said.

Rod is another example. About two weeks ago he was beaten by a group of people who overheard him tell a woman at a club that he was gay. He needed hospital treatment but refused to tell the police.

Plymouth is not particularly squeamish about sex - it has a notorious red light district and a history of sex connected with its status as a garrison town for the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, and Army. Added to a population of about 270,000 it appears doubly strange that the gay community appears so timid.

Jonathan Madley was struck by this when he arrived from London in 1988. "I was used to people being out and loud. The gay community here is very dispersed and unorganised." As an example he points to attempts to set up a discussion forum about gay issues which folded due to lack of interest.

Colin Damp, landlord of the Swallow pub, a gay hang out,said: "The gay community is not very close knit and will go out of its way not to rock the boat or draw attention to itself."

Several gay people blamed the fear on an anti-homophobic atmosphere created by the military presence. Openly gay people make ready targets.