Changing attitudes undermine 'macho' police culture: President Clinton's move towards ending the US armed forces' ban on homosexuals has renewed debate about the services and police in Britain. Heather Mills reports

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MARY, a lesbian policewoman, has been called a 'dirty dyke', has tolerated canteen jokes about truncheons, and shrugged off male offers to convert her into a real woman.

But what most distressed her was when a male colleague refused to hold the hand of a seriously injured car crash victim for fear that he would look like a 'poof'. 'That his masculinity was so threatened he could not comfort someone who may have been dying was unbelievable,' she said.

It is from a desire to change what she perceives as a predominantly macho culture, that Mary says she has decided to stay in the police. Working for a Midlands area force, she said that sexism and the need by some officers to dehumanise minority sections of the public has previously brought her to the brink of resignation.

Although she has been in the police for 10 years, she has only recently 'come out'. Her closest colleagues and friends have been a great support but she is sensitive to the gossip and whispers in the canteen. 'I know I am painting a rather grim picture. But things are slowly changing and I think I can influence that change. Change has to come from the inside and I want the police force to improve and provide a better service for the community.'

That change is undoubtedly underway was shown when an article in the force's magazine, Police, arguing that homosexuals had no place in the police force, was met with a barrage of complaints from gay, lesbian and heterosexual officers.

Inspector Alan Folkes of Bedford was accused of prejudice and homophobia, when he wrote: 'The received wisdom of today that homosexuality is 'normal', is actually a belief without hope.'

A few years ago his views may have passed without adverse comment, but now a growing number of police forces - including the Metropolitan Police - have incorporated sexual orientation into their equal opportunities policies. Others are now looking at their policies and the Home Office is producing new guidelines against which all forces will be measured. The debate surrounding homosexuality within the police started more than a year ago, when it emerged that gay officers had formed their own organisation. The setting up of the Lesbian and Gay Police Association will certainly have given many officers the courage to 'come out'.

And several who agreed to talk openly said they have encountered little or no prejudice.

One woman officer let it be known when she was a recruit that she was a lesbian. 'I determined I wasn't going to lie. I had nothing to be ashamed of and I was not going to deny my partner to the world. I won't say it has been easy. I think I have felt a little lonely at times, a little ignored by my colleagues. But we are working at it.' Another London officer who told close colleagues a few months ago that he was gay, said: 'I have found great relief in no longer having to live a lie: I no longer have to be one person at work and someone else out of uniform. Maybe they say things behind my back but not to my face. I haven't encountered any hostility.'

But like others who have told colleagues they are gay, he is reluctant to be identified. 'The media start targeting you and it becomes political and that is not what we want,' he said. Some officers, who have lived a lie for many years, remain too fearful to reveal their sexuality. One said: 'I suppose what is quite worrying is how easy it is to slip into a double life. But the fear that people live under is a tremendous pressure and the job is already stressful enough.'

Recent research by Marc Burke at Essex University, and Chief Inspector Robert Anthony of the Metropolitan Police uncovered a wealth of prejudice and need for reform. But both men remain optimistic. Mr Burke said: 'With the recognition and acceptance by Britain's largest and most influential force of a support group for lesbian and gay officers and the equal opportunities advancements of the past 24 months, it is clear that the future holds some promise of improvement for the lot of the gay police officer.'

Ch Insp Anthony said: 'The police attitudes towards minorities is germane to the way we function. The way that we treat our own is a good indication of the way we are likely to treat those we serve and the degree to which the public can have confidence in us.

'I think we have made amazing progress in the last two years. But this is the sort of thing you have to keep pursuing. Equality and justice are things you have to work on all the time.'

(Photograph omitted)