Homophobia exacts a chilling price as hate crimes climb

People having sex changes are the new targets

Hate crime towards gay and transgender people is on the rise across Britain, with thousands of people suffering abuse for their sexuality every year. Crimes against transgender people went up by 14 per cent during 2010 and, in some cities, attacks motivated by sexual prejudice are up by as much as 170 per cent annually.

The rise in homophobic crime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland went from 4,805 offences in 2009 to 4,883 in 2010. Campaigners say the figures are just the "tip of the iceberg" as research suggests three out of four people are still too afraid to report these crimes.

The police now record any crimes they believe are motivated by homophobia – anything from persistent harassment to serious assault and murder. Experts believe the reason for the increase may be in part because more people feel able to be open about their sexuality, making them easier to be picked out by thugs. Vic Codling, national co-ordinator of the Gay Police Association, said: "People have got more confidence in themselves and, when you get people who are openly gay, that provokes homophobes. There is still stigma in Britain and, if you're open about your sexuality, that encourages people to take up arms and act on homophobia."

The gay rights group Stonewall says there is anecdotal evidence that unprovoked attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are on the rise. The results can be fatal. The story of 62-year-old Ian Baynham, who was killed by drunken teenagers screaming "Faggot", while they bludgeoned him to death in London's Trafalgar Square in September 2009, is one of many. The Independent on Sunday is aware of at least nine people who have been killed by attackers because of their sexuality – or who committed suicide after being bullied – since 2009.

A growth in more extremist religious views has also contributed to the increase in attacks. A homophobic campaign, launched by extremist Muslims in east London earlier this year, featured stickers declaring the area a "gay-free zone" and that Allah would be "severe in punishment". "A lot of the problems come when people believe their religion encourages them to be homophobic," said Mr Codling.

The rise in recorded attacks may partly be attributable to an increasing willingness among the LGBT community to go to the police and report crime. Police have also been better trained in recording crimes as homophobic, rather than just robberies or muggings.

The most dramatic increase is in Scotland, where homophobic abuse has risen fivefold in five years, police statistics show. There were 666 crimes against LGBT people recorded in Scotland in 2009/10 – almost double the 365 reported in 2007/08.

In Oxford, homophobic crimes reported to police rose by more than 170 per cent last year; and in London's West End, still a focal point for the capital's gay nightlife, crimes motivated by homophobia increased by 20.9 per cent.

Experts say a dramatic growth in the number of transgender people seeking medical sex changes has made those born into a different gender more visible and therefore more vulnerable. In 2010, there were 357 incidents of hate crime against transgender people, up 14 per cent from 2009. The number of people medically changing their sex is growing at a rate of around 15 per cent every year: 1,200 people now undergo gender realignment procedures annually.

Bernard Reed, of the Gender Identity Research and Education Society, said: "The more people who feel the need to reveal their condition, the more people put themselves at risk. Our research shows 90 per cent of transgender people do not report abuse, so this is the tip of a very large iceberg. Society's acceptance and understanding of trans people is up to 20 years behind LGB; we know people who are spat at every day."

While numbers of reported incidents rise, police forces nationwide are closing down specialist LGBT liaison officer posts in response to budget cuts.

Sam Dick, of the charity Stonewall, believes the problem starts in school. "I think there's a misconception that because the laws have changed, social attitudes towards gay people have changed. But it's clear that people are leaving school feeling that homophobia and violent homophobia is acceptable: 17 per cent of gay students who have experienced homophobic bullying have received death threats. It's clear this behaviour is going on in schools unchallenged."

Lynne Featherstone, the Equalities minister, said: "Targeting a person purely because of gender identity or sexual orientation is a shameful act and will not be tolerated. We are working with the police to improve our response to hate crime. For the first time, forces are recording data centrally, which will help target resources more effectively and better protect victims. Everyone should have the freedom to live without fear of hostility or harassment."

Case studies...

Rachel Maton, 56

Egham, Surrey

Rachel has suffered systematic abuse since she began her sex change in 2007

"I became a target because I'm transgender. Youths would pelt my house with eggs, smash my windows and shout at me. One day, I was hit from behind and the lights went out. Then they set upon me. My nose was smashed flat and I couldn't breathe. Now I'm careful not to get in a vulnerable position."

Chas Anderson, 20

East London

Chas, a former model, was assaulted in April outside a gay bar in Clapham

"My partner and I were queuing at a cash point after leaving the bar when a group started making abusive comments. They started saying the shorts I was wearing looked ridiculous, and one of them said that because I was gay, I deserved to be dead. Next thing, a man punched me in the face and I fell to the ground. There was a lot of blood and I had to go to hospital. The police said there had been a spike in similar incidents at the time in Clapham and south London."

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