LGBT young people, public spaces and policing in Australia

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Angela Dwyer, Queensland University of Technology
Guest Contributor  

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

Some police still do victimise lesbian and gay men, as the 2006 Amnesty International report Stonewalled clearly documents. Generally, however, the police are more likely to be seen as supporting diversity rather than demonising it. In Australia, as in the United Kingdom and Canada, the police have implemented police liaison programs to build relationships with LGBTI communities. Police from different parts of Australia now march in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in a uniformed display of support. Reflecting on this contemporary context, it would appear we have come a long way since Gary Comstock’s ground-breaking work – Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men – in the 1990s highlighting how lesbians and gay men were being deliberately targeted and victimised by police.   I think a lot about this history of repression and persecution every time I walk from the train to work and make my way past groups of out-n-proud young people wearing rainbows and holding hands in Brisbane city. They are what I call ‘regulars’ as I see them at least once a week in my travels and, as Malinda S. Smith puts it  in “Queering In/Equality,” these young people  are not only ‘out,’  they are hyper-visible. They attract attention from passers-by because they are young, they are loud, they are colourful, and they are affectionate. When I interviewed 35 LGBTIQP young people in Brisbane, it became increasingly clear that it was these very characteristics – young, loud, colourful, openly affectionate – that appeared to draw the attention of police in public spaces.

The stories of young people provide a different picture of police relations with the LGBTIQP community in Australia. The stories they share are not the premeditated hate-filled violence documented in Comstock’s research. In my research hate violence from police was the exception rather than the norm in young peoples’ accounts, a refreshing change from past research on these issues. That said, some of their stories revealed that the harassment, if not the hate and the violence, have not disappeared entirely and, instead, they may have shifted and reshaped in to new forms. Similar to the subtle forms of harassment elaborated in Brian Burtch and Rebecca Haskells’ Get That Freak. The young people in Australia talked about how police stops and actions sent clear messages to them: LGBTIQP were not wanted in public spaces. Their narratives revealed how the intersection of age and sexuality shaped public spaces. LGBTIQP youth were sent the message that public spaces were gendered, that is, heterosexual and heterogendered, and those who fell outside the normative boundaries did not ‘fit in’ and were excluded.   Over the years of doing research with young people about their interactions with the police in public spaces many of them recounted experiences of being moved on, fined, arrested, and having their details checked. Young people talked about how they felt violated by these frequent police stops and searches. For young people generally these outcomes came from a range of conduct such as hanging out with other young people, drinking in public, being seen as a public nuisance, using offensive language, homelessness, cigarette smoking, begging, criminal justice breaches, and resisting arrest. In my study a key difference between stories of young people generally and the stories of LGBTIQP young people specifically was ‘looking queer’ such as, for example, wearing rainbow coloured or tight fitting clothing, boys looking ‘girly’ (wearing make-up or having long hair), and girls looking ‘butch’ (wearing leathers and mohawks). Looking queer in public spaces drew the attention of police. One young gay male shared how he and his friends were dressed in rainbows for pride day. Although the police stopped and questioned them about drugs they ignored another group of young people who were dressed ‘normal’. A young lesbian talked about how the attitude of police changed to being ‘quite negative’ when they realised her concern for another girl’s safety was because they were partners. For another young gay male who was dressed in drag, it was clear, in his words, that his choice of attire made police just want ‘to get away from me.’ Police also used gendered language to make it clear to young people that a ‘girly looking boy’, for example, was a ‘slut.’ The interviews suggested the police sanctioned the informal targeting of young people either because they were LGBTIQP or for ‘looking queer.’ Police moved such LGBTIQP youth out of public spaces, treated them more brusquely, and gave them weird looks.   These sanctions were even more pronounced when affection was displayed towards a same sex partner in public spaces. For example, young people in my study recounted many instances where if a young male was sitting on another young male’s lap, police would be ‘pulling it up pretty fast’. Typically these instances involved informal intervention by police where they would separate the young people and tell them ‘public affection’ was ‘not allowed in Queen Street.’ Some young people were even fined under public nuisance laws for ‘making out’ with their partners in the street, in train stations, and in shopping centres. Formal or informal, these sanctions made it very clear to LGBTIQP young people that same sex affection was outlawed in public spaces.   While this is far removed from the hate violence of the past, I would suggest these police actions are no less harmful. In fact, if we are to understand hate in the way it is articulated by Nathan Hall in Hate Crimes, then we need to recognise that it is also about messages. There is little doubt that police actions with LGBTIQP young people in Brisbane sent specific messages to these young people about the social acceptability of their presence in public spaces. What this all suggests, then, is that simultaneously persecuting and protecting people who are sexually and gender diverse is paradoxical and in flux, as Sharalyn Jordan  elaborates in her discussion of homophobic and transphobic persecution.  The stories told by the young people I interviewed reflect these paradoxes, tensions and fluctuations. The messages that police were giving to sexually and gender diverse young people were both subtle and yet loud and clear; they were not wanted in public spaces. The interviews also made apparent an unspoken conflict between LGBTIQP young people and police, a conflict Lesley Moran and Beverley Skeggs discussed in Sexuality and the Politics of Violence and Safety in terms of heteronormativity, those who are able to be visible in public spaces and those who, in the eyes of the law, are seen as having no right to occupy such public spaces.   Progress has been made in relationships between the police and sexual and gender diverse communities. Yet, it seems, we still have some ways to go in order to improve the experiences of the most visible and vulnerable members of LGBTIQP communities. And, if we reflect on the numbers of young people who commit suicide, as Gerald Walton does, then clearly we have some ways to go not just to improve relations with the police but also within the broader public.   Finally, the world’s first comparative study into the criminal and educational sanctions meted out to heterosexual and nonheterosexual young people was conducted by Himmelstein and Bruckner. That study found that nonheterosexual young people were far more likely to be subjected to sanctions. Given the fact that LGBTIQP young people are disproportionately impacted by formal criminal and educational sanctions as well as informal sanctions and messages from the police, then educators and policymakers alike must consider how to improve this situation. These issues require further examination to prevent LGBTIQP young people from being caught up in youth justice systems worldwide. As a start, the LGBTIQP young people I interviewed suggested a two-fold approach: first, they suggested the need for better training for police about sexual and gender diversity; and, second, they suggested education for LGBTIQP young people on how to engage with the police.    

Angela Dwyer, co-author of Sex, Crime and Morality, is a Sociologist and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.  



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