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The Big Interview with LGBT activist Chris Cooke
1:30pm Sunday 6th January 2013 in News
Brighton has long been hailed as the LGBT capital of the UK. However, all is not well in Kemp Town.
St James’s Street has become a crime hotspot, drug problems are rife and recent homophobic attacks remind us that there is plenty of work still to do.
Member of the LGBT Community Safety Forum and local activist Chris Cooke tackles the big issues facing the community.
Last month’s homophobic attack in Brighton city centre shocked the LGBT community. What was particularly upsetting was that the same happened to the victim 10 years previously. Has anything improved over the last decade?
CC: Ten years ago there was considerable mistrust of the police in the LGBT community. In fact, relationships between the police and the community completely broke down at one stage.
LGBT people felt that they received a different, inferior service from the police and this was one of the main reasons they were reluctant to report homophobic crime, they felt it would not be taken seriously.
With the introduction of dedicated LGBT police roles in 2004-5 a process of starting to build confidence commenced.
Today I have no doubt that LGBT hate crime and crime affecting LGBT people in general is taken very seriously by the command team at Brighton Police Station, however, there is no way of judging success or failure.
No performance indicators were ever agreed and put in place. Too much information is anecdotal and that is not good for developing trust and confidence.
Apart from the community led Count Me In Survey there is no sound data for decision making and planning.
We should be talking about a five year strategy to identify the level of under reporting within the community, agreeing performance indicators with the police and deciding what will be a good measure of success. Nothing too ambitious just small steady steps.
Do you think Kemp Town should be made a “gay village”? If so why and what would it mean?
CC: For as long I have lived in Brighton people have called St James’s Street the “Gay Village”, the council have just lacked the courage to give it an official name on the city map.
Many LGBT business men have invested in the area over the years bringing jobs and eco- nomic wealth to the area and yet successive political administrations have neglected the area generally.
Let us not forget that in the last 10 years two former Labour councillors from Queens Park ward were leaders of the city council and two of the present councillors are senior members within the Green Party.
You would have thought this would have been an incentive to improve and invest in the area, but sadly this has not been the case. That is not a political point I am making, it is a fact of life.
It has been suggested that Kemp Town has become something of a gay ghetto. Would you agree? Do you think there’s a danger of segregating the LGBT and straight communities and thus making homophobia and equality a bigger problem?
CC: In my view St James’s Street is less “gay” than it was 10 years ago as an LGBT destination both for local people to socialise and for tourists to visit.
Just ask the people who own the gay businesses in the area and not just the bars. They are all finding it hard to survive. The reasons are varied.
Safety is just one of a range of complex issues that is making LGBT people think twice about coming into the village to socialise, but it is an important factor.
In other cities like Liverpool they have desig- nated a specific area of the centre of the city as the Gay Village.
There are small discreet rainbow flags painted on the street signs. As LGBT people invest the area has improved generally.
It is not about ghettoising the area it is about improving the area. The evidence shows that when cities designate an area as a ‘Gay Village’, the area generally improves, becomes fashionable and property prices rise. This only happens when the politicians work with community leaders and not against them. The concept of a “Gay Village” is a branding opportunity first and fore- most to bring wealth and enterprise into an area.”
Is Brighton a safe place for a young LGBT person to move to?
CC: Research shows that for many years young gay people came to live in Brighton to be part of ‘a gay community.’ Some out of choice and some after being disowned by their families after coming out.
After arriving they soon found the streets were not paved with ‘gay gold’. Well paid jobs are few and far between, flat rental prices are high as are the deposits that go with them.
For young people community safety is just one of a range of issues that they have to deal with.
How would you reassure an 18-year-old LGBT person wanting to move to Brighton that it was a safe place to live?
CC: I would make sure that first and foremost they understood Brighton is an expensive place to live and they should not come here unless they had somewhere to live and they also had a job.
I would make sure that they also understood that they had to look after their safety and be aware of the levels of homophobic attacks in the city. No one should be complacent.
Why do you think St James’s Street and other parts of Kemp Town have become such crime hotspots?
CC: St James’s Street is a hotspot because it is the centre of the night-time economy for gay people. However, the most important issue is to establish whether any attack has been a ‘hate crime’.
It has taken far too long to have a recording mechanism in place to establish this and a mechanism that people can have confidence in.
It would be useful to know how many homophobic attacks happen during the day and how many during the evening/night. It would be useful to see the statistics for the rest of the city.
This information should be made public and be readily available. The truth is that outside St James’s many of the attacks never get recorded as homophobic. Unless the victim insists on the incident being recorded as homophobic it just slips through.
What needs to be done to take these areas back for the community?
CC: The answer lies in the communities generally and not just in St James’s Street. Residents have generally disengaged not only with their local councillors but with their local areas in general.
Pride in the community has to be fought for by residents whether it be funding for Brighton in Bloom or funding for the variety of Food Festivals which bring so much revenue into the city.
Councillors have to understand their role is to serve the community and not the other way around, which is happening in some quarters presently. In St James’s Street at the moment a large number of residents are saying enough is enough.
The local councillors are having difficulty hearing the message and that is unfortunate. In fact they are in denial to the fact.
Do the police take homophobia as seriously as other hate crimes such as racism? What more do they need to do?
CC: In my experience the police take hate crime seriously. I think the LGBT community needs to be looking carefully if the restructuring of Brighton and Hove Council’s Partnership Community Safety Team has downgraded the importance of LGBT Hate Crime generally in the city.
Again I am hoping the trust and confidence survey might help us with that.
Is there equality in Brighton and Hove for the LGBT community?
CC: Brighton has always been a very tolerant city and sometimes I think we all take things for granted.
The number of times a gay friend says to me I have lived in Brighton a long time and never had a bad experience and then the next day I read in the Argus of another homophobic attack on an LGBT person.
The fundamental problem here is that we have no baseline statistics for measuring trust and confidence in the police and council.
The LGBT Community Safety Forum is undertaking a Trust and Confidence survey at the moment. This is a piece of work that should have been produced years ago.
Each year the survey can be repeated to see if trust and confidence in the police and council is rising or falling.
The results of this survey will be the start of us being able to identify the levels of under reporting of homophobic incidents and crimes.
Getting a feel for what that baseline level is is crucial to future success and creating a strategy for success. Ten years after spending 1.2 million pounds of Home Office money on the Anti Victimisation Initiative we do not have a set of homophobic hate crime statistics that people can have confidence in. That is just not good enough.
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