…have we, though?
The “Pride” of the LGBT community (…) is a pride not associated with sexual orientation itself, but with the fact that, through a path of total destruction, imprisonment, discrimination and humiliation, the people of the LGBT community showed courage, solidarity and perseverance, having defended their historical right to human dignity.
Anonymous, posted on LGBT youth support website Children-404 20 October 2014
As a TV nerd, I’d been waiting impatiently for American Crime Story 2: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Tom Rob Smith (The Farm, Child 44) has had my attention since London Spy (BBC2): a love story meticulously interlaced with a compelling tale of espionage. But where London Spy was dark and moody and set against England’s shadowy corners, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is brimming with beautiful bright colours and retro hues. The setting: 90s Miami Beach. It’s all billowing shirts, high-waist jeans and oversized suits. Versace started life in Reggio Calabria, a city adorned with ancient Greek art and architecture. In Versace’s home on South Beach, the head of Medusa, the face that turned onlookers to stone, embellishes all things that surround him: from espresso cups, to belt buckles, from plates to mosaic flooring. And just as with the boldness of Versace’s baroque and leopard prints, the show is sumptuous and lavish. The script is adapted from Maureen Orth’s book, Vulgar Favours (the Versace family called the book a work of fiction – even though the book is focussed more on Cunanan than Versace himself). Tom Rob Smith has used his own authorship to dramatise and fill in the gaps. It’s a powerhouse of a show, spread over nine episodes; as ever, Smith’s storytelling is meticulous and his characters are so compelling. It’s a brilliant watch – if you’re not already caught up in the hype, get into it.
I was young when Versace was killed, but I remember vividly the image plastered everywhere of the bloodied front steps to his house, surrounded by police markers. What I don’t remember at all, was the story of Andrew Cunanan: a guy described in his college yearbook as the most likely to be remembered. I wasn’t aware that Versace’s murder marked the end of Cunanan’s three-month long killing spree. As Gianni Versace went about his star-studded and accomplished daily life, penniless Andrew Cunanan’s intricate web of lies was progressively spiralling out of control. I never knew that there were four other victims.
Within the episodes that have been aired so far in the UK, there have been some stand out moments of poignancy for me, that go some way in reminding us of the extent of prejudice surrounding homosexuality and HIV in the 90s. It was devastating to watch the character of Antonio D’Amico (played by Ricky Martin) holding his life partner’s body in his arms, begging for help, waiting for an ambulance to eventually turn up, as the crowds begin to gather. After Versace’s body is taken away, he sits in his bloodied tennis whites, distraught and shocked. An investigator questions him, prowling around the ornately decorated room, looking at it as though it is some sort of den of immorality; asking invasive questions on their private lives, on the “lifestyle choices” they made as a couple, insensitively poking about as though their ‘difference’ is why this tragedy has occurred.
And the terrible reality is that their ‘difference’ in the eyes of others, was the reason for Versace’s death – not because Versace and D’Amico were in a loving relationship, but because, as Edgar Ramírez who plays Gianni Versace says: “The underlying subject is homophobia and how homophobia killed him…It’s something that comes up over and over when we look into the investigation… Cunanan was on the news every night, on the most-wanted list, and for some reason all the law-enforcement authorities couldn’t get him.”
There’s contention around the assertion that Versace was HIV+ at the time of his death – the show claims that he was, the Versace family vehemently deny this. Episode one shows Donatella Versace sweeping in to her brother’s home, filled with grief and the preoccupation that her brother’s personal life is going to be wrenched into the public eye, scrutinised at the expense of the empire that he built. There had been a similar amount of anxiety surrounding his decision to publicly come out some years previously. Donatella immediately ostracises D’Amico from family matters.
Episode four charts the heart-breaking story of entrapment, fear and trauma in Cunanan’s murders of David Madson and Jeffrey Trail. After Cunanan bludgeons Trail to death in Madson’s apartment, they go on the run: Cunanan in the reverie of his denial, Madson fearing for his life, and for the lives of others. The episode is excruciating and suffocating, and when Madson finally gets an opportunity to escape, he can’t face it – going back to Cunanan is ‘easier’ than facing the reality of a society that would probably accuse of him of deviance, that probably wouldn’t listen. How could he prove that he wasn’t involved in Trail’s murder? How could he prove that this wasn’t some lurid ‘sex act gone wrong’ (a phrase often bandied around when in need to piece inadequate evidence together). As a gay man, he would surely be vilified for the behaviour of a psychopath. It makes you think how little sanctuary was offered to LGBT people in the eyes of the law, society and the criminal justice system at the time.
Cunanan was a “person who targeted people specifically to shame them and to out them, and to have a form of payback for a life that he felt he could not live”. He was able to kill five people over the course of three months, without being apprehended. Despite his face being on the FBI’s most-wanted list, he was able to rampage across the eastern side of the country. There were a number of bars and businesses that alerted the authorities of sightings. The FBI had promised to send 1500 flyers to the LGBT centre in Fort Lauderdale – the flyers turned up the day after Versace was shot. The FBI’s reason for the delay: printing issues.
“Police and F.B.I., clueless about gay culture, ignored leads and witnesses that could have led to his capture. The media sensationalised each crime with homophobic glee” (Patrik Sandberg, Dazed)
Anti-gay bias amongst the people whose job it is to protect members of society existed then and, although equality rights have moved forward considerably in the past twenty years, it still exists today.
Over in the UK, between June 2014 and September 2015, Stephen Port (known as the Grindr Killer) also found himself at liberty to commit his depraved murders. He lured his victims in via the app, dosed them with lethal amounts of GHB and raped them. (There are seven other men who managed to escape with their lives, but who now must live with the scars of having been drugged and sexually assaulted). Anthony Walgate, 23, Gabriel Kovari, 22, Daniel Whitworth, 21, and Jack Taylor, 25 were all found dumped in the same churchyard, in close proximity to Port’s flat. All the victims’ bodies had been propped up in the same way, the drug found in bottles in their hands.
The police knew that Port was connected from the start: he made the call to alert the police of the body of his first victim, Anthony Walgate. Even though the police knew the pair had been connected on Grindr, and despite the state of Walgate’s body – they still deemed the death a suicide. After Port had left his subsequent victims in the same state, the police unquestioningly bought his farfetched stories and they ignored the alarms raised by the families; they didn’t make any efforts to contact LGBT groups to follow any threads. The victims’ families were forced to take matters into their own hands. CCTV hadn’t been checked – when the police, after persistent pleas, finally did examine it – Stephen Port was clearly identifiable. The families of the victims have since announced they are suing the Met on grounds of negligence and misuse of power. The met have since initiated new guidelines on dealing with chemsex allegations.
There are alarming stats that show how members of the LGBT community do not feel safe when it comes to hate violence. In terms of the prevalence of violence committed on members of the LGBT community, transgender people are targeted the most, followed by gay men. Bisexual women, followed by transgender people and lesbian women, suffer the most in terms of hate-motivated attacks of a sexual nature. Across the board, most of the perpetrators are male, straight, and a person unknown to the victims. Most attacks have taken place in a street, square, car park or other public place. 36% of LGBT people say they aren’t comfortable holding their partner’s hand as they walk down the street. 21% of LGBT people regulate the way they dress for fear of discrimination and harassment – 40% of trans people adjust the way they dress for that reason.
Given the fact that LGBT people are most likely to be preyed upon in such a way, that the very act of leaving their home renders people vulnerable, you’d think that our police force would have adapted itself efficiently to deal fairly, correctly and respectfully with hate-violence victims from within the LGBT community. Yet, in the past year, 81% of LGBT people who experienced a hate crime or incident did not report it to the police, and only 12% of 18 – 24 year old LGBT people are likely to report a hate crime. One in eight LGBT people have been discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity when accessing social services – that’s three in ten for trans people. Black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people, and LGBT disabled people, are most likely to have experienced discrimination. 25% of trans people contacting emergency services in the last year were discriminated against based on their gender identity – one in six black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people (16 per cent) were discriminated against. The amount of people who worry about poor treatment when reporting hate crimes from within the LGBT community has not improved in the last five years.
This concern spreads to anxiety of treatment by judges and magistrates, and from within the prison system. As a result, it also limits career opportunities: 50% of LGBT people would expect to face barriers to becoming a magistrate because of their sexual orientation. 63% expect to face barriers to being elected as a Police and Crime Commissioner if their sexual orientation were known. As a result, none of these professional groups are representative enough of the society they serve.
In regards to the police force, an “obvious problem is the composition of the Police Service itself, and the lack of LGBT representation within it”. There are shining examples, such as the late Julie Barnes-Frank, who helped set up the Manchester Police’s Lesbian and Gay Staff Association and who was one of the first ever officers to take part in London’s Pride parade; who won awards for her work towards ending homophobia and changing policies within the police force. The Met Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick is the first openly LGBT commissioner. Also, PC Sam Philpot and PC Phil Adlem who both proposed to their respective partners, in police uniform, during 2016 London Pride celebrations. But the police force in the UK is still reported as a ‘macho environment’, dominated by straight men – unrepresentative of our diverse society. The Gay Police Society, founded in 1990, has since been closed after losing its Home Office funding, and many members of the police force feel they cannot be out at work.
The UN has found that, amongst its member states, “Criminalization, discriminatory attitudes, harassment by police, stigma, ill treatment in detention and medical settings, lack of protective legislation, absence of complaints mechanisms, lack of trust in law enforcement officials and awareness by judicial operators still result in impunity for perpetrators and make it difficult for victims of human rights violations to access effective remedies and support”. More needs to be done. Dotted around this article is advice on what to do if you have been a victim of hate crime, as well as organisations such as Stonewall’s advice on how the police can do more to help the situation.
Blow the Whistle on Gay Hate is Stonewall’s pocket-size guide on:
How to get yourself out of harm’s way
Why you need to report EVERY incident that involves homophobia
Who you need to report stuff to
What you need to say when you report it
Data collated in this article from surveys undertaken by Stonewall, The United Nations & the Council of Europe.