In an article for Standpoint last year, I wrote about my attempts to confront the sort of everyday anti-social behaviour - noisiness on trains, queue-jumping - which most of us now wearily put up with. It was like playing Russian roulette with strangers, but I emerged from the exercise unscathed.
However, a few days before Christmas, I caught a crowded evening train from Charing Cross, and settled down to read my book. Two men got on and sat opposite: the first middle-aged, strong-looking and drunk; the second much younger, again powerfully built but apparently less tanked up. From the moment the train left the station, it began.
First came the posh-baiting. The older one did the talking. "Oh, hello chaps! Want to do some fishing? Ha ha! Look, he's wearing a scarf." As they continued to bait me, trying desperately to get me to look at them, the atmosphere in the carriage became still as people gradually realised what was going on. Then came the gay-baiting. "He's probably gay...Yeah, do you think he's gay? Oh yeah, definitely gay!"
This went on for around 20 minutes. I hadn't opened my mouth and don't have a neon sign reading G-A-Y on my head, which in an odd way made it all the more menacing. Passengers nearby caught my eye sympathetically; one looked me straight in the face and then moved purposely off down the carriage. I finally snapped. "You have done nothing but insult me since the journey began," I said firmly, the blood pulsating away. I half-expected the younger guy to say fair cop mate, calm down, he's drunk, let me take care of it. Instead, face contorted with aggression, he also went for me. "You're givin' us lip now. Shut yer mouth. You wanna fight me? Come on then, I'll fight yer."
At this point three transport policemen arrived, alerted by the man who'd moved away. "We've had reports that you have been making homophobic remarks," said one of them to the men. We were parted, to either end of the carriage. They were taken off at the next station, and spent the night in the cells.
I had to make a statement later. Throughout, the policeman I dealt with was considerate and helpful but especially keen, I felt, to press the homophobia aspect of it all, under what was referred to as a "Section 5 racially aggravated". Without wishing to be too serious about an incident that in the end came to nothing, I did feel that I was confronted with a point of principle. I'm instinctively against "speciality" offences, particularly those that make an attack or assault more serious if the victim belongs to a special group. The alternative was a common or garden "drunk and disorderly", and I went for that. Mindful perhaps of targets and PR, the policeman was very disappointed. But for me, the charge of homophobia got in the way of the offence, and made it into something else. Was I right?
Oh, by the way, I discovered from the police the next day that one of my assailants had been carrying a knife.
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