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Equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in the UK has improved dramatically in the last two decades. Discriminatory laws have been repealed, marriage equality for same-sex couples has been achieved, and equality legislation has given statutory protection from discrimination.

But equality under the law has not translated into a wholesale change in behaviour across society. Many LGBT people still face discrimination, abuse and even violence in their everyday lives, and measuring the scale of the problem, let alone finding effective measures to counter it, is complicated by the under-reporting of such incidents.

What is LGBT hate?
Police forces in England and Wales make a distinction between a ‘hate crime’ and a ‘hate incident’.  A ‘hate crime’ is defined as any illegal act that the victim or other persons perceive to be motivated by hostility or prejudice towards an aspect of a person’s identity, such as being LGBT. A hate ‘incident’, meanwhile, is defined as any act, which may not be a crime, that is similarly motivated, and which may include:

  • Verbal abuse, such as name-calling
  • Harassment
  • Physical attacks such as hitting, punching, pushing, spitting
  • Threats of violence
  • Hoax calls, abusive phone or text messages, hate mail
  • Online abuse, for example on Facebook or Twitter
  • Harm or damage to property
  • Graffiti
  • Arson

Many of the above are clearly crimes, but others may be more ambiguous, with verbal abuse, harassment and online abuse in particular being potentially more difficult to categorise as a specific crime.

Together, ‘hate crimes’ and ‘hate incidents’ against LGBT people can be broadly categorised under the definition of ‘LGBT hate’.

What is the extent and nature of ‘LGBT hate’?
Police recorded crime figures provide the only official statistics on reported LGBT ‘hate crimes’.  In 2015-16 there were 8,052 recorded, including 858 listed as trans hate crimes. This represents a substantial increase in the last five years, with the total having risen from 4,658 recorded in 2011-12, of which 313 were trans hate crimes.

However, these figures are widely acknowledged to be a considerable underestimate of the true level of crimes committed.  The most recent analysis of the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimated that for the combined years 2012-13 to 2014-15 there were an average of 29,000 LGB hate crimes per year, more than six times the average figure of 4,807 per year in the recorded figures for the same period.

Looking at both ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate incidents’ reveals just how widespread LGBT hate is. A large LGB sample (not including trans people) was polled by YouGov in 2013. This research found that of the 2,500 respondents, 24% of gay men, 19% of lesbians and around 10% of bisexual people had experienced a hate crime or incident in the previous three years.  One in ten of these incidents involved physical assault, one in five involved the threat of violence, with the most common reported incident being harassment, insults and intimidation, reported by eight in ten LGB people.

This high reporting of incidents in surveys indicates the prevalence of such behaviour in society. Additional polling research by YouGov more recently found that half of people surveyed had heard offensive comments or language used against LGBT people in the previous year, and one in five admitted to making offensive remarks themselves.  Nearly two thirds of those who witnessed this behaviour did not intervene, and just 3% said they offered support or assistance to the person targeted. This research has prompted Stonewall’s ‘#NoBystanders’ campaign to encourage the public to call out and report hateful language when they hear it.

Why don’t LGBT people report incidents?
Clearly there is a significant problem of under-reporting of LGBT hate, specifically hate crime. The Leicester Hate Crime Project found in 2014 that the rate of reporting of LGBT hate crimes was significantly lower than the average for hate crimes. Just 14% of victims targeted for their sexual orientation reported their most recent experience of hate crime, compared to 24% overall, and up to 56% for those targeted because of their physical disability. The rate for trans hate crime reporting is around 30%.

These findings led the Equality and Human Rights Commission to fund further dedicated research from the University of Leicester on the barriers to LGBT hate crime reporting. This used targeted in-depth interviews with 50 LGBT people to identify the reasons why they do not tend to report incidents.

The study revealed that the process by which reporting of such crimes takes place was not widely understood, and it was felt ‘reporting pathways’ could be made easier to navigate. However, one of the main reasons for non-reporting was a perception by those targeted that their complaints would not be taken seriously by the police or result in any action. Linked to this was a feeling that reporting ‘everyday’ forms of verbal abuse and harassment would be a waste of police time and resources. Participants would only be likely to report severe or repeated incidents, notably those involving physical violence.

Underlying these factors was the depressing finding that LGBT people had ‘normalised’ the abuse they suffered, to the extent that they felt it was ‘part and parcel’ of being LGBT.  When asked if they had experienced LGBT hate crime, the overwhelming majority of respondents answered ‘no’. But when asked if they had received verbal abuse, the majority of the sample could recall multiple incidents. Extracts from the interviews included stoical sentiments from those resigned to receiving abuse, with comments like “you just become kind of numb to it, don’t you?” and “you just put up with it.”

The background of bigotry
The ‘normalisation’ identified in this study is a worrying background to attempts to eliminate the negative attitudes and bigotry against LGBT people which lead to hate crimes. It should not, however, come as much of a surprise, given the prevalence of anti-LGBT attitudes to which people are exposed from an early age.  Surveys show the majority of LGBT young people experience bullying in schools, ranging from name-calling to physical assault, a fact confirmed by teachers – 86% of whom in secondary schools report that students in their schools are bullied, harassed or called names for being – or being perceived to be – LGBT.

The trend to simply ‘put up with it’ also begins early, with 72% of young people who said they had been victim of LGBT bullying saying they hadn’t reported it to anyone at the school, and a similar proportion saying this was because they “didn’t think it was worth reporting”, followed by an expectation it would not be taken seriously. The same study found this replicated amongst young people who had experienced hate crime and abuse outside of school, 88% of whom did not report it, and for the same reasons.

The background of bigotry and discrimination in society exacerbates the unwillingness to report incidents of LGBT hate, with the Leicester study finding a sizable number of respondents citing a fear of being ‘outed’ if they make a formal report, and the implications for them if their family or colleagues found out about it. In a further sign that LGBT people expect discrimination and hostility, many reportfeeling the need to alter their behaviour, in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves or placing themselves in situations in which they might be targeted.

Under-reporting of hate crime and incidents is an established issue for all groups targeted, but it seems to be a particularly acute issue for LGBT people. There have been practical recommendations made for improvements to ‘reporting pathways’, to make it easier for LGBT people to report incidents. But unless they feel it is worthwhile and appropriate to do so, it is hard to see such improvements having an effect on the fundamental problem.

Many LGBT people (myself included) have come to accept the uncomfortable reality that discrimination and prejudice against them continues to exist, to a degree that impacts upon their daily lives. The evidence suggests that as long as the rest of society tolerates the underlying attitudes which lead to hate incidents, LGBT people will see their experiences as normal, and continue to ‘put up with’ them.

Nigel Fletcher is Head of Research at Bright Blue