Could community relations survive a homophobic campaign?

Published: July 12, 2011

Jack Gilbert, gay rights campaigner, on what really happened between faith leaders and his community after homophobic stickers appeared in a diverse London borough

It’s late afternoon on Bethnal Green Road, in east London, and I am rushing from the tube for a meeting. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I catch something that brings me to a stop: a rainbow flag turned into a no entry sign, with the words "gay free zone" written across. Above are the words "Arise and warn" and below "And fear Allah. Verily Allah is severe in punishment". Both with a Koranic reference. I shiver, and am reminded of the words "Juden raus" (Jews out) that my mother would have seen in Berlin in the 1930s. It is not something I thought I would ever witness 70 years on in one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in Britain, where gay pubs share the same streets as synagogues and Halal butchers.

The previous December, at a meeting of Rainbow Hamlets – the Tower Hamlets lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) forum, which I co-chair with Rebecca Shaw, the police had told us about two reported anti-gay sticker sightings in the borough. They linked them to a sighting in neighbouring Hackney, one across the capital in Twickenham, and another in Nottingham.

Between 11 February and the end of March, more than 65 similar stickers were displayed around London, with over 50 in Tower Hamlets. This was turning out to be the most intense homophobic hate literature campaign since the 1980s battle over section 28.

Coverage of the sticker campaign, particularly online, often seemed ill-informed. Comment pieces from both sides tended towards a rabble-rousing tone, inspiring a torrent of racist and Islamaphobic abuse. I experienced more back-to-my-roots shivers, this time thinking about my grandparents’ fight against Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts.

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