Most of us have heard of cottages: public toilets where men sought the company of other men. Some were unfortunate enough to be confronted by Police Officers who were in there with open smiles perhaps in order to invite attention and make an arrest. These were darker times for men who have sex with men and we perhaps assume that the Police have better things to do these days. It turns out they are still arresting people with little or no evidence and using some of the same fear tactics that seem more at home in a bygone age.
Just before Christmas three years ago I was out with friends in Soho. We had enjoyed a few drinks before making our way home. After our goodbyes I found myself caught short and made my way down the steps to the Broadwick St toilets. It was about 5:35pm and the streets were busy with that early evening, just before Christmas vibe. I have always loved the freedom of Soho and I felt perfectly safe, I was in an area I know well doing something perfectly ordinary; all was good with the world
I am not naïve. I knew that these toilets had a reputation. There was likely to be some ‘action’ down there. The urinals were busy, and I suspected that there was probably a little more than peeing going on – but that was not what I was there for. So, I turned right, into the sit-down loos, with doors that lock and privacy. I peed and zipped up, heading up the stairs and back into the street.
As I reached the top of the steps, I was approached by a Police Officer.
‘Could I have a word with you, sir?’
I assumed he was going to ask me about something going on down there, perhaps any suspicious behaviour, drug taking or something else. I hadn’t seen anything going so it was with no sense of alarm that I walked over to the side of the road with him. He was wearing an LGBT Friendly police badge, I felt safe.
It was then that I noticed all the others – fifteen or more police on foot and about five on mounted horseback. Something must be serious. I took out my phone to text my friend but was told to put it away, no explanation was given. I was cooperative but now I was nervous.
By now I was surrounded by Police and that they were bringing all the people from the toilet up the steps and lining us up against the wall. Pretty soon, a crowd had formed and were shouting at the Police. I kept hearing the word ‘Santa’ and realised with horror that the crowd were referring to me. I was wearing a Christmas jumper and I have a long white beard. I am particularly of interest to drunken people at Christmas time. I was mortified and humiliated. I felt really exposed.
I was told I was going to be arrested. Someone had been in the toilet earlier and had taken offence at the sexual activity that was going on. They had made a call to the police at 5:15pm, a little while before I got there. The complainant was apparently still around and had identified all of us as having been involved. I assumed that there had been some sort of mistake and that it would be sorted out.
I was put in the back of a Police van and driven to the station. I felt humiliated and terrified. The thought kept going around in my mind; ‘How can I prove that something didn’t happen?’
With so many people to process the Police were harassed and it took ages. I tried to tell them that I had not been there when the complaint had been made but was told to be quiet. I remained silent for the rest of the humiliating process. The Police went through my bag, opened Christmas presents that my friends had just given me and commented to each other about the things that they found there.
I had my fingerprints, DNA and my photograph taken.
I was put into a cell.
I counted the tiles on the walls. Twice.
I listened to the cells around me filling up.
I heard sounds of people being sick, shouting violent threats and being threatened by the Police in return.
I was terrified and beginning to panic. The thought that I might end up being in the cells all night was beginning to weigh heavily. The next day was Christmas Eve. What if they kept me into the day as well? How long were they allowed to keep me? Could they make me stay there over Christmas?
Eleven hours later, at around five in the morning I was interviewed. I explained that I had not been there when they said I was. I had witnesses and I was willing to tell the Police who they were. My solicitor seemed bored. He was appointed by the Police and it difficult to have confidence in him as he seemed so disinterested. I was nervous and exhausted.
Eventually they let me go. But there was a sting. They were releasing me without charge BUT they were placing me on bail for three months. I had to return to the police station on March 23rd in case further charges were to be brought.I could still be charged!
As a school teacher I have to fill in a DBS form declaring any involvement I have with the Police. I had been arrested on suspicion of having had sex in a public place. This was exactly the sort of thing that might mean I was no longer allowed to teach in the UK.
I was told that I must tell my Head Teacher and that he would make a decision as to any further action necessary. This could include suspension from work until all the Police enquires were completed. My school had a new Head Teacher starting on the first day of the new term and the first conversation I would have with him would be about this. He was an unknown entity. He might choose to suspend me, what would happen then? It would be sure to become public somehow and I felt genuinely that I might never work in education again.
The rest of the Christmas holidays were spent in fear; terrified of the consequences; nervous of crowds and scared to go into the town centre in case someone who had been in the crowd that night recognised me. I avoided going into London for months and experienced panic every time I saw any police.
In the end I was not suspended from work. My new Head Teacher was understanding and did not tell anyone else about the situation, giving me time off to attend the Police Station in March.
As it was, I did not have to attend. The night before, I received a phone call telling me that all charges were dropped. Just like that. I felt sick. All the fear and tension I had experienced over the past three months suddenly hit me. I sat down and cried.
Three years on and I still stop to calm myself down after I have walked past those toilets. I am still scared to use public loos. I am less ‘safe’ in Soho and much less trusting of the Police. London, 2016 the sort of treatment of LGBT people that should be consigned to our history was still going on.
I experienced it. I hope that I was one of the last people to do so, I suspect I am not.