Article | Black LGBT+ Lives Matter: Personal Reflections
We asked our own officers how as LGBT+ people of colour they have helped shape the organisation from within and delivered better policing for Londoners.
There are many people of colour who have lead and shaped LGBT+ history. Such as Jose Sarria, a Hispanic and a drag queen who as an openly gay person ran for public office in the United States. Marsha P Johnson was a black Trans activist who was one of the significant people who instigated the Stonewall Riots in 1969 in New York, and Bayard Rustin, a gay black man, who as the right hand man of Dr Martin Luther King’s advisers also went on to work for LGBT+ rights. LGBT+ people of colour are proud of these names and many more who even today continue to drive forward for equality and acceptance across the world for those who as a sexual and / or a gender minority simply want to live and love freely. We asked our own officers, how as LGBT+ people of colour they have helped shape the organisation from within and delivered better policing for Londoners.
Parmeet starts by saying she takes great pride “in being a gay; I take equal pride in being a Sikh, being a female, being an Asian and being an immigrant [and I] wear my identity and attitude in everyday life and celebrate it with people who have known me on a personal basis.” Rob adds he also is proud to be a gay East Asian man and actively encourages his straight friends to join him for gay socials and invites them to play with him at his gay Asian badminton club. Angel celebrates her blackness because people of colour have paved the way for my freedom, my status, my consciousness and blackness.” She says “I draw strength from my black power and the great contribution my colour brought to building many nations.” This is echoed by Andy. As a LatinX he takes great pride “in my heritage [and] as much as my own experiences. They have allowed me to be curious about the world and those that inhabit it, and to try and support them in different ways.”
Our interviewees come from communities where homosexuality either is frowned upon or not discussed, they believe it is important to be visible LGBT+ people of colour. As Rob says: “I whole-heartedly believe that communities of colour are less likely to be accepting of LGBT+ children and relatives. The more visible [I] am, the more people will realise it is not a phase, it is not a sin and it is nothing to be ashamed of.” Angel says that by making people aware of her sexuality, she’s able to expand their ideals and perceptions they may have of black women. Parmeet has found she’s had challenging and honest conversations with colleagues [to] explain the hardships gay people [of colour] have to face so that [they] have an understanding of what the reality [is like].” She goes on to say that the homophobia that exists within South Asian culture holds her fellow LGBT+ officers back from living fulfilling lives. They communities “still have to worry about things like being disowned by their families, being ostracised by their communities, of losing their friends and not having any support system at all.” She’s therefore made it her goal to be visible for these colleagues and others so they can “speak and share their thoughts and experiences without being judged.” As a LatinX, Andy says he uses his “differences as a catalyst to appreciate and celebrate other lived experiences, backgrounds and identities…My hope is that in doing this, and taking the first step, will inspire others to talk about their experiences, and feel that their experience can help people who want a world more accepting and inclusive.”
Parmeet says it is because of being visible when marching in Pride as a LGBT+ person of colour in uniform that she and others can be “a beacon of hope to many who are still struggling to accept themselves for who they are.” It’s a chance to remember the people of colour who have “sacrificed so much to fight for our rights but also to give hope to the ones who are still fighting for their rights to equality and acceptance.” Pride gives an opportunity to educate people about differences but also accepting and embracing these differences and Rob says that Pride gives him the space to celebrate my love [and identity as a gay person of colour] publicly with my friends and family.” Angel says “it is sad that today we still “need the space as black gay people to celebrate being black and gay” and mentions this is the very reason Black Pride was set up and happens every year. “It is required as we [black people] were never considered, recognised or given that space to show who we are [within Pride in London].” Pride for Angel is the celebration of “the fight to be free to love who we want and live how we want. Pride allows for everyone to see we are all just humans with our own unique characters. Just like a beautiful rainbow.”
Breaking down the barriers
LGBT+ people of colour bring a range of qualities to the Met. Being a gay woman, South Asian and from the Sikh community, Parmeet believes she “represents the diversity that exists all around us and feel confident in policing London effectively” seeing herself as “an Subject Matter Expert when dealing with matters that affect a certain part of the community because I understand the issues affecting them and why these issues are so important..” This is shared by Shantee and Rob. Both being from South East Asian heritage, they are able to bring their language and identities to aid a policing response to a sensitive situation. When Andy joined the Met he remembers his Inspector saying “We [the Met] do not have all the answers, but you [as probationers] do. Because you are part of the communities you police and you have an understanding of them.” That moment struck Andy as a offering by the organisation to bring his identities and experiences to better policing in London. He goes on: “There is an odd dynamic in policing, where years of service can make you a great officer, yet I feel that becoming a community ambassador comes from being a professional with the courage and integrity to appreciate different communities, and the compassion to listen – as a police officer. I find that often, a conversation with the uniform that addresses someone’s concerns, where our different colour can be a shared experience, can help de-escalate situations, which can build bridges with communities through shared experience [and] empathy.”
Parmeet recalls numerous occassions when she has drawn on identities to deal with sensitive situations whilst policing London. She says “I use my linguistic skills to communicate with victims/ informants effectively; this not only helps in building a rapport and getting best evidence/information from people but also leaves them with a positive policing experience.” Shantee says “Sometimes people need to talk to someone who ‘looks like them’” and Rob adds that his insight into a particular group or culture can help with the response.
Their efforts can help break down perceptions communities may have of the police. Andy says the policing style in Brazil is vastly different to that in the UK. Brazilians have a suspicion of policing based on their experiences from their homeland. As a LatinX officer within the Met he has come to appreciate the complexities to policing and has helped better Latin American communities perceptions and relations with the Met. Parmeet understands why South Asians may be suspicious of the police from abusive policing regimes in India to challenging practices that exist in the community such as forced marriages and domestic abuse. Often the community want to deal with these issues internally and don’t want to invite outside attention especially the police; the power of honour plays a dominant role. “When they see someone who they can identify with and communicate with in their own language, it helps build their confidence to report these sensitive but serious crimes.” Parmeet tells us about one incident when she supported a white male colleague who was assisting an elderly South Asian female. Having walked in to a police station, she couldn’t speak English fluently and the officer called on Parmeet to help communicate between them. Due to her linguistic skills but also coming from the same cultural background and a place of empathy, the woman disclosed to Parmeet that she had been a domestic abuse victim for over twenty years but never had the courage to speak out. Due to Parmeet, the woman was able to be at ease to open up to her and her colleague; she wonders what would’ve happened to this woman if Parmeet wasn’t available that day; would she have left the police station frustrated and ended back to her home to suffer more abuse? Rob has found being a visible East Asian officer in uniform has also helped change some Chinese community representatives thoughts “that police do not help us, that they only help white people, and can’t be trusted.” Shantee points out that her input on the Hate Crime Taskforce has been significant to help the Met’s response and support towards those within the Chinese and South East Asian community who unfortunately have been victims of hate crime following the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Angel policed the very streets she grew up on; being raised on an estate in Lambeth, she was able to show the local community that black people can exist within the blue and also educate her white colleagues and change their idea of the local communities they were there to protect. This, she believes “gave room for learning so officers could take time to engage with black communities to have a better understanding of them.” Angel says: “being [a] black representative within the police allowed [colleagues] an insight into [communities] from [different] backgrounds and environments.”
Their visibility from within has also encouraged other people of colour to join the police and progress through the organisation. Shantee was a founding member and Executive Committee member of the MPS Chinese and South East Asian Staff Association on hand to provide support to our colleagues and as a visible presence in the London community. Rob as one of the Committee members says that “the fact that the East and Southeast Asian numbers are increasing is as source of inspiration and strength.”
Being visible in uniform can also attract negative comments from communities. They can be seen as traitors and this can cause anxiety and upset. Angel has been called a ‘sell out’ “and [has had her] blackness questioned. These incidents were and are very frustrating and upsetting.” But she adds she understands why she may encounter this response from some in her community because “I once shared their experience when growing up because of the interaction I had with the police.” Both Rob and Parmeet recall times they’ve been racially abused because they are visible people of colour in uniform. Parmeet says her colleagues have told her to “ to‘grow a pair’ or have a ‘thicker skin’ and not take these abuses personally” she argues it’s hard to laugh it off and not to take it personally” because although she’s experienced racism throughout her life she should not be expected to accept it when in uniform. Internally, they’ve experienced instances of racism and homophobia. Angel said after being stopped and searched by white colleagues whilst on the job, and being given “a pathetic excuse” as to why, she realised that the colour of her skin may cause issues for some. Parmeet has found her white colleagues have been insensitive towards the cultural issues she has experienced in her personal and professional life “because they cannot relate to it as we come from different backgrounds and cultures.” Rob remembers being emotionally distressed after confronting colleagues who said gay people “not be allowed to have children.” He says “quite often I’ve had to replay these incidents over and over in my mind before being able to let them go. They can be pretty intense.”
Parmeet says she has challenged those who have racially abused her on the streets trying “to talk to people and educate them about how their mindless words affect me and others.” And internally, she’s taken the same approach to have “open and honest discussions with my colleagues on sensitive and difficult topics to encourage exchange of information, feelings and ideas to build trust and understanding [and] be accepted.” For her, despite these shortcomings, Angel says she’s “had great experiences with colleagues and made great friends within the force.” Rob agrees. For him, he believes it is the “workplace atmosphere [that] has empowered me to be confident enough to tell people” about his sexuality, his personal life – that he is in a loving same-sex relationship – challenge people on their attitudes, and be himself completely within the Job. Andy ends by saying: “In my experience so far, the Met has been a great place to learn from, yet I feel it does take all of us being able to listen with an open heart to each other’s lived experiences. At times, what people need the most is not a brilliant mind that speaks but a heart that listens.”
Written by Ubaid Rehman of the Metropolitan Police Service