The vigilante group tackling LGBTQ+ hate crime in London

The vigilante group tackling LGBTQ+ hate crime in London

Bender Defenders — With hate crimes on the rise and trust in the institutions tasked with dealing with them swiftly declining, a new street defence movement is coming out to protect queer Londoners from violence.

It’s an early evening in April, the day that London is reopening after a seemingly endless winter lockdown, and Soho is busier than it has been in months. Rows of canopied picnic benches line the pedestrianised streets, packed with groups of al fresco drinkers savouring their first freshly poured pints of the year. The hum of conversation is punctuated by the occasional jeer at the sound of smashing glass.

Casting a watchful eye over these scenes are a small group of volunteers clad in matching black bomber jackets emblazoned with rainbow-coloured logos featuring Eastenders’ gay icons, Phil Mitchell and Ash Kaur. The jackets identify the group as Bender Defenders – a vigilante crew tackling violence towards LGBTQ+ Londoners. This is their first-ever street patrol, but the Bender Defenders hope to become a familiar presence around central London’s queer nightlife hub over the coming months.

As social distancing measures are relaxed and nightlife reopens through the summer, figures for hate crimes are expected to soar as they did last year in the aftermath of the first lockdown, confirming an already alarming resurgence in hate crimes throughout the UK in recent years. In October, research conducted by the BBC revealed that the number of reported homophobic hate crimes in the UK almost trebled between 2014 and 2020.

Statistics from Stonewall paints an equally grim picture: their last major report on hate crime and discrimination from September 2017 found that 21 per cent of those surveyed had experienced a hate crime or incident due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the previous year – a 78 per cent rise since the LGBTQ+ charity’s previous report in 2013.

While hate crimes are on the rise, trust in the institutions tasked with dealing with them is on the decline. Stonewall’s 2017 report found that 81 per cent of crimes experienced by participants had not been reported to the police. Mistrust in The Metropolitan Police has only grown in recent months following the cases of Sarah Everard and Richard Okorogheye, with the heavy-handed approach to vigils and protests serving as a reminder that police protection is not a privilege guaranteed for everyone. 

It was the handling of this year’s Kill the Bill protests that led one of the Bender Defender’s newest members, Pancho, to sign up. “When I suffered a queerphobic physical attack incident, the police were empathetic,” they tell me, “but the police are an arm of the state and despite their best intentions, fail in their mission to protect people from harm. With certain officers acting in bad faith, trust in the police has been falling and is maybe at an all-time low.”

As several of the Bender Defenders point out, the government’s proposed plans to introduce plainclothes police officers in nightclubs is far from a welcome response to the uptick in violent crime. As Georgia puts it, “The last thing we want in response to increased homophobia is an increased police presence in queer spaces, particularly in those held for QTIPOC communities. Hopefully what Bender Defenders represents is a community-led response to potential violence that avoids any interaction with the state and the police, which, historically, have often failed to respond adequately to the needs of our communities.”

To make matters worse, earlier this month, the government disbanded its own LGBT advisory panel following several resignations, with one former member accusing the government of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for LGBTQ+ people. This follows months of heel-dragging on the banning of conversion therapy, inaction on reform of the Gender Recognition Act and December’s devastating verdict rescinding access to healthcare for trans teens, fuelled by rampant transphobia from both sides of the Commons.

None of this comes as a surprise to activist Dan Glass, who founded Bender Defenders last February, in response to the increase in homophobic hate crimes. “We’d had enough,” Dan explains. “Personally, I’d had a different friend attacked every night for two weeks.” Dan says that a friend of his was attacked while dressed in drag in the newsagents next to The Glory (a gay bar in Hoxton). In response, Dan and some others from the community decided to throw Queer Night Pride: a big, defiant demonstration up Kingsland Road from The Glory to Dalston Superstore and Vogue Fabrics.

“The idea for [Bender Defenders] was borne out of that,” Dan explains, “because it’s brilliant having demonstrations, but we need to have something much more integrated and decentralised.”

Hackney’s LGBTQ+ community has a history of fighting back against abuse. As another Bender Defender member, Tara, shares with me over email, the borough’s first gay self-defence course was established in Dalston in the 1980s in response to a homophobic hate crime perpetrated against its founder and martial arts expert Toni Blake. Taking inspiration from Toni’s work, as well as historic vigilante street defence programmes established by New York’s Street Trans Action Revolutionaries (STAR), the Pink Panther Patrol, ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, and the Guardian Angels citizen patrol chapters that tackled violence on public transport networks in the US in the ’80s and ’90s, Bender Defenders launched with two goals. As well as to become a physical presence around London’s LGBTQ+ nightlife hotspots, putting minds of queer partygoers at ease and being prepared to intervene should violence be threatened, the group also wants to prepare queer people to stand up for themselves via self-defence training and fitness classes delivered weekly over Zoom throughout the pandemic.

Themed around different LGBTQ+ icons from Octavia Butler and Kitty Tsui, to Divine and local Drag Race UK contestant Bimini Bon-Boulash, training sessions aim to uplift attendees. “Alongside helping people with fitness, we see the Bender Defender sessions as supporting good mental health and helping to improve people’s confidence by providing valuable life skills,” Tara explains. “Sessions are taught in a light-hearted, fun way, and the classes offer a real sense of community.” 

“We’re trying to encourage people to skill up,” adds Dan. “Now people have gone through training for de-escalation, the different self-defence techniques, full-body workouts, we feel much more equipped.”

As the group begin to roll out their patrols across Hackney, Soho, and Vauxhall, they are prepared for a situation even worse than before the pandemic. Over a year without access to community spaces has left London’s LGBTQ+ population all the more vulnerable: “The fact that we don’t have spaces where we can be protected and be ourselves within an emboldened hostile environment is really lethal,” Dan says. “Internalised and familial homophobia and transphobia, anxiety and depression are of course impacting our community because of lockdown. We’re more vulnerable because of that.”

There is also a sense among the Bender Defenders that a year of separation from different groups within local communities has created more hostility than ever. “Hate arises when people don’t understand each other and they’re not communicating with each other, and if we’ve spent the past year or so literally only communicating with our close friends and people that we know, [so] there’s probably going to be a regression of understanding between different cultures,” says another Bender Defender, Georgia. “Everyone has been stressed and suffering, it’s been a long year and people are likely to be more aggressive as a result.”

But the Bender Defenders are facing these growing threats head-on. “It’s even more reason why we need empowered, joyful, skilled up support out there,” adds Dan. “And if we have to do it ourselves, we will. Because it’s not coming from anywhere else.”

Follow Rosie Hewitson on Twitter.

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