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The Experience of Violence and Harassment of Gay Men in the City of Edinburgh - Research Findings

DescriptionThe purpose of the study was to promote a gay community perspective on community safety and to help inform the provision of services to the gay community in Edinburgh.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateMarch 03, 2000
Crime and Criminal Justice Research Findings No. 41 The Experience of Violence and Harassment of Gay Men in the City of Edinburgh

Colin Morrison and Andrew Mackay, the TASC Agency

This research findings paper presents a summary of a study on the extent and nature of violence and harassment experienced by gay men in the City of Edinburgh. The purpose of the study was to promote a gay community perspective on community safety and to help inform the provision of services to the gay community in Edinburgh. The research, which included face to face interviews with 246 gay men, was conducted between September and December 1998.

Main Findings

  • Over half (57%) of respondents had experienced some form of harassment in the last 12 months.
  • One in four (26%) respondents reported experiencing a violent incident over the same period.
  • Most violence was perpetrated by strangers and most took place near gay venues or in the street.
  • The prevalence rate of violence suffered by gay men is 4 times the national average, adjusted for age and gender.
  • Only one in three (37%) victims of violent attack reported the incident to the police.
  • Under reporting of violence and harassment stems from gay men's negative perceptions of the responses of agencies such as the police.
  • Relationships between the police and the gay community in Edinburgh have improved in recent years but there is a perceived need for better reporting and recording systems to encourage more gay men to report violence and harassment.
  • Violent victimisation, harassment and discrimination are endemic to the lives of most gay men.
  • The workplace is a setting for a significant amount of victimisation for gay men yet many employers have failed to recognise gay men as a vulnerable group.
  • Almost one third of violent incidents or harassment reported by gay men occurred in or near their home.
  • Within the City of Edinburgh Council there is little understanding of the needs of the gay community, their use of services or of gaps in service provision.
  • The summary effect of a lifetime of violence and harassment is the exclusion of members of the gay community from many of the services and structures available to other groups in society.


In September 1998 the then Scottish Office Home Department commissioned the T.A.S.C. Agency to carry out research into the extent and nature of violence and harassment experienced by gay men in Edinburgh.

The main aim of the study was to inform the development of appropriate community safety strategies for the gay community.

The researchers used both quantitative and qualitative methods to collect information from members of the gay community and from a wide range of agencies with an interest in community safety.

Face to face interviews were held with 246 gay men with a further 54 responding through self-completion questionnaires. Interviews were also conducted with a wide range of service providers in the public and voluntary sectors. Questionnaires were used to gather information from employers and social housing providers on their policies in relation to equal opportunities, violence and harassment. Information was sought as to how these policies addressed the experiences and needs of gay men.

Theoretical perspective

The hypothesis which underlies this study is that the discrimination, harassment and violence against gay men which permeates our society is rooted in an ideology which upholds heterosexual relationships as the norm and stigmatises homosexuality. This ideology, which has been described as 'heterosexism', offers a more sophisticated and complex explanation of anti-gay hatred than the term 'homophobia' which implies a clinical explanation based on fear of homosexuals or homosexuality.

Heterosexism manifests itself in two main ways: 'cultural' heterosexism is disseminated through society's principal social and cultural institutions such as the religious, legal and education systems, and 'psychological' heterosexism is expressed through the attitudes and actions of individuals. While the two perspectives are mutually reinforcing, it is cultural heterosexism that provides the underlying conditions which justify the routine victimisation of gay people.

Although there is a clear role for interventions which focus on the victimisation of gay people as individuals, this perspective holds that it is only through changes at an institutional level that the underlying causes of anti-gay violence can be effectively addressed.

Survey of gay men

Comparison of the demographic profile of the survey sample with the wider population showed that respondents:

  • were younger than the Scottish male population - 65% were aged up to 34 years compared to 37% of the general male population and only 9% of the sample were aged 45+ compared to 42% of Scottish males
  • enjoyed similar levels of economic activity to that of males in Edinburgh more generally
  • had an income distribution close to the City average for males
  • were less likely to be owner-occupiers (50% compared to 69% of Edinburgh householders) but much more likely to be in private rented accommodation (34% compared to 9%)

Experience of discrimination

66% of respondents said they had experienced some form of discrimination due to their sexual orientation at some time in their lives. The most common forms of discrimination reported were being bullied at school (43%) or at work (19%).

Hiding one's sexuality is one way of avoiding discrimination or harassment. While a large majority of gay men in the survey were open about their sexual orientation with friends (75% completely open and 21% partly open), fewer were open with family (60% completely open and 24% partly open) or work colleagues (52% completely open and 29% partly open).

Many gay men also avoid certain behaviours in public for fear of violence or harassment. 40% always avoided showing physical affection in public while 16% took trouble not to 'appear' gay and 10% avoided using public transport at night.

Experience of harassment

More than half (57%) of survey respondents reported being the victim of some form of harassment in the last year with 40% experiencing verbal insults and 20% experiencing threats. Almost a fifth (18%) reported being followed on foot while 13% said they had been followed by a car. 9% of respondents had suffered abusive telephone calls related to their sexuality and 3% reported having had offensive graffiti written about them.

Relationship with perpetrator

The majority of incidents of harassment were perpetrated by people unknown to the victim (60%) with a further 9% carried out by people only known to the victim by sight.

Reasons perpetrators 'knew' victim was gay

The key reasons why individuals were 'selected' for harassment appear to be associated with the area in which the incident occurred. Nearly half (47%) of respondents were harassed near, or when leaving, a gay venue, 19% were in or near a cruising area and 18% were harassed in a gay venue. Almost a quarter (24%) thought they had been harassed because they 'looked gay'.

More than three quarters of respondents (77%) reported that the most upsetting incident of harassment they had experienced in the last 12 months was anti-gay motivated.

Experience of violence

The 1996 Scottish Crime Survey (SCS) found that only 3% of male respondents reported being the victim of violent crime in the previous year. This compares to 18% of gay men in the Edinburgh survey who reported being the victim of a violent incident in the prior 12 month period. This figure increases to 26% if attempted physical assault is included.

While the Edinburgh sample contained a greater proportion of young men than the SCS, controlling for the different age profile only reduces the prevalence rate to 12% (excluding attempted assaults) - 4 times the rate of violent victimisation experienced by heterosexual males.

Types of violence experienced

8% of gay men in the survey reported being the victim of a physical assault in the street in the last year, 4% were physically assaulted in an entertainment venue, 4% in their own or someone else's home and 3% in a park or open space.

5% of respondents said they had had something thrown at them, 3% said they had been raped or sexually assaulted and 3% had been spat on.

Physical force experienced by victim

The most common type of physical force experienced by the victim was being grabbed or pushed (48%) followed by being punched or slapped (43%), kicked (27%, having something thrown at them (12%) and being stabbed or cut (7%).

Younger respondents (16-24) were twice as likely to have experienced violence as older respondents (45+) but older victims were more likely to have experienced serious physical force.

On average, there were 3 perpetrators per violent incident with males comprising 93% of perpetrators.

Time and place of violent incidents

Not surprisingly, the great majority of violent incidents against gay men took place in the evening or early hours of the morning (93%). Over half of these incidents took place in the street (52%) with a further 13% occurring in a park or open space. Nearly a fifth (17%) occurred in an entertainment venue, 8% took place at home and 3% were reported to have occurred at work.

Relationship with perpetrator

As with harassment, stranger violence accounted for the majority of violent attacks on gay men with 61% of respondents reporting that they had never seen their assailant before while 12% knew them only by name and 8% recognised the perpetrator but didn't actually know them. One in ten violent incidents were carried out by a partner, friend or relative.

Reasons perpetrators 'knew' victim was gay

As was the case for harassment, violent incidents took place predominately as the victim was leaving or was near a gay venue (41%), actually in a gay venue (19%) or in or near a cruising area (19%). 22% of victims believed that they were attacked because they 'looked gay' while 15% thought that the incident occurred because they were with other gay people.

The Police

Historically, the relationship between the police and gay men has been defined by police responses to public sex activity, by the views of some police officers that gay men, by dint of their sexual behaviour, are criminal and by the reluctance of gay men to report violence and harassment to the police.

Recently, however, there have been improvements in police - gay community relationships in the City of Edinburgh. This has stemmed in part from changing police practices towards public sex environments and in part from closer liaison between the police and the gay community.

It has also been recognised that the police require effective reporting and recording systems to monitor hate motivated crimes. To this end the police, together with gay community organisations, have taken steps to encourage greater reporting of violence and harassment against members of the gay community.

While the police have taken the lead in pushing forward discussion of gay community safety issues in Edinburgh, this work is mainly restricted to the police sub-division, based at Gayfield Square, with the most visible gay presence. An effective and inclusive police and gay community partnership requires that this relationship should be Force-wide and incorporated into appropriate strategy documents and action plans.

Outwith the Lothian & Borders Police Area, progress on gay community safety has been slow. While the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) recognise the positive nature of the work being done in Edinburgh they have not yet adopted Service-wide guidelines for the policing of gay communities.

The Local Authority

Despite a long history of promoting equal opportunities, and the goodwill of individual officials within the City of Edinburgh Council, little has been achieved in terms of building meaningful links with the City's gay community. Council departments lack understanding of gay men's use of existing services and have not consulted with gay men over gaps in service provision.

Council employees would benefit from training and support in relation to their interaction with the gay community, particularly in relation to contact with gay men experiencing violence and harassment.

The Council should consider how its Equality Strategy could be delivered in relation to gay men and utilise existing consultative structures and Community Planning approaches to engage meaningfully with the gay community. The political will, together with a willingness on the part of council officers to recognise gay community needs, are necessary prerequisites for improved relationships and progress on gay community safety.

To maximise the potential of the Council's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community Safety Forum - the first of its kind in Scotland - the Forum should ensure it develops a model of practice which is better equipped to engage with the gay community, influence mainstream service provision and build effective strategic responses to community safety issues.

The workplace

This research suggests that the workplace remains a significant setting for much of the violence, harassment and discrimination experienced by gay men. Whilst most large employers have equal opportunities policies in place there is little recognition of gay men as a vulnerable group. The reluctance of gay men to report violence and harassment through existing workplace structures leads employers to believe that there is no problem to be addressed. A growing number of trades unions are, however, addressing LGBT rights in the workplace and these unions recognise that safety from violence and harassment is fundamental to the struggle for equality.

Housing Associations

As almost a third of all incidents of violence and harassment reported by gay men took place in or near their homes, the link between safety and housing is clear.

While providers of social housing explicitly recognise equalities issues such as how members of black and ethnic communities access housing and the relationship between poverty and housing, few have specifically considered the needs of gay men in terms of personal and community safety. Potentially, however, reactive and preventative strategies designed to tackle racially motivated violence and harassment could be adapted to protect gay men. Social housing providers should pay particular attention to how recent legislation such as the Protection from Harassment Act and applicable sections of the Crime and Disorder Act can be used to protect gay tenants.

Gay community based agencies

Gay community based agencies report that anxiety about, and experiences of, violence and harassment restricts the participation of gay men in the life of their own community. Gay community groups place particular emphasis on the needs of young gay men and on improving local authority service provision to the gay community.

There was also a clear desire on the part of community groups to work in partnership with the police to enhance the recent improvements in police - gay community relations. It was considered that this process would be made easier with the removal of all legal distinctions between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

Central Government

Central Government is seen as having an important role to play in instigating discussion and policy development on gay community safety to ensure that gay men, no matter where they live in Scotland, are served by police, local authorities, housing providers and employers who share both an understanding of gay men's experience of violence and harassment and a commitment to act on it.

At such a significant time in the governance of Scotland, Central Government can play a pivotal role in encouraging new initiatives based on new understandings and the concept of partnership.


The full report lists the detailed recommendations to service providers which have emerged from this study in relation to improving the safety of gay men. These recommendations can be broadly grouped into: policy and strategy issues; provision of information and awareness raising; provision of training; development of inter-agency working; liaison with the gay community; general service development and monitoring and quality issues.


This study has found that gay men living in Edinburgh experience high levels of discrimination, harassment and violence as a result of their sexuality. In terms of lifetime experiences, discrimination and bullying in educational settings and in the workplace is far from unusual for gay men. A majority of respondents reported experiencing harassment over the last 12 months, much of it believed to be caused by heterosexism. Homosexual men were also 4 times as likely as heterosexual men to suffer a violent attack.

The study has also led us to the conclusion that service providers and Central Government should address broader issues of prejudice and discrimination and engage with the gay community to tackle the exclusion of gay men from existing structures and services. It is only when gay men, both as individuals and as a community, feel able to share experiences and participate in the development of reactive and preventative strategies to tackle violence and harassment that real and lasting change will be brought about.

This Research Findings was prepared by Denis Oag of the Scottish Executive Central Research Unit. It is based on research carried out by Colin Morrison and Andrew Mackay of the TASC Agency. If you wish further copies of this Research Findings or have any enquiries about the work of CRU, please contact us at:

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