LGBT History Month: A personal reflection
As LGBT History Month comes to a close, our temporary chief constable Adrian Hanstock shares his personal experience of life as a gay man in the force and how his role as acting chief constable is likely to make him the highest ranking male, gay police officer in UK policing history.
Thirty years ago, I was a recently promoted sergeant working in a small East Midlands mining town. After one particularly gruelling late shift, the team were having a well-deserved drink in the bar above the police station (who would imagine that a bar was an essential feature of police buildings in those times) and kicking back from what had been a fairly hectic week. “Ice, Ice Baby” the recent No. 1 hit was blaring from the CD player and its repetitive bassline thankfully prevented anyone else from overhearing the question I had long-anticipated and also long-dreaded.
“Are you gay?” was the straightforward query from a slightly drunk, but bold and confident PC. “Why, are you interested?” was my equally brazen reply. He wasn’t as it happens, but that ten second conversation signalled that my five years of professional subterfuge had come to an end. I had been “outed”.
Over the next few days, I made a number of nerve-wracking calls to family and close friends to ensure that it was me who shared the ‘breaking news’ with them, and naturally was relieved when my revelation was met with universal support and comments of “Well, I always thought that might be the case”, to my surprise and mild chagrin.
The recent announcement therefore of my new role as interim Chief Constable of British Transport Police, somewhat fittingly during LGBT+ History Month, by all accounts marks the first time that an openly gay man has been accountable for leading a UK police force and has been described as a pivotal point in policing and landmark in our diversity ambitions.
But let’s rewind a little and recap for a moment on how I reached this position.
As a 19-year-old with a rather rudderless long-term career plan, and certainly an unlikely candidate for a career in policing, I managed to land a job as a civilian researcher in the Criminal Records Office of Nottinghamshire Constabulary. Thus, was my introduction to the complexity, variety and countless challenges involved in protecting the public and detecting crime. I would voraciously pore over archive crime files and study the crime scene photographs, witness statements and interviews with suspects and before too long I developed a keen enthusiasm to get more involved in such an intriguing career.
There was however a potential fatal flaw to this ambition. The police service in the 1980s wasn’t renowned for its willingness to embrace difference. In a force of around 1600 officers, female constables (known as WPCs in those days) had a separate organisational structure and once the quota of around a hundred and fifty WPCs had been reached, the force simply stopped recruiting women. Furthermore, just two women had achieved promotion success and reached the rank of inspector. Despite the many well-established multi-cultural communities in most East Midlands cities, there were even fewer black and Asian officers in the force and were mainly posted to inner-city districts to help strengthen community relations following the 1981 race riots. This focus was in response to the recommendations in the Scarman Report into the disorder, rather than as any determined effort by the force to enhance diversity as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, views on homosexuality and attitudes towards gay men in particular were hostile and suspicious. The thought of a gay man becoming a police officer was considered an inherent risk to the very integrity of policing itself. As was common practice with the military and most public bodies at that time, Positive Vetting (DV is the standard used today) was used as a means to identify and prevent gay people joining or progressing in those organisations. Homosexuality remained an absolute bar to joining the police service and vetting checks became more and more intrusive as people rose in seniority.
The rhetoric that underpinned this approach tended to argue that gay men would go to great lengths to avoid being outed and would be more vulnerable to blackmail, therefore a critical security risk. I can recall a number of depressing examples where Special Branch or Professional Standards Departments received anonymous tip offs that led to officers being restricted from public duties, had their lockers unceremoniously searched and in some cases were sacked on the grounds of engaging in “indecent or immoral behaviour likely to damage the reputation of the force”.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can fully appreciate the dispiriting climate that existed then, and which would unquestionably deter officers from challenging such inequity in a way that seems so obvious and likely today. This is hardly surprising when one prominent Chief Constable of the time proclaimed that “...homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes are swirling in a human cesspit of their own making” and thus in one sweeping statement captured wider societal opinion; a mindset that has been portrayed so compellingly in the recent Channel 4 drama “It’s A Sin”, that title alone a sobriquet for the presumed lifestyle of all gay people in the ‘80s.
I am not sure why I felt I could somehow bypass those attitudes and controls but spurred on by my thought-provoking experience in the criminal records office, I nonetheless decided to submit my application to join as a Police Constable with a vague expectation that I might actually be accepted.
Perhaps timing and operational imperative were on my side. In March 1985 the country emerged from the bitter year-long miners’ strike and police forces were rapidly recruiting. Just three weeks later, I found myself standing somewhat bewildered on a bleak, windswept parade ground wearing an ill-fitting helmet and rather uncomfortable tunic, facing an animated drill sergeant who seemed determined to prove once and for all I’d made a grave error of judgment.
Despite this ominous start, I didn’t experience any unpleasant innuendo or offensive comments as I navigated my two-year probationary period, but before too long, being in my mid-20s and with little evidence I’d be likely to get married anytime soon, the rumours and undercurrent of speculation began to circle.
One unsavoury incident did bring this home quite starkly when I was a junior detective. I returned to my office one evening to find that my desk and chair had been expertly wrapped with “Danger of Infection” crime scene tape, I imagine as a pointed reference to my perceived risk to others in an HIV-agitated but equally ill-informed society. Other than that puerile and anonymous act, I broadly escaped the type of abuse that I am aware too many others routinely suffered.
By the late ‘80s I was thoroughly immersed in my chosen career and felt I’d absolutely found my direction. I was subconsciously aware that my ‘secret’ could be exposed at any time and there was a likelihood I would be sacked, so I imagined I’d find a degree of protection if somehow, I managed to be promoted to sergeant. My naive rationale was that promotion would be a positive endorsement of my capabilities and professionalism, providing me with a defence if I was required to explain myself at some point in the future. Ironically, that plan had an unintended downside.
One afternoon I was summoned to Divisional Headquarters to see the Chief Superintendent who told me that I had indeed passed the sergeants’ exam and scored within the Top 200 places in the country. I was congratulated and told this was good news as I would automatically be a candidate for the prestigious Accelerated Promotion Course designed to move constables into senior officer roles through a fast-track programme. Sadly, the spectre of Positive Vetting loomed once again and as I was unwilling to lie during those checks, I deliberately under-performed in the selection interview to avoid any more detailed scrutiny of my private life. Records from that period note that “...PC Hanstock has enormous potential but seems reluctant to set out his ambition and future vision at this point in his career”. Perhaps this might help answer the recent comment I saw on social media asking “…what took you so long?”. I’d suggest that it comes down to confidence in the end – both in the organisation and yourself.
In the intervening years there were a number of signal events that offered a degree of confidence that policing recognised there might be some benefits to developing a more inclusive workforce, and a number of diversity ‘firsts’ paved the way for under-represented officers and staff to feel more optimistic about progressive objectives outlined in policing strategies.
Highly-publicised cases included Merseyside Assistant Chief Constable Alison Halford’s challenge of unfair and discriminatory chief officer selection practices that had frustrated her further promotion, Pauline Clare’s appointment in 1995 as the country’s first female Chief Constable (although it was somewhat painful to learn that in her inaugural interview a journalist asked what was her favourite perfume!) and Mike Fuller becoming the first black Chief Constable when he took over as the head of Kent Constabulary in 2004. And I am particularly grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside Dame Cressida Dick, the first woman Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, someone who consistently exhibits incredible gravitas and personal resilience in the face of highly publicised strategic and operational challenges.
Alongside these individual achievements, we must also acknowledge the monumental changes to national attitudes brokered by the former Lesbian and Gay Police Association (LAGPA) as well as those forces that set an important early precedent by endorsing their officers’ participation in annual Pride events, despite savage criticism and censure by the media. We remain indebted to those trailblazers that helped remove the actual and psychological barriers that implied gay people were either unsuitable for general policing, were not be trusted to undertake specialist roles and couldn’t display the qualities or values necessary to lead others.
It soon became clear that things were changing though. By the time the millennium arrived, I no longer felt threatened (in any sense of that word) and I was considerably more comfortable with who I was, so with that sense of renewed confidence I felt ready to consider more demanding roles and explore further promotion following my transfer to the Metropolitan Police Service.
Over time I held a number of increasingly challenging posts such as developing confidential intelligence with international law enforcement agencies, leading undercover and armed operations to disrupt organised crime, advising government on often-contentious stop and search policies and planning the policing arrangements for the London Olympic Games. With these opportunities came the professional experience and demonstrable successes that underpinned my successive promotion applications and set the foundations of my leadership approach over these past three decades.
So, as a gay man, is my new role to carry out the functions of Chief Constable another true first for policing? Maybe. Have my personal ambitions been met? Definitely. I am aware that I have been fortunate and privileged throughout my career; I certainly don’t think my younger self would have dared to imagine how much so. But is this an historic moment for policing? Well, hopefully not...
Historic is defined as “done; concerning history; of the past” but I have a great expectation that many more officers, from whatever background, will make their own mark on the future of policing and bring their unique perspectives to complex organisational problems and operational challenges. Building greater diversity in policing and police leadership is a continuing phenomenon for now and the future, not just a construct of the past.
“This is all very nice”, said one commentator, “...but is he any good at his job?” It’s a fair question and perhaps one that I am not fully qualified to answer, however I am indebted to those who spotted my potential and had the confidence to give me the chance to prove my professional strengths over the course of a lifetime’s career in public protection.
What is still clear however, is that there are still 73 jurisdictions in the world that criminalise private, consensual, same-sex activity and in the UK, crimes motivated by unjustifiable homophobia, encompassing all types of offences from verbal abuse and harassment, through to pre-meditated assault and even murder, are still prevalent. The victims escaping those crimes need confidence that they will be supported and protected by police officers that hold authentic values of tolerance, open-mindedness and compassion.
When I joined the police service, like every officer then and now, I swore an oath that I would act “... with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all people; and that I will, to the best of my power, cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people and property”. That pledge remains valid for every police officer I have the privilege to lead, and is no doubt augmented by their individual attributes that enhance their ability to deliver that promise.
As LGBT+ history month draws to a close, I feel it is important to take a look at the past if we are to understand how far we’ve come. In doing so we can take stock and realise that artificial barriers, as impenetrable as they might have seemed at the time, can (eventually) be pushed aside and people can work without fear of judgement or discrimination. I would certainly hope that in 2021 no one ever feels that they have to make a choice between their ambition and career, or whether to remain authentic to their personal values. And as I approach the last few months of what has been a rewarding and fascinating career, I can only hope that with effort and example I have earned a reputation as a much more inspiring and enlightened role model than perhaps some of my predecessors.
In closing, when I consider the progress and changes we’ve made since the 1980s, I wouldn’t endorse the negative tropes explored in the lyrics of “It’s A Sin” with its rather woeful narrative “…when I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame”, but would advocate the more encouraging message expressed in another Pet Shop Boys hit, “... there's a lot of opportunities if you know when to take them, if there aren't, you can make them”.
Taking this approach, you just never know where you might end up.