Two sides of my life collided head-on thirty-one years ago: I was a police officer and I was gay. 

 

Staffordshire Police didn’t like me because I was gay, the gay community in Staffordshire didn’t like me because I was a police officer. What I experienced then changed me forever. It made me think. It gave me an opinion and a voice to promote it.

 

Since those events of thirty-one years ago, I have discovered that I am autistic too; I would have been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, had it still been a part of the diagnosis.

 

Interestingly, there is empirical evidence that a much higher proportion of autistic people identify as gay or bisexual than in the general population. That isn’t to say that every autistic person is gay, or that every gay person is autistic. From my own perspective, most (but not all) of the autistic people I know are gay or bisexual.

 

Labels. Why do we use them to create sectors within society at all? Does it matter that I’m gay? Does it matter that I’m autistic? It shouldn’t matter at all. We are all human beings living on a tiny blue planet. Should it matter that we are all carrying several labels which describe each of us? They define us in society. It really shouldn’t matter at all. But it does.

 

Without labels, society wouldn’t function, there would be chaos. Discrimination would go unchecked. How can you pass laws to protect people if you have no label to describe them? We need robust laws to protect people's freedom, freedom from persecution or discrimination. 

 

We have a very powerful Act of Parliament in the UK in the Equality Act 2010. This Act protects people's rights to be treated equally and fairly, and free from any discrimination. The Act contains nine Protected Characteristics of people, and protects every single person living in the UK. One of the Protected Characteristics is gender; no-one can be discriminated against because of their gender and we all have a gender.

 

 

Autism is a Protected Characteristic under the Act because Autism is officially classed as a disability, which is one of the other Protected Characteristics. I sometimes find that parents of autistic children are reluctant to get a formal diagnosis because this labels their child as being disabled. I have to point out that obtaining this diagnosis – and therefore a label – protects that child in law and opens up any support they may need to get through their education and future life and be happy and successful.

 

That’s why we need labels. Without labels no laws could be passed to protect people's rights to be treated fairly and equally, or protect them from discrimination. You cannot create a law to protect people if you don’t have a name – a label – to describe that group in society you’re trying to protect.

 

Society has changed so far from where it was thirty-one years ago when I was fighting Staffordshire Police. 

 

We seem to be a much more tolerant society towards sexuality than we were. In no small part was this due to various Acts being passed, which for example equalised the age of consent for gay people, bringing it into line with the age for ‘straight’ people. 

 

Section 28 was divisive, but was repealed. By passing and repealing these laws, it was officially made clear that gay people could not be singled out and treated differently. Society began to change. No longer could anyone send a letter to a newspaper saying that it was perfectly right that Staffordshire Police should remove one of their officers who was gay because homosexuality was an obscene abomination. No newspaper editor could or would publish a letter like that now for fear of prosecution.

 

Thirty-one years ago, I refused to be pushed out of Staffordshire Police because I was gay. I took an Oath of Attestation in court when I joined Staffordshire Police, as every police officer must do. I understood that oath to mean that every single person I dealt with as a police officer would be treated equally and fairly – without favour or affection, malice or ill-will. 

 

That was going through my mind when I was being interrogated at police headquarters about who my gay friends were and where they lived and worked. I refused to give any of that information. And I thought to myself, as I sat impassively staring at the senior officer grilling me, that ‘I am a better police officer than you are, sir’.

 

Of course, eventually I won. The Home Office forced Staffordshire Police to include sexual orientation in their equal opportunities policy. I was credited with achieving that and starting the change within the force, to becoming an inclusive organisation.

 

Labels are important, they are there to protect us. But they don’t define us, we are after all, individuals. Human beings living together on a tiny blue planet.

 

 

Article written by Steve Johnson, author of Without Favour or Affection, Malice or Ill-Will.

 

 

Without Favour or Affection, Malice or Ill-Will is available in paperback and eBook format.