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"Unlocking equal rights" by Claudia Cahalane, The Guardian

31st October 2005

The murder of a young gay man on Clapham Common shocked many people.

In light of the Civil Partnership Act, which will allow gay people to marry from December, many felt that society was moving on from homophobia. But the truth is gay people are still regularly dealing with prejudice and bullying in the classroom, in the workplace, and some of the most extreme examples are in male prisons, where they can face abuse or rape and are having their health put at risk because of their sexuality.

Steve Taylor, director of campaign group Forum on Prisoner Education, says that while life has improved for gay male prisoners in the past couple of years, he still regularly speaks to men who are being treated appallingly by staff and fellow inmates.

For the past two years, Mr Taylor, who is gay himself, has been involved in trying to set up the Campaign for Gay Prisoners to promote equal treatment and help gay men in prison gain better access to condoms and gay magazines. The campaign is yet to fully get off the ground, but he says this kind of organisation is very much needed.

"Only a year ago I met a prisoner who was lying in his cell reading a copy of Gay Times when three inmates burst in and set fire to the magazine and injured him," says Mr Taylor. "He had to spend three days in hospital."

Working in prisons every day, he is certainly not short of these stories. He talks of another situation where a gay prisoner who, upon telling a guard that he had just been beaten up by six prisoners, was met with the response that he should have "kept his head down" to avoid trouble.

Rape is also a serious concern in prison. Many of these attacks involve gay men being raped by prisoners who identify as heterosexual, says Mr Taylor. One gay prisoner told him that he reported being raped to a guard who replied: "Well you are gay aren't you, so what's the problem?"

As well as the physical violence, there are a number of other examples of poor treatment of gay prisoners, such as the fact that sexually explicit gay magazine Boyz has often been barred, whereas straight men are allowed equally explicit material. Love letters which contain graphic, but legal, content have also been censored from gay prisoners, according to campaigners.

But perhaps the most serious issue is the lack of condoms available to those who are sexually active. The gay media has reported incidents where prisoners have used makeshift condoms from clingfilm, cellotape or empty crisp packets, along with shampoo or Vaseline for lubricant.

Safer sex charity the Terrence Higgins Trust, which provides sexual health services in some prisons, says access to condoms varies from one prison to the next.

Prison doctors were advised by the service in 1995 that they should supply condoms to individual inmates, "on application if in their clinical judgment there is a risk of transmission of HIV infection during sexual activity". But campaigners say that many prisoners do not have the confidence to request condoms, and are therefore putting themselves and others at risk.

"Condoms need to be freely available to all prisoners from a place where they can pick up a packet easily and discreetly," says Mr Taylor.

A spokesman for the Prison Service says early next year it plans to issue "revised guidance and instructions which aim to clarify the policy on condoms, so that it can be applied more evenly across the prison estate".

Hopes will be pinned on better access to condoms being contained in the revisions, but some guaranteed pots of gold at the other side of the rainbow for gay prisoners were announced at the end of September.

The outgoing chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, Martin Narey, has issued a statement saying that gay prisoners can now "embrace, hug and kiss their partners" at visiting time, as is the case with straight prisoners, and that prisoners, staff and visitors would not be allowed to try to prevent this.

In his statement he also dispelled gay prisoners' concerns that provisions would not be made for them under the Civil Partnership Act. Mr Narey explained that the intention is to allow inmates to attend civil partnership ceremonies outside of prisons, and he confirmed that guidance on registration is being prepared.

In the same way that a crackdown on homophobic hate crime outside of prisons may not prevent more incidents like the murder on Clapham Common, this news will not solve all the issues for gay prisoners. Maybe what it should do though is send a message to staff, inmates and visitors that gay people on the inside should be allowed the same rights as their heterosexual cellmates.

© The Guardian