Residents tackle East End "gay free zone" stickers

By Andy Dangerfield
BBC News, London

image captionStickers stating "gay free zone" have appeared around London's East End

It is no bigger than a postcard but appears to spread a message of hatred and division in an area of east London that many residents pride for its diversity.

Reprinted and glued to dozens of lampposts and railings in the area, a flyer states: "Arise and warn. Gay free zone. Verily Allah is severe in punishment."

It has been discovered near to Shoreditch's gay pubs and outside a school in Whitechapel, both in Tower Hamlets, east London.

But a group of East End residents say they have had enough.

And rather than retaliating with anger, they are responding with messages of love.

Actor Matthew Blake 27, described the "gay free zone" message on the stickers as "a bullying tactic".

"A few individuals think they have the right to tell everyone how they should and shouldn't feel, and where they are and aren't allowed to go," he said.

"It affects everyone and creates unease in the area and that's not what east London's about.

"The area is a multicultural, multi-sexuality place, where you can be who you are and believe in what you want.

"It's a shame this has sullied that."

Love messages

The latest figures from the Metropolitan Police show rising homophobic crime in the area.

There were six reported homophobic crimes in Tower Hamlets in January 2011, compared to two reported incidents in January 2010,

Across the capital, between April 2009 and March 2010, homophobic crime rose by 22.2% from the previous 12 months - from 1,093 to 1,336 incidents.

Last Friday, a group of eight friends who lived near to Shoreditch decided to take matters into their own hands.

image captionWendy Richardson (left) says they will continue taking action until the "gay free zone" stickers stop

They met at Shoreditch Town Hall and walked around the nearby area.

Wherever they found a "gay free zone" sticker, they either defaced it, replacing "gay free zone" with the word "love", or they covered it with a poster saying "help yourself to love".

The posters included tear-off quotes expressing messages of love and tolerance by writers including poet Alice Walker, director Rikki Beadle-Blair, and Anne Frank.

Actor Wendy Richardson explained the rationale behind the group's response.

"Rather than get angry with the people who did it, we decided to counter it with some love," she said.

"We're a cross section of people, of all races and sexualities - gay, straight and bisexual - saying its just not appropriate.

"But we thought - you know what? We're not going to hate you back.

"It sounds a bit wet, but takes a lot of courage.

"With all this bad news and negativity in the press, we thought it would be nice to see a sticker on the street that makes you smile."

Stickers condemned

Despite the quote on the stickers appearing to reference the religious Islamic text of the Koran, the group is keen not to point the finger of blame at any particular religious group.

image captionThe group of friends have defaced many of the stickers

"We don't want to blame any particular group for this," said Mr Blake.

"And if we did, we wouldn't want to tar everyone in a group with the same brush."

Religious groups, including the Muslim Council of Britain and the East London Mosque, have been quick to condemn the stickers.

"There is nothing in the Koran against Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) people," said Mohammed Abbasi, co-director of the Association of British Muslims.

"Allah has honoured every son and daughter of Adam, so such a hateful message is not only morally and ethically wrong but actually un-Islamic."

Meanwhile, the Reverend Alan Green, Chair of the Tower Hamlets Inter Faith Forum, said: "People of faith in Tower Hamlets are proud to be part of this diverse and vibrant borough, in which mutual respect and tolerance are vital to social harmony."

A Metropolitan Police investigation is under way to find the culprits of the "gay free zone" stickers.

Tower Hamlets said it was "appalled" by the stickers and the council's hate crime team was working with the police.

Local LGBT group Rainbow Hamlets said: "We condemn such activity and call on all communities to join forces against such extreme views."

Meanwhile, the residents' group said new stickers had appeared since last Friday and they intended to repeat their action against them this week.

"We're going to keep doing it until the stickers go," said Ms Richardson.

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