His killers roam free, but his death led to the formation of OutRage!
By Stuart Hobday
London, UK – 30 April 2020
The Independent: https://bit.ly/2KLVJhp
The kicking to death of Boothe 30 years ago provoked anger in the LGBT+ community, led to the formation of the queer rights direct action group OutRage! and forced a massive overhaul of police policy
Michael Boothe was murdered thirty years ago this week. He was kicked to death by a group of six young men around midnight on April 30th 1990 at the entrance to Elthorne Park in Hanwell in West London. I have an unusual connection with this horrific crime in that I was a witness. I was the only person who walked past the waiting group before Michael Boothe came along and was assaulted. Returning from work in Central London I was nearly home when I crossed the road to avoid them and to my eternal regret I avoided looking closely into their faces, as afterwards, I was not able to give a detailed description to the police and to this day the brutal killing of Michael Boothe remains an unsolved crime.
It was though, a significant event in the history of gay men in London with a great knock on effect to LGBT people in the UK as a whole. Michael Boothe was a gay man who on that night had been seemingly targeted as the toilets in Elthorne Park had been a known night time meeting place for gay men.
His murder was the trigger for the forming of OutRage! – a campaigning group that got organised to take peaceful direct action and become vocal against violence towards gay people. In particular to challenge the policing of places that gay men would ‘cruise’ to find sex and to try and change the police attitude from arresting gay men to arresting the perpetrators of violence towards them.
Formed by a thirty strong group of LGBT people ten days after Boothe’s murder on May 10th 1990 with leaders including Simon Watney and Peter Tatchell, OutRage! was fuelled by anger about a series of murders perpetrated on London gay men and the perception that the police were not doing enough to prevent this violence or solve these crimes. Outrage! would last as an active organisation for 21 years and grew into a group that was ready to vocally and visibly challenge homophobia in British society. Its advent is regarded as a turning point for LGBT activism in Britain.
As for myself, as a witness to this murder at the time, I had several interviews with the police and took part in a reconstruction. I remembered seeing the group of men gathered around a car as I walked up from Boston Manor tube station, returning from my job managing the London Planetarium where I’d been working on an evening function. I was able to say they were white, smart and youthful, one of them was draped on the bonnet of the car. They were visibly and audibly threatening and I was nervous as I walked past them on the other side of the road, aware that a couple of them were looking at me. I was conscious of not looking at them and sped up my walking turning into my shared house and on arrival suddenly feeling wide awake with my heart racing.
Michael Boothe had been having dinner with friends in Hanwell and walked up from the other direction and it is assumed he was looking for a sexual liaison in the park toilets. It seems as if the violence was short and sharp. He was pushed to the ground and kicked relentlessly for several minutes. At the subsequent reconstruction I met a young couple who discovered him and said he was barely alive whilst they called an ambulance. Michael Boothe was able to tell police that he had been set upon by a gang of 6 white men but he died of his severe injuries soon after arrival in hospital. The police issued a statement saying Boothe had been the victim of “an extraordinarily severe beating, of a merciless and savage nature”.
A couple of days after the murder there were police signs and an appeal for witnesses. I had no idea that a murder had taken place but I had remembered seeing that threatening group and I came forward. They quickly took a statement and soon afterwards the main detective visited me at home to interview me. We were both frustrated at my inability to give a more detailed description. I was wracking my brain looking for details of any of the perpetrators but it had been dark and I had deliberately not hung around and looked at them. It transpired that I was the only witness to have seen the gang. A group of young men, who had been seen causing a nuisance in the area on the night, were arrested and questioned in relation to Boothe’s killing after being heard shouting homophobic abuse but there was no evidence of a real connection and they were released without charge.
At the time, as a young guy with little knowledge of the context, it seemed to me that the police were doing what they could and I was surprised when I noticed the organised demonstrations of OutRage! began at the site of the murder and were reported in the local papers. The fact that Michael Boothe’s murder occurred in a known gay haunt was significant. Peter Tatchell and his comrades were drawing attention to the fact that police were arresting gay men for hanging around known sites rather than arresting those that were killing men arriving at the sites. The slogan was “Protection, nor Persecution!” and “Policing without Prejudice”. Boothe’s murder had come soon after several other gay targeted murders as well as the arresting of gay men for meeting at the toilets in Elthorne Park.
I learned that Michael Boothe himself had been an actor for many years, probably what you would call a ‘jobbing’ actor, who lived alone in West London. He was well known in the London theatre scene, was a panto regular, as well as occasional TV appearances including The Two Ronnies and the Les Dawson TV show. Some years earlier as a young actor he had been a leading light in the ‘Save the Theatres’ campaign of 1973 with his friends Derek Nimmo and Sheila Hancock which did much to save some west end theatres that were under threat. He was 48 years old when he met his fate that night in April 1990.
I interviewed Peter Tatchell for this article and he confirmed that the events of 1990 were a real turning point. I asked him what was different about OutRage!:
“We modelled ourselves on the US black civil rights movement – and we got results. After the police refused to negotiate an end to their neglect and victimisation of LGBT people, OutRage! began invading police stations, disrupting police sting operations and interrupting police press conferences. Very quickly, the police began to investigate homophobic murders more seriously and cut back their anti-gay witch-hunts. Clear up rates for gay murders improved. Within three years, the number of men arrested for consensual same-sex behaviour fell by two-thirds, the biggest, fastest fall ever recorded. Direct action worked where lobbying had failed.”
The murder of Boothe, encouraged by the OutRage! campaigns, led to two significant Reviews. In 1997 the new Labour government with David Blunkett as Home Secretary commissioned a report that would become known as ‘Setting The Boundaries’ that reported in April 2000 and would lead directly to a new Sexual Offences Act in 2003. This act was revolutionary for gay people in Britain putting into law the guiding principle of the report that:
“Criminal law should not treat people differently on the basis of their sexual orientation. Consensual sexual activity between adults in private that causes no harm to themselves or others should not be criminal.”
As the act was being passed the former editor of the Gay Times Colin Richardson wrote in The Guardian:
“This is truly revolutionary. If this becomes law, gay men will cease to be sex criminals, given dispensation to realise their desires in limited circumstances, and will become instead equal citizens who enjoy the protection of the law…that we have got here at all is remarkable…what really made a difference was Michael Boothe’s murder, and the spontaneous protest which followed. When British gay people took to the streets in Outrage, it was a defining moment.”
It’s a tragedy that it takes the brutal murder of a decent, harmless 48 year old man to bring about change but Richardson concluded:
“The death of the actor Michael Boothe was one of those events which, in its own small way, changed things forever.”
The 2007 Metropolitan Police Review was led initially by an LBGT ‘Advisory Group’ that looked into how the police had responded to 10 London murders of gay men between 1990 and 2002 beginning with the murder of Boothe and including the serial killer Colin Ireland who murdered 5 men in 1993. It concluded that police procedures and attitudes may have hindered the apprehension of criminals targeting the LGBT community. Homophobic language used by the police in the investigations was cited in the reviews. Of the Michael Boothe case the ‘Murder Review’ said:
“During the investigation, the police understood that there were unreported attacks in the area and appealed for witnesses. Detective Inspector Woodman stated that the police were ‘not here to judge their way of living but to solve a murder’ (Ealing & Acton Gazette, 4 May 1990). However, this neutral non-judgmental stance was not consistently maintained. After calls for police liaison officers, awareness training and resources to combat anti-gay violence, Chief Superintendent Shoemake responded by saying:
“A person born with any sort of colour doesn’t have a choice in the matter. I would suggest that sexual preferences, however, are a matter of individual choice.”
He further claimed that although some homosexuals behaved responsibly:
“…the problem comes with the other type of homosexual who often leads a double lifestyle, often using false identities, actually frequenting pubs, clubs and public toilets, has casual pick ups for the purposes of sex and of course doesn’t wish to be exposed.” (Pink Paper, 21 July 1990).
This attitude was a historical remnant of the police treatment of gay men as criminals. Not only was this incorrect stereotyping, it was also counter-productive to the witness appeals.”
The review also drew attention to a lack of previous police action in response to attacks on gay men in Elthorne Park; to the lack of trust in the police to encourage gay men to come forward as witnesses; to poor support from local politicians and anti-LGBT remarks made by them; and finally to poor record keeping that meant that they, as a reviewing body did not have access to details of the investigation.
I personally didn’t experience any negative attitudes towards gay people by the police in their investigation and the main detective Richard Woodman was a young guy who seemed desperate to solve the case. However it’s not hard to think that in 1990 the police would have had a straight, macho, atmosphere that would not have been completely sympathetic to crimes against gay people. The Metropolitan Police LGBT Association was formed in September 1990 by gay police men and women spurred on by the campaign of OutRage!
After the ‘Murder Review’ by the LGBT Advisory Group in 2007 the Metropolitan Police Service produced their own follow up report, also prompted by ongoing killings that had occurred after the time looked at by the Murder Review particularly those of David Morley and Jody Dobrowski in 2005. The follow up report stressed the importance of an ongoing consultative approach with the London gay community and specifically was representative of a gradual shift away from seeing gay ‘cruising’ as a crime, as was originally demanded of OutRage!, with a need to focus on the perpetrators of violence. It took 17 years but the 2007 review was a strong vindication of the original OutRage! campaign following the murder of Michael Boothe and confirmed to me by Peter Tatchell:
“The 2007 independent review into the way the police handled the murder of LGBT+ people confirmed what OutRage! had long claimed: that police investigations were hampered by lack of LGBT+ awareness, baseless stereotypes, personal prejudices and poor liaison with the LGBT+ community, and that this amounted to institutional homophobia.”
However violence against, and killing of, gay men by straight men, has continued and been a fairly regularly arising crime. Most recently in 2016 Stephen Port was found guilty of the raping and killing of four men in the Barking area of East London, reminiscent of Colin Ireland 20 years previously, in what became known as the ‘Grindr Murderer’ in that Port lured his victims using the online dating site. In March 2017 a BBC documentary accused the police of a ‘catalogue of basic errors’ and reported that they had been very slow to link the four murders insisting for some time that they were not connected despite obvious similarities. After the documentary aired Stephen Daisley reflected in The Spectator that the issue of poor police investigations into the murder of gay men was not a new issue:
“Like most gay men today, I thought the police had moved on from the bad old days. They had been retrained; old attitudes had died out; lesbian and gay police groups flourished…What fools we have been. We got our gay marriages and gay Tories and thought that was it. We’d won. Pride was now just a fun day out, with maybe the occasional heckle over the blood ban. The Stephen Port murders, and the indifference of Barking and Dagenham police, suggest we may have been fooling ourselves.
After so much progress, it feels like nothing has changed. We’re back to Michael Boothe…. It was hard to watch Thursday night’s programme and not conclude that there’s still one way to get away with murder in this country, or get away with it for longer: Kill a gay.”
Progress has been made and it’s through the determination of people like Peter Tatchell, who I have a deep admiration for, to speak out about these issues when they arise. He reflected to me:
“Boothe’s murder was a turning point….Police responses to anti-LGBT+ violence are much better today than in 1990. But there are still periodic failings…Some of Stephen Port’s victims might still be alive if the police had followed the recommendations proposed by OutRage! thirty years ago.”
Institutional progress has been made but there is no room for complacency. There is still religious opposition to the existence of gay people, there are still countries where it is illegal to be gay, there are still parts of Britain where gay people are shunned and Stonewall recently reported that 20% of UK LGBT people experienced a hate crime in the last year many of which go unreported.
From a personal point of view, on reflection, my connection to this event probably affected me more than I realise. I’ve always retained a suspicion of male gangs and hate the glamourising of gang violence. I was lucky to become a Manager of Arts Centres and I have always tried to support local LGBT groups and facilitate expression of the issues in this area. I recently moved back to London and revisited the site of the event in Hanwell. There is nothing there to remember Michael Boothe and the toilets have been knocked down and not replaced. Boothe’s murder could have had the same impact for gay people that the similar murder of Stephen Lawrence, three years later, had for black communities but in comparison, it has been forgotten. London is now home to a much larger LGBT community and the best commemoration of Michael Boothe’s death and the work of OutRage! is the modern acceptance of living openly as a gay person.
Writing this under the cloud of the Coronavirus is a reminder that life is simultaneously amazing but fragile. A sudden growth in death makes us appreciate the basics of life, our family, friends, the character and potential of every individual. Michael Boothe had half his life in front of him. Do we do enough to say to young people that the deliberate taking of life is a basic moral wrong? Should we be more explicit is saying to young straight males that the killing of people because of their sexual and love preferences is an act of evil? It’s one of the haunting aspects of the murder of Michael Boothe that the six men who carried out this brutal vicious evil crime are still out there 30 years later. How do they live with that crime on their conscience? If any of those six men that I walked past thirty years ago is reading this – it’s not too late to come forward.
- Stuart Hobday is the author of ‘Encounters with Harriet Martineau’ and the Creative Director of The Exchange Arts Centre in Twickenham.