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What I Learned After Moving from New York to the UK to Marry a Gypsy

It quickly became clear to me how much racial prejudice Gypsies and travelers are forced to endure in Britain.
July 24, 2015, 2:40pm

Attendees of Appleby Fair, the largest annual gathering of Gypsies and travelers in Europe. Photo by Diana Patient

Suppose I told you that I'm an American girl who married into a traditional Italian-American family. I'll make some broad generalizations to illustrate: It's a prominent, close-knit ethnic enclave with strong, traditional family values. They're essentially patriarchal but idealize motherhood, and they're tribalistic, socializing, and marrying within their own community for the most part. They're house-proud and image-conscious, at times.

I like the comparison, but I didn't marry into Italians—I married into Romany Gypsies. Somehow that deviation always seems to throw people a little bit. As a New Yorker living in England, it's an easy (and sort of facile) way of explaining the similarities to outsiders. It also conveniently highlights how open-minded people often are until the word "Gypsy" comes into the equation.

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It goes without saying that attitudes toward the estimated 300,000 Roma and Irish travelers in the UK could really do with some improvement. Public demonization on exploitative reality television and newspapers raving about "Gypsy invasions" of small villages hardly help. More pressingly, low attainment in schools and a life expectancy ten years lower than the national average all point to the fact that the lives travelers lead are still radically different from the majority of contemporary Britain. But some bristle at this, seeing travelers not as a widely-detested ethnic minority with unique housing needs, but as some sort of obnoxious anachronism—people who should just settle down and integrate like the rest of us. But anyone who's heard the old "how can you be travelers if you don't travel?" remark knows there's no winning—whether settled or transient, the disdain bleeds through.

Travelers are a protective, tight-knit group, and most elements of traditional culture are passed down through tacit understanding. It's not really something we talk about. There are pretty strong expectations placed on each gender. Within the community itself, as it goes, it's not especially difficult to be the non-traveler wife of a traveler husband; pretty much all of the troubles I've ever had have been with outsiders. I have to admit that the good first impression I made was mostly the result of a happy accident: My relatively feminine style of dress and a lack of tattoos probably got me further than I realized. Appearances are important, particularly for women.

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People get weird about it sometimes—how can I be a liberal feminist writer and be married into such a traditional culture? Do I feel strange about it? No, not really. I feel like people press the point with me in a way they might not if I were married into Catholics or the fucking Moonies, or something. In all honesty, the worst I've faced were some funny looks for wearing Doc Martens. Maybe we got some quiet disapproval when we cohabited before marriage, but I was so cheerfully ignorant that it was practically impossible to feel bad about it. Maybe I was lucky, but my in-laws are incredibly gracious.

There's so much interest in that stuff, from the outside looking in—the mysterious interior workings and customs of traveler life. There's the old nomadic cliché—the gilt-encrusted, bow-topped wagons; women with Rapunzel-like hair; old superstitions. It's bullshit, but it's what people want to hear. The more hated alternative is the cowboy builder with a new Merc and a daughter to marry off at 16, no thanks to My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the like. So it's an easy culture both to romanticize and to ridicule. Like any long-persecuted minority group, travelers are by turns detested, made fashionable, patronized, and fetishized. They're condescended to for their traditionalist worldview. Judgement usually comes from the safe perch of high-minded liberal education—a liberty not typically afforded to most travelers.

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My husband, Charles, for example, left school at a young age. He grew up in Ireland, Holland, Germany, and all over the UK, until finally settling down in the Midlands with his immediate family. Before settling, he was the "new pikey kid" at every school he went to. He quickly learned how to fend off bullying the best way he knew: with his fists. He differentiated himself later on by taking a keen interest in art cinema and developing his own skills as a filmmaker and photographer. He's gone on to festival success with various short film projects.

The thing about being a traveler, particularly for my husband, is that he's capable of "passing" in a way that members of other ethnic minorities cannot. In professional or social settings where people don't know, no one would guess that he came from a Romany background. It means that otherwise open-minded people are occasionally guilty of letting their ignorance slip out. His ethnicity is not something he ever makes a point of hiding, but the fact that it's not obvious is also undeniably and sadly useful, considering people might otherwise choose to associate him with criminality. Looking like a Gypsy means, among other things, running the risk of being regularly denied entry into shops, pubs and restaurants. It sounds like the kind of discrimination so insanely throwback that it couldn't happen any more—but it does, and routinely.

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Public opinion about travelers has been summed up as "the last bastion of acceptable racism in Britain." Certainly you hear the word "pikey" used with more casual frequency than you do other more openly disapproved-of racial epithets. So I guess the reason I talk about the fact that my husband can "pass" as a non-traveler is that, on an occasion when his ethnicity was more readily apparent, he was severely beaten for being a "pikey" by over a dozen men outside our front door. We lived in a house almost directly across the road from a small local pub, the type where old men nurse the same few pints all evening. I guess this weekend was the choice piss-up for an enormous clan of local toughs, all shaved heads and hulking walks and darty, coke-y eyes.

All I knew was that, one minute, we were inside watching—of all things—fucking Face/Off with John Travolta, and then Charles went outside for a cigarette. As he stood outside, smoking and talking on the phone, someone across the road recognized him and loudly pointed it out—seizing the rare opportunity of finding a traveler man alone and vulnerable. It's not very difficult to distinguish outsiders in small ex-pit towns; my husband and his family were well-known in the villages nearby as travelers. Everyone knew their dad, who frequented the pubs, but no one had any quarrel with Charles. Anyway, I remember thinking, He's been outside an awfully long time, and wandering out to find him. It was like stumbling onto the set of Mad Max.

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Charles was nowhere to be seen, but voices were rising angrily nearby. I stood baffled, in a tank top and tiny running shorts, while two dozen men piled out of the pub, cursing and jeering. One was jumping into the back of his pick-up truck, raving and swinging some kind of bat around. Charles was in a crumpled pile on the ground, glasses broken, head bowed. He'd been kicked up one side of the road and down it again, trying to put up a fight but being overwhelmed by the numbers of men trying to get a shot at him. He was punched against a car bonnet and fell; knowing that if he hit the ground he might well be killed, he struggled to stay upright. But he eventually succumbed, and the men continued to kick at him. He was only spared by the pub's landlady shouting about the police, prompting the men to disperse. I finally caught a glimpse of him hanging limply onto the side of the pub's doorway across the road.

He was inside when I got there, head on the table, with the landlady urging him to keep upright. He lifted his head and looked up, and the face I saw staring back at me was not his. His shirt was ripped open and stained red; his head was cut and blood coagulated down the side of his face; his eyes were black. He had kept all of his teeth, by some miracle, but one of his ears had swollen into an unrecognizable lump. The purple bruise on his temple was in the distinct, sickening outline of the sole of a work boot. One pupil of his eye was dilated and the other wasn't, suggesting some kind of serious trauma.

The author's husband after being attacked

He would spend an awful night in A+E, with nurses shuffling around him and suggesting he might have bleeding on the brain, but that he couldn't have a scan until the morning. A pushy, rude plainclothes officer arrived to ask him for a full eight-page police statement, while he laid, concussed and more or less untreated, in the busy holding room. When it finally looked as though he might get some sleep, wheeled up to a private room at about 4 AM, she returned for further statement from a heavily injured, exhausted man waiting on a CAT scan—and insisted that he get out of bed to do it. When I asked if it was necessary that she do it at that moment, she coolly pointed her finger at the door, suggesting that if I didn't like it, I could leave.

I flew into a rage and had to be gently escorted out of the room, angry-crying in the hospital corridor in my pajamas. I've never seen someone so disinterested in helping the victim of a hate crime—or treating him as a victim at all. I didn't fully realize the gravity of it at the time, and I'm glad I didn't, but the nature of what had happened became pretty clear when one of the perpetrators had picked up Charles's dropped phone in the chaos. The man dialed my sister-in-law, mistaking her for me, apparently. His words before hanging up were, "We've killed your pikey boyfriend."

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As it goes, they didn't kill my pikey boyfriend—Charles escaped with stitches, fractures, and a concussion. But I dread to think what one more well-aimed kick might have done. There have been other travelers who were less lucky. In 2013, 48-year-old traveler Barry Smith was found brutally murdered in Kilburn, Derbyshire. After a barmaid was dismissed from her job for racially abusing Smith, her family members attacked him in an apparent act of revenge. He was beaten with pool cues and his body was set on fire. His murderers were given 12, 18, and 22 years in prison, respectively, but the judge refused to accept that Smith was a victim of a hate crime. Given the racial nature of the incident, it received remarkably little attention in the national press.

Photo by Charles Newland

It's not an easy thing to talk about for a lot of traveling men. In a culture that places a lot of importance on the ability to settle arguments through fair, one-on-one fights—and on physical toughness—it's difficult to accept that you don't stand a chance against a herd of slobbering racists. Of course, bare-knuckle and amateur boxing are iron-clad, centuries-old traditions for Gypsy men, from Bartley Gorman all the way to professional heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, or middleweight fighter Billy-Joe Saunders. It's a rite of passage for many young traveling boys, an old-fashioned sport for the toughest and most aggressive of athletes.

That travelers should take to boxing shouldn't be a great surprise, given the discipline and dignity it affords fighters—even in defeat. The glamor—and the upward mobility—of boxing makes it an attractive prospect, and it's a galvanizing pastime for travelers in much the same way as it has been to the underprivileged in America. My husband and his two brothers dabbled in it as teens. Given what ended up happening to him, it may be that the training helped save his life.

The thing is, any brief triumph in organized fighting is eclipsed by the according threat of racial reprisal outside the ring. An extreme real-life case is that of German fighter Johann Trollmann. Trollmann was a Gypsy of Sinti origin, a handsome prizefighter with a "dancing" style who won the light-heavyweight championship in 1933, only to have his title stripped by the Nazis. He was eventually placed in a concentration camp and forced to fight a camp commandant, whom he defeated. In retaliation for his victory, Trollmann was beaten to death with a shovel. Trollmann was one of some half a million Roma and Sinti killed during the Holocaust, and his story isn't very commonly known—but I think it's worth asking why that is.

Given the seething bigotry travelers still face all over the country, spreading knowledge like this seems pretty important. Just ask Barry Smith, who died for having the temerity to report being racially abused. Or the high-ranking police detective who told my husband that he had "probably done something to deserve" being kicked up and down the street. I guess that's why when people wonder what it's like to be married into Gypsies, I can't just sit and regale them with stories about old-fashioned courtship rituals. There are more important things at stake.

Follow Christina Newland on Twitter.