London gang culture is pretty macho and misogynistic but obviously underneath the bullshit, gang members are probably just as likely as anybody else to be gay. Not that they would admit it, because if they did, they’d probably get beaten up. That’s what a young gay London gang member told me when I got him to agree to speak to me – after I convinced him that I wasn’t writing for the Daily Mail, which he believes hates black people, and that I wasn’t a member of another gang on a sting operation.
We were introduced by my friend Mike, who is a social worker. He spends his days talking to people who feel trapped by gang culture and put me in touch with someone we’ll call “Ty”. Ty has been a member of one of South London's biggest gangs for over five years and, as I said, is gay.
We met in a central London café. After wolfing down his burger, Ty tells me he joined the gang while at school. “Most of 'em lived on my estate, so it was impossible not to talk to them. My mum always told me not to deal with those boys because they were trouble but typically I didn't want to listen. To be honest, I really wanted to hang out with them and when you're like 13, 14, of course you're going to look up to them.”
It was during his early years in the gang that he had his first sexual experience, this time with a woman. “We went to this party, and this girl – who's way, way older than me, just takes me into a bedroom and well, you know what happens next,” he says. Ty was about 13 at the time, though he looked much older, probably because he’s tall and pretty stacked.
But while Ty got props from the rest of the gang for scoring, he tells me that, “It just felt really weird. I didn't enjoy it much, but I thought that was normal with the first time. But even when I think about it now, it makes me feel sick.”
Ty had questioned his sexuality for a while because he didn’t fancy girls in school or the girls who hung out with the gang. He kept it to himself though, learning to join in with the chauvinist banter by copying lyrics he picked up from grime. At parties, he would deliberately get hammered and try to have sex with as many girls as he could. It was a good way to stay under the radar of suspicion, he says, and stopped other members asking questions.
Sadly, the depressing charade of chasing women he had no genuine interest in wasn’t the worst thing he had to do to maintain his straight façade. “The higher-up members used to really hate gays,” he says. “It was a common insult they’d use against other gang members, or people they really hated. That might be because they had religious backgrounds like me, but I remember times we used to go out at night, they'd say things like, 'Let's murk those battymen,' or that they'd kill their kids if they turned out to be 'bumlickers'. What's worse is that I joined in – I had to join in. There wasn't really a choice [not to], otherwise you'd be seen as insulting higher-up gang members, which could leave you with a broken rib.”
Things got really tense as he told me about a gay couple he helped beat up last year. The gang saw them walking along the streets, holding hands and “looking like homos”. “I was told to help the gang beat them up and nick their stuff,” he said. Ty told me how the gang shouted “fucking homo cunts” as they laid into the couple. Through teary eyes, Ty tells me how ashamed he was, so much so that he couldn't look at himself in the mirror for over a week. “If I saw them again, I'd want to apologise – I did it because I was scared, probably because that could have happened to me. It could still happen to me."
He discovered his true sexuality after a chance meeting with a school friend when he was 16. “We were close friends, played football and PlayStation all the time, and one day I bumped into him on the bus. We started jamming quite a lot during the day, when the gang wasn't really active.
"It was one day when we were playing basketball, and things were pretty heated, that we kissed. It was awkward at first, of course, but eventually it led to other things – for a few months we were seeing each other secretly, not just because of the gang, but because our parents were really, really Christian. For me, if it wasn't the gang that would bust me up, it'd probably be my mum."
The relationship lasted a few months. By the time it ended, Ty knew he was gay. He wasn't ashamed about it, he tells me, but he was scared about this gang finding out. I ask him how common homosexuality is in London's gangs. Though Ty has been remarkably open about his feelings, he admits that it's difficult to tell. “Even if there are more gay people in gang culture, it's drowned out by all the talk of 'bitches, money, drugs and so on'. Whether it's in chat, or in the music they make, it's a sign that basically warns people not to be gay otherwise there'll be trouble.”
He does say that it's probably more common than the culture would suggest. “I can't be the only one. There are probably more who are gay, bisexual or curious, but of course no one’s going to mention anything,” he says. “If someone did come out – or someone high up in the gang came out as gay – I wouldn't be surprised if it started a riot or some shit.”
Ty is still in a gang, but he's working at a youth centre trying to develop the skills needed to start a business. For him, it's “impossible” to leave, especially while he's living in the estate surrounded by fellow members. He tells me, “If I left now, they'd come for me, that's for sure. It's why so many young people can't leave either – older members just won't let them, and threaten to beat them shitless if they think about doing it.”
Life sounds pretty shitty for London's gay gang members.