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Bernard McEldowney

Bernard McEldowney b. c. 1958

Bernard, born 1958, said he was aware of experiencing same-sex interest in his teens but “Growing up in Catholic Ireland we didn’t know much about gays so I didn’t understand what it was.” Bernard arrived in Birmingham in 1982, but did not pursue any homosexual relationships. Instead he tried heterosexual relationships but realised it wasn’t working for him.

Working for the police in the late 80s, Bernard said “I then got very friendly with, and came out to a male colleague privately and indicated that I was interested in him but got rebuffed fairly quickly. My reaction to being rebuffed and losing his friendship was quite profound. That made me realise that I probably was gay.” This was when Bernard was about 30.

Because being gay in the Police force wasn’t really acceptable, Bernard initially met the Friend group in a pub in Holloway Head. “It was run by these older gay guys, the idea was to introduce you to the gay scene, almost to get you conditioned, and then slowly I plucked up the courage to walk into a gay pub in Birmingham, but I still didn’t feel comfortable. So what I did was go away for weekends in other cities - Blackpool, Brighton and Manchester.  I felt more and more comfortable doing this so I was then able to start going onto the Birmingham gay scene – a sort of conditioning process. But I was still afraid of being seen going in or out of gay bars by police members from patrol cars. I knew that would be a problem.” 

Bernard explained his ‘outing’ in the police. “I probably indirectly came out in the early 90s in the job. I was working with the CID at West Bromwich police station. There was some guy aged 21 in hospital having tried to commit suicide, apparently when he was 14 he’d been abused by some man. I got involved, not because I was gay, I was just duty CID, and we ended up arresting a suspect, charging him with two offences, and eventually he went to court and was sent to prison. While this guy was on bail I bumped into him a few times in Gavans (gay club) in Wolverhampton. One day I was called in by my Detective Inspector and told that there had been a complaint, a very sensitive one, against me, by this man. ‘He’s claiming that you’re harassing him but it’s very subtle harassment, he says you just keep popping up in these gay bars where he was’. So I said to the Inspector that there had been a misunderstanding and that I just go to these gay pubs and clubs anyway, I didn’t actually say I was gay. Attending gay bars now means that you are not necessarily gay – but back then the impression would have been that you were gay if you attended bars back in the eighties and nineties. The word would have gone round the force that here was this guy who had more or less said he was gay, going to gay bars, so that indirectly was my first outing rather than my coming out. I’d come out to one or two friends, privately, but this was an indirect outing which cascaded around the force, this was in 1992.”

After having been ‘outed’ in the police force, Bernard said “Subsequently I had difficulty working with the Detective Inspector - I was a sergeant then and up to then I had a good relationship with the DI and the detective sergeant, but subsequently there was lots of negativity, lots of fault finding, every mistake you made was blown up out of all proportion, and I always felt at the time there was a bit of homophobia. There was difficulty and I didn’t get a good write up at the end of that attachment despite the fact that I worked bloody hard. I can’t disconnect their prejudice, and I was pretty convinced that they weren’t comfortable – there was a drinking culture in the CID, the conversation always got round to queers and poofs, they seemed to be obsessed – there was obviously a dislike or an unnecessary interest in the subject.”

Bernard then talked about the formation of the Lesbian and Gay Police Association which was formed in 1990. Bernard said “I heard about it in 91 / 92 and joined as a member. I became the force coordinator, not because I was the best candidate but because no other b*gger would do it!

Bernard explained how he came to ‘come out’ on Crime Stalker in 1996. “Back in 1996 the programme Taggart introduced a gay character; this was the first time an openly gay policeman was on TV. In the Central Region there was this programme called Crime Stalker which was a bit of an imitation of Crime Watch, and they decided that they wanted to do a programme which was loosely around gay police officers and also the relationship between the gay community and the police service. They contacted the Lesbian and Gay Police Association and asked if there was anyone in the West Midlands who would get involved. The enquiry was passed on to me and I contacted a few people but we couldn’t get any women to take part even though there were lots in the force; one Police sergeant did, covertly. So I said I would take part. They did offer anonymity but I refused – I didn’t want to be anonymous, I’m not ashamed of it, so I said that if I did the programme it would be my coming out. They promoted the programme as ‘tonight, on there will be a gay police officer coming out on national television.” It got a lot of national media coverage as this was the first time in the country that someone had come out on television.”

Bernard talks about the reaction of the police force to his coming out on the TV programme Crime Stalker. “At the time I was working at Sparkhill Police Station as an officer, and I told them I was taking part in a Crime Stalker programme and told people to watch it that night. Colleague wise, peer wise, there were no issues at all, if anyone had a problem, no one said anything to me.”

“My biggest disappointment was that I had never felt that senior officers were taking much interest in gay issues despite the fact that I was co-opted onto an internal diversity forum. I just felt the force was paying lip-service, I hoped that the programme would be a catalyst for change and I would be involved in other things in the organisation and that this would be the start of a new journey. But subsequently nothing happened, it appears that the attitude from hierarchy was they had addressed the ‘gay thing’ so no there was no need for follow up support. So there was disappointment; I was concerned that no-one thought of health and safety issues; I was a sergeant working in an inner city area in Birmingham and I was walking the streets, days after the programme, and normally you’d think, ‘here’s someone, he’s just come out on television and he’s potentially at risk on the streets. No-one ever discussed with me any concerns I might have about the implications, will I be attacked, will there be abuse? There were no physical attacks but there was abuse, and it was almost like, ‘you’ve made your bed now lie in it.’ So colleagues were OK, senior officers disappointing, and there was a reaction on the streets, the yobs did come up to me, they were yobbish, calling me a queer bastard. My response was ‘I’ll accept the queer but don’t go calling me a bastard!’ Their purpose of using ‘queer’ was that ‘queer’ was more offensive, but I felt if I don’t appear to be offended by the word ‘queer’ then they’ll stop calling me it.”

Bernard talks about what subsequently happened to him after he came out on television. “I used to have a group of Asian kids, in their teens, twenties, chatting to me, etc. After a while the young lads saw through me being gay and saw me for who I was, thought I was OK, a nice sense of humour. But I was moved about six times in two years and eventually moved away from the area, a Muslim area, by my seniors for all sorts of specious reasons. There was always a belief on my part that the parents might be saying negative things about gays, and the kids were saying, ‘he’s OK, got a good sense of humour’ and maybe some of the elders didn’t like the fact that their kids were getting a positive idea of a gay person. I can’t prove it, but there were always these irrational things happening, being moved, why are you taking me away from this area when I’m generating lots of intelligence, the kids give you lots of information that was leading to drugs operations, yet I was moved and lost all the contacts. I was questioning my chief superintendent why I was moved again, and he said ‘As far as I’m concerned your role as a sergeant is to supervise your officers, it isn’t to be on the streets’, which I thought was a load of cobblers because you’ve got to lead by example. It’s like a coded language that they didn’t like this openly gay officer on the streets of Sparkhill, who the kids actually liked and didn’t see as a gay officer any more.”

Bernard thinks there has been discrimination against him by the police force because he was gay. “When I came out I was based in the Acocks Green, Sparkhill, Balsall Heath area, which has a number of stations. You commit yourself to working an area for two or three years to build up contacts and get a return on your investments. But I was moved six times despite making representations on the impact of this, and all the good work I was doing was never being acknowledged, and eventually I was removed from the area because I was being approached by people in the drugs trade. I put in a report about this guy who in my opinion was trying to generate a situation where he would make a complaint, and I got some of the elders in the area to take him away from the area. Then three allegations of assault were made against me by three suspected drug dealers, which were all specious but ended up in court, in July 2001. I was then removed from the area and sent to the training centre where I was left doing nothing meaningful for six months.” 

“I made an internal grievance against my Chief Superintendent and alleged homophobic discrimination by him.  Then I applied for an employment tribunal, albeit in those days there was no cover for gay people in law, but on a technical point I was arguing this was covered by the Sex Discrimination Act. I then thought, maybe the reason I’m being moved isn’t discrimination, maybe it’s corruption; I decided the main beneficiaries of my being moved are the drug dealers. I compiled a report claiming corruption by my superintendent and put it on the desk of the Deputy Chief Constable at 11.00 a.m. on 20 December 2001.  Later that day I was served a suspension order by the Head of Complaints in connection with the allegations against me made six or seven months earlier, however, this suspension order was given hours after making allegation of victimisation against my senior police officers. So to this day I believe that my suspension was because of the allegation against my officer.  So I went to court because of the allegation by the drug dealer. All the versions of his allegations didn’t stand up, after two days it was thrown out. After the court case I was interviewed on the steps of the magistrates court, and I said that homophobia had influenced the officers; that encouraged further close scrutiny, this was all happening in 2000/2001.”   

 The second part of this interview will be added shortly - apologies for inconvenience