Gay, black and a policeman: A PC speaks out
Great Reporter article
It’s never been a good time to be a black gay, policeman, but it’s a position Gamal Turawa, a Metropolitan police officer, has learned to live with…
As the Met’s first openly gay black officer, PC Gamal Turawa is painfully aware of how difficult life can be as a member of a minority. Now, as a diversity awareness officer with the force, he uses his experience to help others.
Yet it wasn’t easy for him to admit the truth about his sexuality.
He admits he initially used the police service to hide his true self. "It was one way of covering up my sexuality and hiding who I really was. I wanted people to see me as a black police officer rather than a gay man.
"Every time I went out into the black community, I always did my best to make myself acceptable. I wanted to be seen as the bridge between the black community and the police service. Somebody who was on the inside but also knew what was going on outside."
Turawa, now 41, only came out a year ago, admitting to family and friends what they already suspected.
“When I first told my family, my mother told me that I was going to rot in hell. She told me that God would cut me down the middle and I’d be burnt in flames.
“We talk now though. It’s almost as if they accept me as part of the family, but they don’t accept my sexuality. I call it the elephant pooh in the middle of the room - it’s something not talked about. It makes me feel uncomfortable knowing that they are my family but I can’t be myself around them.”
He cited Sir Ian McKellen as his inspiration for finally coming out.
“A long time ago, Ian McKellen was on Parkinson and he said that he came out when he was 49. I remember watching that and really hoping that I could do that by that age.”
He was able to thank him at last year’s gay pride march in London.
“How often do you get to say thank you to somebody so famous?" he says.
However, he still hasn’t met any other black officers who are openly gay.
"I initially wanted to join the Black Police Association, but it’s very much a heterosexual organisation and the Gay Police Association is very ‘white’. I felt like I didn’t fit into either.
"It’s harder to be a black gay person than to be white and gay. The black community has a very strong, macho culture. There are not enough prominent black gay models out there. That stopped me coming out for a long time because I did not see myself represented in society."
Turawa has known since he was 12 that he was gay but says he was in denial for a long time.
“One day my sister asked my mother what she would do if I was gay. I can’t remember why my sister asked it, but I just froze. I sat there shaking, while my mum said, ‘If he was gay, I would shove a red hot poker right up his arse’.
"So I always thought that being gay was sinful and that there must be something wrong with me. I read books about electrotherapy and wondered if I would be able to get the money to have it done to change myself."
His childhood was not easy. He was initially raised in Kent by a white middle class, foster family, but his life was turned upside down with the surprise return of his father.
“I was eight years old and I came home from school one day, and this huge black man was in the living room. It was my father and he had come to take me home.”
So Turawa went to live with his Nigerian father and Jamaican mother and three younger sisters.
“It wasn’t a very happy time,” he says.
“My father battered me a lot and it got to the stage where I was sent to children’s homes. My dad was taken to court many times for beating me.”
It was during this time that he acknowledged his sexuality.
“My first sexual experience was in the children’s home. I had liaisons with men as I grew up but there were never any relationships.
“I felt guilty. In my mind there was still something wrong with me.”
At 16 he was told by his family he was going to Nigeria for a two-week holiday, but ended up staying there for eight years, scrounging for food and doing a variety of odd jobs. "I was so hungry I’d share food with dogs,” he says.
Fate intervened when he landed a job as a welder in a steel plant earning £23 a month.
"The plant I was working in had some British ex-pats. One day this Nigerian guy gave me a matchbox with a lump of gold in it. He told me to sell it to the white men. So I went to one of the English guys and showed it to him. It turned out to be a lump of lead covered with goldleaf. I immediately thought ‘I’ve been used’. The English man was very understanding and realised that I had been duped. We became good friends after that."
All the time he was there Turawa dreamed of his old life back in England.
“I had a copy of an English newspaper from 1982, which I read over and over again. I’d have a bottle of water and a couple of slices of Mars bar, which my English friend had given me, and I’d pretend I was sitting in a restaurant in Piccadilly Circus reading. "
Eventually, it was Turawa’s British friend who found him a way out of Nigeria.
A whip round with the other ex-pats got enough money together for a new passport and a ticket to London.
Back in London, aged 24, Turawa worked as a security guard and a store detective. But he wanted to be a policeman.
“I was attracted to the money, the power, the chance to do things not considered the norm - joining the police was not considered the thing a black person did.
“It took me three years and five applications to be accepted. I think they took me on because I was a pain and wouldn’t go away!".
But there was still prejudice to overcome, even while training at Hendon.
“I was doing this really hard exam and afterwards this woman said, ‘You’ve got no problem because they want people like you, so you’ll pass’. A lot of people thought that I was only there because I was black. I would deliberately fail some of my exams just to show them that I could fail as well.”
His first posting was in Wembley when he was 28.
"There were the odd moments that reminded me that I didn’t belong. There were times when I would be out with a group of police officers and they would stop a car with black people in it, and I would be more stern to show that I was part of the police force. I felt as if I was being tested.
"There is a pressure on black officers in the service. The service has done a lot to address the overt racism, but there is so much subtle stuff that goes on that they’re not even aware of.
“They’re dealing with the in-your-face stuff, but that’s not what does the damage. If you don’t fit into ‘white British culture’ it is difficult.
"As a black person in this type of organisation, even today, you walk in and join a team at the station and you can almost see what people are saying, ‘Are you going to be one of them or one of us’?
“My warrant card and my ID are meant to stand for justice, but for a black person or a minority, it stands for justification. I see them as a way of validating myself. When I go out socially, I take them with me because if I do get stopped by the police it’s a way of saying I’m not like the way some officers see black people. I’m one of you.”
“I’ve had an officer say, ‘Why do you think everything happens to you? You’re always the victims aren’t you?’ My answer to that was ‘Why do you find it so hard to believe that somebody has an entirely different experience than your own?”
At his lowest point, haunted by his repressed sexuality, bad debts and what he saw as bullying at work. Turawa considered suicide and even went to Harrow Tube station to end it all on the tracks. But he couldn’t do it. Suffering from a nervous breakdown, he took three months off work.
When he returned, he filled a vacancy in the diversity awareness department, where he now puts his experiences to good use.
“I heard about the position through a friend, applied and eventually got it. I realised I had experienced a lot of what they were talking about."
Turawa believes he can have an impact on how the Met understands diversity training.
"It was designed and delivered to tell white people about racism," he says.
"On the one hand, you had these training classes to raise awareness, but on the other there was nothing being done to support the people whose existence was being highlighted.
“Officers were being told, ‘If you fail to attend you will be disciplined. That got people's backs up.
"The training wasn’t evaluated on how successful it was. It was evaluated on how many bums were on seats. What I’ve done is not focus on race, gender or sexuality, but on behaviour.
“When I go into the classroom, I ask everyone, ‘How many of you are thinking, we’re doing diversity training so here’s this black guy to tell us how racist or sexist we are?’ You see this body shift around the room. And I explain that if that’s what they’re thinking, that’s the very reason why we’re in this room.
“I tell the class, ‘Just because I’m black doesn’t mean I can’t still be racist or sexist or homophobic.’ The problem for a lot of people is that they stick to stereotypes.
“Since the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence there’s been a lot of anger and nothing’s being done to address it. A lot of officers didn’t understand the meaning of institutional racism – they thought they were being called a racist.
At the end of the day everybody wants three basic things - to be respected, understood and accepted.
“Once I’d stopped thinking ‘poor me’, I didn’t have to carry the burden of being gay or black. I now don’t really care about what people think about my sexuality. If you’re uncomfortable about it, that’s your problem.”