Saturday 30 April, 1999. Soho, the start of the Bank Holiday weekend. The weather is warm, and Old Compton Street is busier than usual as friends and coworkers crowd in pubs and outside on the street to raise a glass to the end of a long week. A scene that could so easily be seen this very Friday, 20 years later.
6:37pm is when everything changes. A nail bomb deliberately planted in the Admiral Duncan pub explodes, killing three people and injuring 79 in what is still the UK’s most devastating homophobic attack to date. Four of the survivors had to have limbs amputated.
For many young people, the Orlando attack in 2016 will be the main act of homophobic terrorism they remember clearly in their lifetime. I myself was 29 years old in 1999 – much closer in age to the three who lost their lives in Soho. For me that comes a duty to make sure younger generations appreciate the gravity of the attack that happened right on our doorstep here in London. We can’t allow the sands of time to diminish our reaction to these atrocities, and we still have a long way to go to ensure nobody has to live in fear of violence or abuse because of who they are.
It was 10 years later that I founded the anti-hate charity 17-24-30 NationalHCAW (National Hate Crime Awareness Week) to mark the 10th anniversary of the bombings, which also targeted the black community in Brixton and the Bangladeshi Muslim community on Brick Lane. Every year we organise three April Acts of Remembrance where our communities come together to remember the attacks and pay our respects to the victims. Most importantly, these events also serve to educate others about the moments in our shared history that have made us who we are today.
Though progress has been made twenty years on, we’re still seeing LGBT+ rights abuses both abroad and in this country continuing to dominate the headlines. While it’s shocking to think that someone could commit such a horrendous act of violence against our communities and allies back in 1999, the truth is that homophobic, biphobic and transphobic attacks are still sadly far too common in the capital, even today.
So how do we tackle this? Firstly, we must continue to remember those who lost their lives simply for being who they are – let their memories serve as a reminder of why we can never allow this to happen ever again. Secondly, we must fight racism and homophobia at their roots. Hatred is born of fear, and fear is born of ignorance – this means we need better education about different cultures, faiths, sexualities and genders. The new government guidance on relationships and sex education backed by the House of Lords last week is a welcome step in the right direction.
And finally, we must build stronger links between our communities - particularly with regard to longer-term support. Many of the survivors and families affected by the attacks are still suffering, and the help and support we give needs to transcend community boundaries. This also goes for working together to stamp out hate and bigotry – only through cross-community cooperation and collaboration can we make London a safe and welcoming place for everyone.
While it may seem natural to focus on the negative outcomes of such an attack, I strongly believe that after every act of evil there is an opportunity for good people to step forward and change things for the better. From the police officers and first responders who ran into the Admiral Duncan straight after the explosion and helped save so many lives, to the ambulance and health workers who tended the injured, and the representatives from across all three communities who brought our communities closer together afterwards – these are the responses that inspire me and that I hope inspire others as well.
Fundamentally we mustn’t let ourselves be overcome by fear and anger at the past – instead we must channel our energies into expressions of love and humanity, and show the world that these will always trump hate.
The Soho Act of Remembrance will take place at 5pm this evening outside the Admiral Duncan on Old Compton Street, Soho. So we can gauge how many people will attend, please register here if you plan to join us.
Mark Healey is founder of 17-24-30 NationalHCAW (National Hate Crime Awareness Week), an anti-hate charity that marks the anniversaries of the London Nail Bomb attacks