Gay teen spat at and threatened in the street in Tonbridge
A GAY man from Tonbridge has spoken out in a bid to halt the verbal abuse he suffers when he walks through the town with his boyfriend.
Shop assistant Reece Heron, 18, says he has been shouted at, spat at, threatened, followed and, in one bizarre example, had a sausage roll thrown at him while with partner Simon Bennett.
The Peach Hall resident told the Courier: "It happens all the time. Me and my boyfriend walk down the High Street holding hands and we get all these eyes and people shouting abuse and stuff. People shout names like 'shirtlifter' and other horrible words.
"I don't know why they find us offensive – it's our lives, not theirs. It makes us feel so hated."
Mr Heron said he and Mr Bennett has been together for three months and rarely encountered the problem elsewhere.
"In Tunbridge Wells it's fine, no-one says a word," he said. "But in Tonbridge it's totally different. It's like that space in between makes all the difference.
"I have other gay friends here who don't really show it – they say to us we are brave for showing it. But it's a normal relationship, why would I want to hide it?"
On Monday afternoon, the Courier accompanied the couple for a walk along the High Street to see the extent of the problem.
In just eight minutes, we counted five examples of what could be termed homophobic abuse, from people simply pointing and jeering to an aggressive verbal outburst by a middle-aged man.
Aged in his 40s, shaven headed and wearing a polo shirt, the man called them "poofters" and gesticulated to the couple from across the street as he demanded: "Come here."
For Mr Heron and 18-year-old Mr Bennett, of Belgrave Road, Tunbridge Wells, this is an all-too-frequent occurrence.
On their way to meet our reporter, they claimed to have been verbally abused three times, with one man in his 20s shouting: "I hope you die of AIDS. Come here, I'll smash your face in."
But the problem is not confined to young men, according to Mr Heron, who aims to leave the town he has called home since the age of seven as soon as possible.
"It's every age from about 11," said the former Hayesbrook and K College student. "We get quite a few old people telling us we are disgusting. We also met two young women pushing buggies who told us we should be ashamed of ourselves. It's constant and it's getting to the point where I fear we might get beaten up.
"If anything did happen to hurt either one of us we would go straight to the police, but with verbal abuse it's hard to do that. We would feel a bit stupid reporting some name-calling."
James Lawrence of lesbian, gay and bisexual charity Stonewall said his organisation had worked hard to make sure the law took homophobic hate crimes and incidents seriously.
He said: "We strongly encourage victims of such incidents to report them to the police. This will help the police to respond and target their work more effectively, and create a safer community for everyone."
Inspector John Phillips said: "There are a range of agencies that offer support to victims of hate crime and we have specially trained officers to investigate hate crime offences.
"I would urge anyone who feels they have been a victim of a hate crime, or who thinks they might have witnessed one, to report it to us and to be confident that we will take it seriously and investigate it sensitively."