I am not a rugby fan, but the dignified, emotional reaction of Welsh former rugby player Gareth Thomas after he was left with facial injuries in a homophobic attack on Saturday evening, gave me pause for thought. In 2009, Thomas became the first professional rugby union player to come out as gay, and since retiring from the sport in 2011, he has dedicated much of his public life to campaigning for LGBT rights.
In a video, Thomas explained that he had been “the victim in my own city of a hate crime for my sexuality” and that he had requested that police take the course of restorative justice – in which the victim and perpetrator enter a dialogue – “because I thought [the perpetrator] could learn more that way than any other”. South Wales police have said that a 16-year-old boy admitted to the attack and apologised to Thomas following the incident.
Anger would have been understandably You could understand why Thomas might have reacted angrily in the face of the attack. According to 2017 research from Stonewall, the number of homophobic hate in the UK is rising. One in five LGBT people had experienced a hate crime in the 12 months prior to the study.
But instead, Thomas joined the handful of people each year who decide that restorative justice is be the most effective way forward. In 2015-16 it was found that only 4.2 per cent of victims of crime where the offender was known to the police recalled being offered restorative justice. But this week, it turns out, is actually restorative justice week (November 18 to 25), promoted by the Restorative Justice Council, which argues that “restorative justice meets the needs of victims and reduces the frequency of reoffending”.
Coming to terms with what happened Janika Cartwright, whose ex-boyfriend repeatedly stabbed her (including one stab to the heart) while she was pregnant and in front of her other young child, explained this week why she decided to meet her attacker face-to-face as part of a scheme. She told Birmingham Live that going to the prison to meet him gave her “closure”, adding: “I wanted to tell him the impact his actions had on me, my children, my family and my friends… Without it I can’t imagine how I would have come to terms with what happened.” What I like about the concept of restorative justice is that it doesn’t ask for or demand complete forgiveness. Instead, it offers a (seemingly) healthy outlet for pain, anger and suffering – and, as Janika says, the possibility for answers to the question: why?
On a panel this weekend at the feminist Fawcett Society, a question from an audience member about her right to get pissed off in the face of the problems women suffer struck a nerve. I view myself as a calm person in most areas of my life, except in the face of prejudices and injustice. I absolutely believe that it is important to forgive people when you can, but I also accept that some things are unforgivable, and some anger doesn’t go away. This is why I would not have judged Thomas if he had decided not to engage with the teen who assaulted him. But although at first glance, restorative justice might look like a way to police people into dampening the anger they may feel, for me, it is an appealing prospect because it allows for righteous anger, but not for un-righteous, menacing retaliation. Anger doesn’t need to lead to cruelty.