Recently Anthony reminded me (ever so subtly, cheers Anthony) that I’m the daddy of the group (so to speak), prompting me into a contemplative frame of mind and catapulting me back in time.
I was born in 1966 when homosexuality was illegal in the U.K., with over a thousand men imprisoned that year just for being gay. When I was one year old, the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts between men over 21 years of age in private in England and Wales. Subsequently it was not until 1982 that the Homosexual Offences Order made it legal in Northern Ireland for men over the age of 21, in lust or in love, to have sex without fear of prosecution or imprisonment.
By this time, I had turned 16 having grown up in central Belfast in a climate where murder, bombs, fear, segregation, mistrust, inequality, and tit for tat reprisals were a normal part of everyday life.
Throughout all my schooling, being gay was not only illegal, but to some, it was considered worse than being from the other side of the religious divide. I can remember Roman Catholic and Protestant mixed marriages from then. However, I do not ever recall meeting, speaking to, or hearing mention of a living and breathing real life queer person. That is unless they were to be, like I was, ridiculed, mocked, and set upon and beaten.
The mere notion that I or anyone else was a ‘fruit, queer, poof, homo or bent’ would send the red-blooded school population’s thoughts of outrage and reprisal into overdrive. I have always believed in what is true for me and lived according to that truth. The result being that I, and others like me were fair game. I was a lawbreaker, with no protection under it. As far as my peers were concerned it was completely normal and acceptable to pick upon and queerbash someone at any given opportunity.
There were no gay celebrity role models, or gay role models of any type. Elton was still lost in his vast warehouse of a closet, and Liberace was…well, he just was. Unlike today the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people in all forms of the media was stereotypically very camp and one dimensional – from John Inman’s portrayal of Mr Humphries with his characteristic limp-wristed mincing walk and high pitched ‘I’m Free’. To Larry Grayson’s hand on hip ‘What a gay day!’. Although it cannot be denied that they were wonderfully funny performers, they were not the type of role model anyone would want to aspire to or admit to idolising. They were purely an act, used to represent gay men during peak audiences on one of the 3 television channels available at that time. During family conversations, any words that may have described a gay person were never spoken, instead they were whispered, or the gay person under suspicion was described as having ‘looked sideways’ at them.
It’s funny for me to think of an LGBTQ+ community, as to be part of a community you must be accepted into it. During my adolescence and early adulthood that was never allowed to happen. Even today the so-called LGBTQ+ community in Belfast is geared around a handful of, not always pleasant, bars and clubs aimed at taking as many pink pounds from the younger generation as they possibly can. Although LGBTQ+ rights have changed society here for the better, I believe we are begrudgingly tolerated rather than accepted. This is I put down to education and beliefs. For as long as we have a ruling political party that considers the LGBTQ+ community to be ‘abominations’ or regarded in the same way as pedophiles, things will remain inequitable. The laws may change, but inbred intolerance and hate will remain if factions of the political and religious landscape continue spewing their bitter bile towards those they regard as inferior human beings. I would love to be around in another 50 years to see how things have changed, but hopefully bigotry and intolerance will have long since been banished into the realms of history, along with the remaining anti-gay laws that hamper and harm gay people’s lives today.