My talk was one of the keynote talks at the LGBTQ Health Summit in Canterbury Kent UK in September 2012
LGBT HEALTH SUMMIT
I have just 5 minutes to talk about 42 years of being gay in Kent, and I have time only to make a few stops in the journey, but I start with an important event before coming to Kent.
In 1968, for the very first time, I said to someone ‘I’m a homosexual’ (I didn’t know the word ‘gay’), and a five ton weight just fell from my shoulders, and that weight has never returned.
In 1971 my first partner David and I went to see the manager of the Halifax in Canterbury to apply for a joint mortgage. He was totally flummoxed by such a request and said ‘But what happens if you two split up?’ ‘Dont you ask heterosexual couples the same question?’ I asked. ‘Oh he said, I hadn’t thought of it like that’.
In 1972 about 30 of us were the local branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality though we didn’t dare call ourselves that, and at our Christmas dinner called ourselves ‘The Canterbury Debating Society’. We met at the Friends Meeting House in Canterbury and at some meetings the caretaker used to cover the floor with the most pungent polish so that our eyes smarted and watered. When I complained he said ‘if you don’t like it then you can go elsewhere and take the rest of your filthy sodomites with you’. You don’t let bigots get you down.
In 1980 a group of us formed the East Kent Friend telephone helpline. We bought a phone installed it in the bedroom of a friend’s flat in Canterbury and activated the line every Tuesday evening. We were terrified someone would find out where we were and vandalise the flat and had been advised that technically we were not legal and that the police could arrest us for promoting indecency. But we continued and over the years of Friend it is amazing how many callers were helped because of that line.
In the mid 1980s the terror of AIDS arrived. Deaths were described as brain tumours, or cancer or heart attacks, but deep down we knew that AIDS was the cause of death. When in Kent, a Buddy system was created for those with the disease, refreshingly we were not short of volunteers. I pay tribute to my Buddy, Jerry, a lovely man. He was terrified of his condition being known and refused to register with a GP in Ashford where he lived, in case people got to know about him; after all some people had been burned out of their homes. I shall never forget that phone call from him one Monday at 8 when he said ‘Roger can you come over, I’ve gone blind’. Fear was endemic in those days, and at his funeral the undertakers were purposely not told of his condition; the cremation was scheduled the last of the day and the dreaded words AIDS and gay were not even whispered .
In the 1990s gay teachers like me had Section 28 strung round our necks. For political reasons we had been forbidden to teach or say anything about homosexuality to our pupils, and I feel that I need to apologise to my gay students of those days when I did not offer the kind of support they deserved as they coped with their emerging sexuality. Even when section 28 was repealed the leader of Kent County Council declared that Kent would have its own version! But he failed.
From the late 1990s a brave new world came into being for us LGBT people, one I thought I would never live to see and for me it is wonderful. Civil registration, laws outlawing discrimination all have reinforced my pride at being a gay man. Sitting in a Kent LGBT/Police liaison committee chaired by a deputy chief constable who happened to have once been a pupil of mine was a strangely liberating experience. And here having a health summit with an official welcome from the mayor of Canterbury is surely a sign that our world is changing.
And where do we go now? Well it is obvious that issues about our status, security, health and well being remain and it remains true that the price of our freedom must be eternal vigilance. Laws do not quickly change hearts and minds. This Summit addresses many concerns except, may I say, in one respect insufficiently. Recent research about Kent suggests that 100% of us LGBT people will die! Did you know? Also there are more of us over 65 than 16 or under and so the LGBT community is getting older like the population at large and we have important and unique needs too. I still believe in the idea of community, for us LGBT people, and that must involve respect, concern and care for all whatever the age.
Significantly, in his book ‘You’re Looking Very Well – The Surprising Nature of Getting Old’ Lewis Wolpert gives evidence that younger people who have a negative view of old age actually die younger. So please be a community and care for us oldies too – you might gain a few more years as a result.
I wish the summit well.