hidden Voices without labels

Recorded on the 11th September 2014, Steve has lived in Reading for Sixteen years.

Growing up, did you know at an early age your sexuality, your preferences?
I was born in 1955 so my adolescence, early teens, mid-teens, was in the late ’60s, early ’70s. I would first of all start off by saying that I didn’t know that I was gay at that time – I did find myself attracted to other boys, things like that that, but the possibility of being gay was never put forward in any positive light. It was never an option that was accepted by society. For instance, the only time you ever read any articles in the press about homosexuality was the usual “choirmaster interfering with the choirboys” or “scoutmaster interfering with scout boys” and being in court for it, so – not that I’m defending that sort of thing, but – hardly a positive image. It seemed in those days, the late ’60s and early ’70s, the only person that anyone ever knew was gay was Oscar Wilde, and look at what happened to him. In the ’70s there were a couple of very camp comedians – Larry Grayson, John Inman – who always denied that they were gay, even though it was obvious to anyone with half a brain, but it was always, “I’m forty-five and I still live with my mum because I need to look after her”, because they feared that their career would be over if they came out, even though their careers were based on them being very camp. And that was it – there was no one to go to if you thought you might be gay. I’m sure with a lot of people growing up at that time might have been gay or bi, I’m sure the idea didn’t even cross their minds, or they might have struggled with it subconsciously for years and years, perhaps forever, because the trouble is, if you bury something too long, too deep, it’s then very hard to get it up again.

During the ’70s, growing up in the ’70s, did you see any gay persecution, anybody outing any gays – because they were quite homophobic during those periods of time.
I never saw any myself, and I grew up in London, but people just didn’t go around openly gay, that was it. You would read about it in the papers, and it did seem as if the perpetrators would be let off quite lightly if it ever went to court, and you did hear a bit about gay persecution, homophobia, and often, in those days it was physical attack, that’s where the term “queer-bashing” originated I believe, in the ’70s. They were a lot less tolerant times, there was a lot of physical violence against black people, for instance. You could be beaten up walking down the street for being black, but that’s something you can’t hide – I’m sure a lot of gay men in those days hid their homosexuality for fear of being beaten up on the streets.

You had the likes of George Michael, who didn’t come out at that time, but he was in Wham! obviously, and then you had Boy George, those types of individuals. Do you think that they led the way in allowing gay individuals to come out more?
Yes, absolutely. In the ’70s you had David Bowie saying he was bisexual, although people like his ex-wife have since said that that was a publicity stunt, I don’t know. Elton John said he was bisexual and then got married sometime after that, but they got divorced very quickly. But David Bowie ruled the ’70s in the rock music sense. Elton John was very, very big as well. People like that, certainly, with millions of fans, did change a lot of people’s perceptions, but the biggest one by far was Freddie Mercury. Again, Queen were a massive band in the ’70s and ’80s, and for him to come out as gay – and again it was obvious by the way that he spoke, he was very camp, very camp mannerisms as well – but for him, in a fairly hard rock band – as opposed to Elton John, David Bowie, who used to wear outrageous costumes onstage, you know, glam rock and all that – for someone like the frontman of a rock band to come out as gay, a very popular one as well, did an awful lot of good for gay rights in this country, probably abroad as well. To Boy George, again – I can remember watching “Top of the Pops” at my parents’ house, my dad looked at the TV screen with a look of – I don’t know! – bafflement on his face and said, “That’s not a bloke, is it?” [both laugh] But again, I think Culture Club came out in the early ’80s, didn’t they, I mean, they started their career in the early ’80s – ’81 or ’82. We’d had about, maybe 6,7 years of openly bisexual or openly gay British pop stars. Now, Boy George was not only gay but very camp, a bit of cross-dressing as well. They just, I think, opened a whole new dimension into the straight public’s perception and understanding and acceptance of gay people.

Did you also think that maybe it’s brought it into the forefront, and also led to more homophobia because – although they brought it to the forefront so people would feel more relaxed about coming out, or that it ain’t such a bad thing, but also, on the flip side, more homophobia because of that?
No – less homophobia, I think.

We move through to ’88 when Section 28 came in by the Tory party – did you see any effect of that? When that came out, how people approached each other?
Not in my own life or anyone that I knew, but Section 28 was widely regarded in the gay community as a waste of time because, if you’re not telling school kids in their sex education classes that being gay or being bisexual is acceptable, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to be gay or bisexual. I think I had my sex education class when I was about 11 and didn’t affect the way I turned out. I think the problem was the Conservative party and the more right-wing and the more less-tolerant people in it, thought that if you teach young school kids that being gay or being bisexual is acceptable or not to be worried about, then you’d just be recruiting gay school kids. I really do believe that, and there was an element of that which was used at the time to justify Section 28, which I think is ludicrous because if you stand up in front of a classroom full of school kids and they’re all straight, mention homosexuality and they’d run a mile. But, you’ve got to accept that out of a class of, say, 30, you’ll probably get one or two boys or girls who are gay or bisexual, and it is important for that one or two not to feel persecuted or pressured because of their sexuality. Either mention it in a positive way or don’t mention it at all, but surely the positive way’s got to be better. Because there are going to be some there, you can’t stop them from growing up gay just by not talking about it during their adolescence.

If we go back to your younger days, to your school life, did you have much hassle through your school life? Did you already know at that point?
No, at that point I didn’t know that I was gay, although I was attracted to other boys. You know, the brainwashing you got from society, the media, whatever, just didn’t lead you to think that might be possible for you.

When you felt comfortable with yourself, how old were you when you admitted it and came out?
Hmm… I’m trying to remember because it was a long time ago! (laughs) Well, I had my first gay sex just after my twenty-first birthday, but at that time I was into girls as well so I sort of… came out to myself as being bisexual. It would have been in my late teens or early twenties I think, as far as I can remember.

Did you come out to your family? Did your family know?
No. No.

Did they know at any point?
I wouldn’t have thought so. No.

And how did your friends take the news?
Yeah, all of them have been OK with it.

Pre- the internet, where it’s so easy now to make contact with individuals with the same sexuality nowadays, how do you feel you managed to find individuals similar to yourself in the gay community, when it wasn’t so open, and there was fear of persecution? Were there groups? How easy was it to find other individuals?
Not too hard, actually – there are always places where you could go, known as cruising places, where you could meet other gay men. Using word of mouth. Or sometimes you read about it in the paper because the police are cracking down, and of course that’s fantastic publicity! (laughs) Had a bit of the opposite effect! This is how, when I lived in Bournemouth in the mid-’70s, throughout the ’80s, I’d found out about Studland Beach, because there was a front-page newspaper headline about mounted police riding through the dunes trying to find blokes at it.

When I cam to Reading, I house-shared with another gay man, and the house was owned by another gay man, so I had a good introduction into Reading’s gay scene as it was at that time, which was the Wynford… and I think the Granby was still running as an ordinary pub – yes it was, this was in the early 1980s. The Granby was running as a pub before they converted it into a nightclub, but it was run by two women, so it was a gay pub.

As you’ve moved on you’re now a member of, or chair of, BOLGAF [Berkshire Older Lesbian and Gay Forum] – have you seen the changes? I mean, particularly since the new legislations have come in, for instance from ’88 when they had Section 28, when you couldn’t promote homosexuality within the educational world?
That phrase “promoting homosexuality” was always a joke. That’s not what it was about. I was well out of school by that time and I’ve never been a teacher, but it was never about promoting homosexuality as an alternative sexuality, because if you went into any class full of… however old kids are when they’re given sex education these days, say 13, 14, 15, whatever – start mentioning it, they’ll all either giggle or run out of the room in embarrassment. You are not going to make recruits to homosexuality by taking a class full of kids and saying “hey kids it’s alright to do this”, but what you are doing is telling the odd 5% or whatever it is who are gay or bisexual that there’s nothing for them to feel guilty about, and that’s what the Conservative government in those days really missed, big time. If they thought they were going to convert gay or bisexual school kids into being straight by not mentioning it – obviously that’s not going to happen.

Now with more equality and understanding, I only had 1 problem, and this was after I moved to Reading, was one particular customer in a pub that was my local – I know that his attitude towards me turned when someone told him that I’m gay, and all I got from him was sarcasm and abuse. This went on for a couple of weeks. This was about 10 years ago.

From your time within Reading and the positions that you’ve held, the position you hold now, have you noticed the differences in the attitudes of Reading itself towards the gay community? Has it negatively or positively got any better? Is it more tolerant, do you believe?
Yes, it’s got slightly better, slightly more tolerant, I would say. For instance, I mean, take Reading Pride – I would say the majority of people that go to that are straight, and very often families as well, so you’ll get the whole family: mum, dad, kids. On the day of Reading Pride you’ll see two guys walking around, holding hands, and no one bats an eyelid and I just think, when I was their age, which is probably going back to the ’70s, you’d have been beaten up in the street for doing something like that, in most places

Your on the panel for Hate Crime Reporting, The stats that come through, do they shock you?
No, the stats are on all sorts of hate crimes. We do look at every sort of hate crime across the board – tend to be so low that you can’t really read any meaning into them. The only notable exception is racist attacks. Quite a few of those are reported: I think that’s probably because, you know, anti-racism was the first of the hate crime laws to be introduced the Race Relations Act in the ’70s. So I think BAME [Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic] people are more likely to report an attack, whether it’s verbal, physical, whatever. But if you get down to, say, homophobic, transphobic, disabilist hate crimes, there are so few reported every quarter, and the group that I’m on meets every quarter so we examine the previous three months’ figures, if there were 5 last quarter and 10 this quarter, does that mean that the numbers have doubled or is it just the number of people reporting that’s doubled? But then again, figures are so low, you can’t read anything into it except to say that it’s almost certainly massively underreported. I think half the problem is a lot of people are reluctant to, perhaps, go into a police station and say “I’ve been homophobically attacked” in whatever way, because then you’re going up to the counter of the nick and basically saying “I’m gay” – a lot of people have trouble with that. A lot of people do have a lack of confidence that the police will be interested in following it through. Just at the moment, it’s September 2014 – there’s a big fuss in the papers at the moment about Sheffield Police, I think, not investigating mass rapes against young schoolgirls there because they were more interested in traffic crime. There always has been a big problem with people – will the police take it seriously? Open brackets: because I’m gay, close brackets.

So the panels you’re on now, do you believe these panels are making a difference? Are the police actually listening?
The police – yeah, they do definitely listen, they talk to us as well, but also the other benefit of groups like this is that it tends to be attended by, maybe not necessarily leaders of their own communities, but people prominent and active in their own communities, and they can get the message spread around in the most effective possible way because they’re known in their own community, they’re accepted and if they say, “Look, if it happens to you, ring the police, they will take you seriously but if you’re not happy let me know and I’ll chase it up for you” – that is a very powerful way of persuading people, I think. So it’s really about trying to get the message across to the gay community that the police will listen, because obviously the police have got a gay community within themselves as well, so they will listen to their reported crimes.

 

 

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