There are many revered people in the LGBT+ community who have been recognised as trailblazers: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, Stormé DeLarverie, and many more.
However, as well as these well-known examples, there are everyday heroes throughout the queer community who fought – and still fight – for the right to live and love openly.
Perhaps you’ve heard tropes about LGBT+ issues being ‘modern’ problems, but our elders have been on the front line battling for rights and representation long before we visited our first Pride.
More over-65s are coming out, and attitudes are changing in all age groups. But we also can’t forget to remember the bravery of people who were out and proud during Section 21, before same-sex marriage was legalised, and throughout the AIDS crisis.
The Centre for Ageing Better has started a campaign called #AgeingWithPride, gathering stories from LGBT+ people over 50 to share their perspectives on inequality, community, and how things have changed for them over the years.
Here are some of their stories.
53-year-old Claud is a maths teacher, lesbian, and director of her own company, Super Tutoring. She talks about running club night Black Angel, and how she made the first LGBT+ people of colour calendar in the world.
‘I didn’t see anything that I could identify with when I was younger. That made being Black and gay seem abnormal.
‘Growing up in Bolton, there weren’t any images of people like me. Everything about being gay or lesbian back then was negative – we didn’t have the TV programs we have now.
‘If a movie or pop star came out as gay, that would be the end of their career. I didn’t come out until I was 27. As Marian Wright Edelman, an American civil rights activist, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see”.
‘That’s why, with my friend Paula, I set up a club night called Black Angel, and why the imagery was huge thing – representation is very, very important. We couldn’t see it – so we created it. I always used to say to people, “We’ve got to do it for ourselves”.
‘People travelled from all over the country to come to the nights, because back then there was nothing else like it. One of the women, who is now one of my best friends, she would say that it saved her life because she had been so isolated.
‘The night started off in venues in Manchester’s Gay Village in the late 1990s and there was racial prejudice in the Village. Some of the things that came out of the club owners’ mouths. I hope it’s changed, but when I see the line-up for Pride, I think maybe not, it’s still not diverse enough.
‘We held nights at the Contact Theatre and the Green Room – they were the best. It was also good for the Asian women, as a lot of them weren’t out. Many of the taxi drivers were Asian and if someone from your community dropped you off in the village, that was essentially you being outed.
‘It was important to be visible, especially on behalf of those who had no choice other than to conceal their sexual identity, for safety or fear of family rejection.
‘In 2004, we did a calendar one year sponsored by the Terrence Higgins Trust. The guy making it said it was the first LGBT+ people of colour calendar in the world. So yeah, I think being seen is a political statement in itself.
‘I think that more inclusive representation can help reduce stigma and discrimination. I’m not saying it’s perfect now, there’s still bullying at school for example. The teaching environment can be very conventional.
‘When I was training, I always said to myself that I’d want to be in a school that was gay-friendly. I worked in a school where the Deputy and Assistant Head were both lesbians. You could have possibly got that anti-gay vibe elsewhere but because they were quite senior that element was removed. The kids were all, largely, pretty cool too.
‘Four years ago, I went self-employed and set up Super Tutoring. It combines my love of working with children with my love of maths.
‘I don’t have kids so that means I can be the super fun aunt! I’m the middle of five siblings and my nieces and nephews are grown up. I’m very close to my family.
‘When I came out, my family were all very cool about it. If I could tell my younger self anything it would be that I could have come out sooner – yeah, accept yourself sooner.’
66-year-oldTony is a gay man who runs support group Out in the City. He talks about how attitudes to sexuality have changed and his plans for sharing LGBT+ history with younger generations.
‘I’m 66 now, I knew I was gay 50 years ago when I was 16. So much has changed in that time. For example, I lived in Bolton, which is quite a large town, but I only found out when I was 20 that there was a gay club about one bus stop away from where I lived!
‘In those times there was no information, this was obviously before the internet. Nobody talked about being gay, what that meant, and you didn’t know who to turn to.
‘I was lucky that I found Manchester, only about 15 miles away, and it had an LGBT+ youth group. Once I got involved in that, I made friends and found contacts through there. I’ve lived here for 37 years now.
‘However, there have been a lot of painful things that have happened. When I was 21, I moved out of my parents’ house into a house share. I got evicted from that house for being gay. Our landlord had a solicitor that said, “This man is a homosexual and it’s outrageous”. I was evicted from the house. I had to leave in seven days.
‘One of the most difficult things in my life is that I had a partner for 31 years and he died very suddenly with cancer.
‘When we got to the bereavement centre, the woman there asked if we had a civil partnership (this is before marriage came in). I said, “No we didn’t have a civil partnership, we lived together for 31 years.” And she said, “Not next of kin then”. It totally disregarded our relationship.
‘Over time, things do get better and improve. Nowadays, I think generally the whole atmosphere for people who are LGBT+ is much better than it used to be. Because of the Equality Act, things have improved so much.
‘For the past three years, I’ve been running a project linked to Age UK Manchester called Out in the City. We are basically an LGBT+ social and support group; we have weekly meetings and have activities and after the easing of restrictions we’ll be organising days out.
‘The group has provided important support for people in lockdown. A lot of us live on our own and we don’t have family members and so on, so it’s been a great help. It’s just fantastic, exploring and being in a group of likeminded people.
‘I’m also involved as a community member with a housing project called LGBT Affirmative Extra-Care – it’s a scheme with the LGBT Foundation. It’s going to be about 90-100 flats, all new build for older people, the majority of whom are LGBT+. This will be a house for life, so they’re looking to accommodate a range of people from no care needs to people who might have quite high care needs.
‘We have meetings to discuss things like safety, design, the layout, what facilities will be there. It’s really interesting, you learn a lot. You don’t realise how long these things take – years and years! But we’ll get there in the end.
‘It sounds like a really great place and it’s only about a mile away from where I live now. I’ll definitely be applying to live there when it’s been built!
‘Looking forward, I want to teach younger LGBT+ people about our history. There are young people growing up now, who see marriage between a man and a woman, or two women or two men as just natural, and I think that’s really great.
‘But I have a sneaking suspicion that most younger people don’t really know about our history. Things like the groups like ‘Act Up’, campaigning, and going on marches. I’m not sure they know about those things, how we had to fight for our rights. I’d like them to know about it.
‘One of the things I want to do with Out in the City is try and get some intergenerational meetings with LGBT+ people, we have lots of stories we could tell.
‘Honestly, I wouldn’t change things. I don’t have regrets about horrible things that have happened in my life, it’s just part of life. It’s what we’ve lived through. For the future, I look forward to doing things in a positive way.’
Lizzie, 63, is a lesbian and works as a librarian. She shares her experiences of searching for lesbian role models growing up and her positive outlook on ageing.
‘By the time I was in my mid-teens, I realised that I was probably different from my school friends, but I didn’t know how or why, or what to do about it. There was just no information at all.
‘That’s the most significant change that I’ve noticed over the course of my life. There wasn’t any information or positive LGBT+ role models available. Looking back to late teens, it was basically like a fog of confusion.
‘I grew up in Dorset on a farm. At one point I did try and find out if there were any places to meet other lesbians when I was still at home, but the nearest big town was Bournemouth. I thought “Oh god that feels far too scary”, the idea of getting a bus and going somewhere late at night.
‘The only thing I could come across was a book that was written in 1928 by a woman called Radclyffe Hall called “The Well of Loneliness”. It’s the most gloomy and negative portrait of lesbianism that you could think of. I thought “Oh dear! That’s not much help really”.
‘I fell heavily in love with another student when I was at university. We talked about similar interests, we read the same books. But neither of us mentioned the word lesbian in any of our conversations. So, it was a sort of relationship but not a proper relationship.
‘I’m based in Manchester now and I’ve lived here since 1980. I came here after I decided what I really wanted to do was go into librarianship.
‘The difference in coming to Manchester was that it was easier to find things. There was a gay centre, it was in a really grotty part of town, but it existed. There was also a chance of meeting other lesbians. Hoorah!
‘In the 1980s a lot was changing. Companies like The Women’s Press and Virago started publishing fiction by women and promoting it. Libraries started buying these books, which coincided with the city council setting up equality units. They also set up subcommittees that invited members of the public to join and help set policies, which I got involved in. So suddenly, everything was possible!
‘One of my main sources of entertainment is going to the cinema and you can see how much portrayals of lesbians have changed. Just last night, I went to the cinema to see ‘Ammonite’, a film about a geologist, Mary Anning, who has a relationship with another woman, and it was beautiful! I was thinking “Wow, this is such a contrast!”
‘I feel quite positive about getting older. I cycle everywhere – all the journeys that I do, going to the cinema, going shopping, visiting friends are all by bike. Most of my friends are about the same age as me, or older, and they’re all active as well. I don’t feel any age particularly, I probably feel about 40 and I’ve just turned 63!
‘I met my partner, Marion, when I first moved to Manchester. She was living with MS (Multiple Sclerosis) all her life and she died seven years ago. So, thinking about ageing, losing your partner is something that I’ve had to deal with.
‘I’m also aware of how terrible the social care situation in this country is, it’s just dire for loads of people. If me or any of my friends did need extra care, then that is quite a scary process.
‘Since 2016 I’ve been volunteering at Elizabeth Gaskell’s house. It’s the house where Elizabeth Gaskell lived, who was quite a radical woman writer. As a volunteer I do anything and everything from working in the tea rooms to chatting to visitors.
‘We do a lot of weddings there – the idea is that the bride can get ready in the bedroom, and then there’s all these lovely photographs of her in her dress. It could be bride or brides, we do a lot of same-sex marriages. That’s another thing that’s changed.
‘I continue to work part-time as a librarian, and I still enjoy it. Libraries are amazing places to promote positive LGBT+ role models and resources. That’s what they’re all about: access to information. The more we can provide, the better.’
73-year-old gay man Ian tells us about the importance of preserving LGBT+ history and his many voluntary activities, including working with the LGBT Foundation on various projects and being a community lead on the Wigan Pride committee.
‘I’m 73 and retired, but I do quite a bit of voluntary work. I volunteer for the LGBT Foundation on various projects, I also represent them for the Wigan Pride committee and I’m a Samaritan for the Wigan branch. So, I’ve got a full life.
‘I started volunteering for the LGBT foundation seven years ago. I’m a “Rainbow Brew Buddy” with the Foundation. It’s a support project which has been set up in the last 12 months.
‘We pick up calls for LGBT+ people who are feeling down or lonely, and each person who calls can have up to eight sessions. It’s very satisfying to help them, and it’s nice to have half an hour chat.
‘Lots of LGBT+ people have been incredibly isolated during the pandemic, and some have had to go back into the closet. Mental health issues, and isolation have unfortunately affected many people. Hopefully now that things are opening up more that will help with making people feel less isolated.
‘I’m also the community lead on the Wigan Pride Committee. I represent the LGBT foundation for Wigan Pride, doing anything that we can do to help. Wigan pride itself was set up six years ago.
‘At the Pride events we don’t just get the LGBT+ community but right across the community in the Wigan area and beyond as well. It’s a much smaller event than say Manchester pride, but that’s the beauty of it, it’s very much a community involved event.
‘As part of the Foundation’s “Pride in Ageing” group, we have monthly Zoom meetings, though hopefully we are leading up to having social events.
‘The programme was launched by Sir Ian McKellen to make sure that the voices of LGBT+ people over the age of 50 are heard. Two years ago we met Sir Ian, he’s a great guy.
‘The thing is, as an older LGBT person, people look to us for our experiences. But it was only 1999 when I first came out, when I was 51, so in the scale of things it’s pretty recent.
‘I’m part of the LGBT Archive team, which is based in Manchester Central Library. I help with cataloguing various collections. The historical materials are divided into sections, such as an HIV/AIDS collection, trans collections and a publications collection including magazines like Gay Times and Pink Paper.
‘There are some photographs, but not a vast quantity. There’s a good range of material, but we’re always on the lookout for more.
‘We have periodic handling sessions where the public can come along and have a look at some of the materials. We usually link the material into specific events, such as Pride month, International Day of Older Persons, Transgender Day of Remembrance and LGBT History month.
‘We’ve been busy over the past nearly twelve months working on oral history interviews. We’ve conducted nearly twenty interviews from the LGBT+ community so far. There’s been a range of age groups, we started off the project with people who are aged 70 and over, but now we’ve dropped down to people who are over 40.
‘It’s all about collecting as many experiences as possible. I just finished an interview yesterday. They’ve all been absolutely fascinating and thoughtful stories.
‘My favourite part about helping with the LGBT archive is looking back on the timeline, seeing how we’ve built up more equality than we had. It’s not perfect now, but when you look back, we’ve made such huge strides. The archive is there to preserve that history for all time.
‘There have been many legislative changes, with civil partnerships, same-sex marriages, Section 28 being abolished, things like that. There’s also been more and more acceptance – to a certain extent it’s generational.
‘The younger generations are overwhelmingly accepting. Although I don’t want to generalise that way, as there’s many people from older generations who are very welcoming. It’s gradually getting there.’
Do you have a story you’d like to share?
Get in touch at MetroLifestyleTeam@metro.co.uk.
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