I’ve noticed recently that I am no longer obviously gay and that worries me. You may wonder what does ‘obviously gay’ mean and that would be a good question. Members of the LGBTQ+ family come in all shapes, sizes, colours, dispositions, walks of life, cultural backgrounds, presentation, etc. Sure, there are stereotypes and some of us can embody those, but most of us don’t exactly fit the stereotypes either. Though I may have some stereotypically gay attributes and sometimes enjoy playing with those stereotypes, I have never been the stereotype that popular culture portrayed about what a gay man is. And yet, for a large part of my adult life I was consciously obviously gay.
Prior to coming out in a big way when I was 20, I lived very closeted and secret double life connected to the church. When my big secret was revealed to my community and my family I was abandoned and homeless. Luckily, I was ‘adopted’ by a rag tag bunch of gay men, lesbians, and transfolk who for a variety of reasons were considered the dregs of society. They took me in and brought me back to life. That community felt a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys from the old Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer Claymation Christmas special…with one exception. Though they all claimed their “misfit-ness” they were not sad or miserable like the misfit toys in that TV show. They embraced and celebrated who they were and lived authentic and visible lives. They were outrageous, loving, giving, loud and a lot of fun too. (Think of the TV programme POSE and you’ll get a sense of the community that adopted me) Even as AIDS began to devastate that community, they continued to be outrageous, loving and visible. They learned to live with dignity in their queerness, and in the height of the early AIDS epidemic they showed others how to support each other to die with dignity. When society abandoned us at our hour of greatest need, we banded together and thrived….even in death. I began to realise at this point that every act of being out, whether of the outrageous/flamboyant type or the quieter “this is who I am” type, was both personal and political. The AIDS crisis made it even more important for LGBT people to be visible and to be seen as part of wider society. When my partner died from AIDS and I was immediately made homeless for the 2nd time in my life due to homophobia I became a bit of a militant “in your face” gay man and I made sure strangers in the street were aware I was a gay man. Though I mellowed a great deal over the years I’ve always been adamant about the importance of being out. I’m convinced that one of the reasons we made great strides in LGB rights is that so many of us began to be out and huge proportions of the general population began to realise that they had lesbian or gay family members, friends, work colleagues, doctors, plumbers, nurses, cleaners, etc. It was difficult to ‘other’ and demonise that which you know. As I progressed in my career, I thought it was even more important for me to be visibly out so that younger LGBT people could see successful and happy older LGBT people…something I didn’t have growing up.
So here I am now at 60 years old and I worry that I am no longer easily identifiable as a gay man. I think this is partly down to ageism and wider society still doesn’t see older people as sexual beings or as having a sexuality. Ageism also exists in the LGBT community and we can be excluded from the younger LGBTQ scene (though there is a sub-culture of ‘daddy chasers’ who like us older men). But moving beyond ageism, some of the external stereotypical things I used to like to do have diminished as well. For example, how I present myself has changed. I look like an old man now, rather than as a gay man. Certainly since I retired I no longer have any fashion sense at all – joggy bottoms and a fleece with coffee stains will do just fine for a trip to Tesco (what have I become?)! The LGBT work lanyards are gone. My public leadership of LGBT staff networks or city Pride organisations is gone. In addition, I’ve gone from doing things with a large LGBT friendship circle to having few LGBT friends I do things with publicly. In my 30s and 40s I was regularly going out to restaurants, the cinema, theatre, sporting events, theme parks, conference, sports tournaments etc with 5, 10 or 20 screaming queens and butch dykes. Last night we went to see the Pet Shop Boys with another older gay couple and aside from the initial kisses and cuddles when we saw each other, we would have blended into a predominantly straight crowd.
On one hand there is something to be celebrated in the fact that I can quietly live my life as part of a gay couple and have peace of mind that I now have the same legal rights as a straight married couple. Never again will I be flung out on the streets if my partner dies. There is something to celebrate in the fact that I can go to a concert, meet two gay friends and have a brief cuddle and kiss in public and not get beat up or arrested. But there is also something very disconcerting about being invisible again.
Invisibility feels particularly dangerous at this particular time in history because the pendulum of human rights for LGBT people is beginning to swing in a regressive direction. I lived through and have the scars from the horrible homophobia and oppression of the 1970s 1980s and 1990s. I remember the hate fuelled murders of Harvey Milk, Mathew Sheppard, Rita Hester and many other less famous LGBT people. I remember all the hateful discourse and backlash against LGBT people as public opinion regarding LGB people began to shift positively around the turn of the century until it peaked in the past 20 years. I recognise the language being used against trans people today as the same language used against gay people back then, and how that same language is now once again also seeping into discourse about LGB people too. I recognise the divide and conquer techniques the right is using to get parts of the LGBT community fighting against each other. I also recognise how those same techniques are turning working class people against the poor, refugees, immigrants, BAME people and other marginalised communities. If we get riled up and start fighting each other, we won’t notice when those in power further line their pockets and further undo years of progressive advances. Those in power are not even pretending any longer and are blatantly hostile against the LGBT community as well as other marginalised groups. I must find new ways to stand up and say each and every day that I am here and I’m queer and I’m not going away. I must also find new ways to stand in solidarity with others who are being marginalised. I am also finding my LGBTQ community again. I will not be invisible, nor will I stand by in silence as I see others oppressed. Act Up had it right all those years ago: Silence=Death; Action=Life