Category Archives: Political Opinion

The Invisibility of Being Old and Queer

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

Freedom of speech versus causing offence: Do we really need cotton wool?

Nearly 20 years ago I visited the Ann Frank house in Amsterdam for the first time. The museum highlighted for me both the best and the worst of humanity, and I was visibly moved. Though I have reflected back on many elements of that house and the visit, there was an exhibit at the end of the tour that has continued to emerge in my consciousness on a regular basis over the years….particularly in recent years.  The exhibit was the interactive Free2Choose instillation. This instillation was in a small room and around the room film clips were displayed which contained images of conflicting rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. After each short film clip people around the room voted on whether they would allow such things or censor/ban/stop them, and the results were immediately displayed. I was amazed at the range of the diversity of opinion that was expressed.  I would look around the room wondering who possibly could have voted differently from me, as I believed freedom of speech trumped almost everything else. I assumed that everyone would believe freedom of speech was an inalienable right, just like me. But, some of the film clips did challenge my “inalienable” stance. Clearly if someone was inciting violence against others, societies need to take a stand. If only life could be so black and white, but our world is made up of shades of grey, contradictions and ambiguities. Indeed, there are limitations to freedom of expression in the UN Convention on Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (see Article 10). The ECHR lists such limitations (e.g. national security, territorial integrity, public safety, prevention of disorder or crime, the protection of health or morals, the protection of the reputation or rights of others, prevention of disclosure of private or confidential information, impartiality of the judiciary). When looking at these acceptable limitations, it’s easy to see why there were such differences of opinion in the Ann Frank Free2Choose instillation. This list is full of competing rights and grey areas.

The reason this instillation has come into my mind so much in recent years is because I am becoming increasingly concerned about the number of areas that seem to be becoming off limits in universities, in academic discourse, or in public debate.  So many things seem to cause offence or insult a person’s sense of self, and if this happens then there are calls for limiting freedom of expression, or worse yet, demonising the person who has dared to question or challenge or say something. There are ideas, values and beliefs that have become sacred cows – to question one of these is to cause offence and bring the wrath of an incensed mob.  One of the confusing things for me is that often the incensed mob is made up of people who, like me, lean way to the liberal side of things.

The other confusing thing for me is that I am fully aware of the power of language to promote and support injustice and oppression. The words we use are important. And yet, I am concerned that the PC police have become overly zealous and punishing of people who are perceived to have used offensive language or express offensive ideas. Yet, I also don’t want to go back to the days when words like poof, queer, pervert were used in the press or to the days when homophobic rants were rife and acceptable (e.g., during Section 28 debates). At the same time, when words/ideas/beliefs that are offensive to me are expressed today, I don’t think the initial reaction should be a call to silence the person making such comments.

In the university sector we’ve seen things like no platforming, the demonising of academics who do research in or write about controversial issues or challenge current thinking, and the cancelling of controversial speakers – often out of a fear of causing offense. I think this diminishes the world and makes it less safe. It also diminishes the educational experience. Some academics I know have pulled back from researching and writing in certain areas because of the abuse they received by those who were offended by their work. This diminishes the world and makes our knowledge base less robust. I want to live in a society where citizens are not wrapped in cotton wool or shielded from controversial and uncomfortable ideas.  Any of our ideas could be seen as offensive and off limits and any one of us could be silenced or punished because of our ideas and beliefs.  In my lifetime advocating gay rights has been seen as offensive, dangerous and subversive. I’ve also been required to swear never to join the communist party in order to get a contract of employment. I thought things were getting better, but if we keep going down the road we seem to be on, we could end up back in some Orwellian,  McCarthy-like world. That frightens me. Let’s be brave enough to be offended and engage, rather than enrage and shut down.

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Thank you Miss Mary – What do MG & IDS know?

Note: This blog post was initially made back in 2013. In the relaunch of my blog I decided to keep this on as it is one of my favourite pieces of writing.

 

I made good ole Suthin Biscuits this morning for breakfast. I haven’t eaten any for years, and it has been even longer since I made any. For all you folks not from the Deep South (and I’m not talking about SE England), Suthin is how to properly say Southern. Biscuits from that fantastic part of the world are not sweet twice baked confections. Rather, they are savoury, fluffy, light and can be served with breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are a truly gorgeous, simple and versatile foodstuff. If Moses had been lost in the pine forest in my home state of Georgia for all those years, I’m sure biscuits would have rained down instead of manna.

I’m not sure what put the notion of biscuits in my head, but as I thought of making them I was transported back to the late 1980s when I was running day programmes for mentally ill older people based on the psychosocial clubhouse model. This is where Miss Mary taught me to make biscuits. I spent this morning thinking back about this client (that’s the term we used back then instead of service user). Miss Mary was the child of slaves and lived through all the Jim Crow laws. Her entire life was marked by extreme racism, sexism and oppressive poverty. She worked at one of the few jobs available to her – as a domestic in someone’s home: low pay, no benefits and no taxes. As an older person she developed a chronic mental illness and was unable to work to support herself. Miss Mary became dependent on the state that had sanctioned oppressive systems that caused her dependency.

Recently Michael Gove attacked social work education again and suggested that university lecturers are teaching idealistic students to blame society rather than teaching them to make people take responsibility for their own actions. Gove’s comments rubbish C. Wright Mills’ concept of private troubles and public issues and the rather large evidence base regarding the negative impact of social inequalities on the lives of individuals. I thought of Gove’s comments while making the biscuits this morning and wondered what Gove would think of the woman who taught me to make them. Would it be wrong to consider that the very difficulties she was experiencing as an older ‘negro’ woman were perhaps caused by the society in which she lived? Would it be wrong to teach students to help Mary while also working to bring about social change?

I also thought of Mary again when reading the article in the Observer this morning about Iain Duncan Smith’s latest cuts . I also thought of the thousands of disabled people I have worked with over my career, who like Mary required support from the state. Many of the disabled people I have worked with have faced a lifetime of oppression, harsh social systems and dehumanising treatment. The messages coming from IDS continue to add to the dehumanising experiences of disabled people. These messages are often couched in terms of savings through individualism, privatisation, and the evils of public services. The messages I hear from the Westminster government suggest that people who are poor, disabled, ill, old and fragile, unemployed, experiencing difficulties in living or facing stressful life conditions are responsible for their own lot in life and therefore need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. People who fall into these categories are a drain on society and have little value – people like Mary.

And yet, here I am nearly 30 years later still thinking about and reflecting on what Mary taught me. This women who was a daughter of slaves, poor, ill, disabled, had no economic ‘value’ and was a total drain on society. Yet, she taught me to bake biscuits despite being psychotic, delusional and demented. More importantly she also taught me how to be a better social worker. That second lesson I took with me into all the work I have done since. So in many ways Mary has influenced and touched thousands of people because of what she taught me…..and the biscuits are pretty darn good too!

I think the coalition knows the cost of many things, but the value of little.