Tag Archives: Social Justice

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

Homophobia is a thing of the past in UK blood donation

Last June I gave blood for the first time ever, though it wasn’t the first time I tried to give blood – that was 40 years ago. I was a seminarian back then, studying to be a priest, living in a rectory, while going to university. There was a blood drive on Sunday after mass. I stood in the queue with all the other parishioners while we completed our medical forms. There on the form it was made clear that as a ‘homosexual’ man I was not allowed to give blood. I was closeted at the time and already felt like there was something wrong with me for being a homosexual. The AIDS hysteria and rampant homophobia of the time only added to those feelings of self-loathing.  I had to think quickly on my feet and find some excuse to mark on the form so that I could get out of giving blood without letting on I was a gay man. My conscience wouldn’t let me fake being straight to give blood just in case I had the gay disease. I just accepted at the time that I was a risk to society, simply because I was gay. That was certainly the messaging in the press and government at the time. Gay men were dangerous. Full stop. As a class of people, we were tainted, risky, vile, poisoned and must be avoided. Of course, it wasn’t just us. It was also drug users and Haitians – but the vitriol was focussed primarily on us. 

Twenty years later and in a different, more progressive country, I thought I would give blood. But no, the blanket ban on gay men giving blood was still in effect in the UK.  By this time, I was a very out gay man and had really come to understand homophobia and all the other isms in society. I recognised this time that the problem was not me or my blood. The problem was homophobia. The original and continuing ban was based on prejudice and fear about an entire class of people. With the advent of reliable HIV testing, I could guarantee that my blood was not tainted. How did I know this? Well I had regular testing and completely changed my behaviour. I did not engage in ANY risky behaviour. Most of my friends at the time were doing the same thing. We went to safer sex parties, which were much like Tupperware parties – not parties to have sex, where we learned about safer sex practices. We used self-help and community development activities to educate ourselves and change our behaviour. These were also a lot of fun and a good laugh. During this period I had two 4-5 year periods of celibacy as well as a long-term monogamous relationship. My blood was safer than most sexually active straight people I knew at the time.

I had straight friends who didn’t believe they were at risk of HIV infection so got up to all sorts of unsafe sexual behaviours. How did I know there was lots of unsafe sex going on in the straight world? Well, as my gay male friends can attest, many straight women love to talk to us about their sex lives. I think sometimes it’s nice to talk to a man about sex, without any sexual feelings getting in the way.  Regardless of the reason, we gay men often know all sorts of things about what straight women get up to or what they want from their male partners. For example, some of my female friends practiced anal sex – both so they didn’t get pregnant as well as for pleasure reasons. Another friend was called “Head Queen” by her sorority sisters as she thought that oral sex would not transmit HIV or other sexual diseases. Others who used oral contraceptives had a range of partners without using protection. Still others used types of protection that were not really useful against HIV (e.g. lambskin condoms). Though straight men were not as likely to share these types of details with me as a gay man, I still heard enough straight men talking about their sexual exploits to know that they too were engaging in high-risk behaviour – though some of what I heard was likely made up or at least exaggerated! Because I had become a safe sex expert out of necessity, I tried to educate my straight friends about their risk for HIV. Often, I was ignored because in the messaging from governments and media outlets, most people heard only that AIDS was about being a type of person (e.g., gay men), and not about behaviours. This is homophobia. As long as you weren’t one of “them” you were safe. This is an example of how homophobia also hurt straight people….worldwide now 50% of new infections occur in women and currently in the UK more straight people than gay/bisexual people are being diagnosed with HIV. But getting back to the main point of this blog post, the ban on donating blood should always have been about behaviours….not sexual orientation. It took untilJune of 2021 for this to happen in the UK.  It is still not the case in the USA, despite the Red Cross believing the UK approach should be adopted.

As I gave blood last June during the 1st week gay people in the UK were allowed to, I let staff know what it meant to me to finally after 40 years be able to give blood. They were so welcoming and happy to see us coming in droves to give blood. They said lots of the gay men were saying the same thing as me. I knew I would be back. You are able to donate blood every three months, but I was unable to donate in September for a behavioural reason – I got a tattoo that month.  I needed to wait 4 months after my tattoo to be able to give blood again. This is a very sensible behavioural screening. After my 4 months were up, I gave blood the second time. Because I came back to give another blood donation, I got a special pin for showing up again, and I also got some information about my blood type. I have a rare blood type that is constantly in demand, and all I could think of was the number of people I could have helped save or help treat over the past 40 years if it wasn’t for the homophobia and fear that guided public policy for so long.  I plan on making up for lost time and giving blood as often as I can. I encourage others to do the same if you meet the now sensible eligibility criteria. Now if we can just tackle the rest of homophobia and the other isms too. 

True Confession: I have racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, and classist friends and family members

Do you ever wonder how you could possibly have emerged from the environment you were born into and brought up in? I wonder that all the time. Clearly some of my best traits I get from my father with a good bit of my mother’s zest for life and her interminable positive outlook mixed in to counter dad’s pathos. Dad had a strong sense of social justice rooted in the working class struggle and the anti-Catholic/anti-Irish prejudices that the Kelly/Casey families from which he sprang faced. I can see those elements in who I am….but so much else of who I am and what I value/believe is completely out of step with my family, many of my old friends, the communities I grew up in, and certainly in the Trump loving region I come from.  This really hit home recently when I reconnected with an old high school teacher – also gay, Catholic and from a rural Southern background. His most recent e-mail was filled with beliefs and attitudes straight from the conservative playbook on topics such as race in America, immigration ruining American culture, anger at what he experiences as white people being blamed for everything. He was espousing many of the same things my family of origin espouse. I was shocked as I had assumed our beliefs would be similar and not diametrically opposed. Dad used to say that our heroes do have clay feet – so I shouldn’t be surprised. 

I wish I understood how I escaped all of that value inculcation/indoctrination. If we are a product of our upbringing, how is it I am so different in my beliefs from my parents, my siblings, the teachers who shaped my education? I used to think it was my experience of being gay and Catholic in an incredibly homophobic and anti-Catholic KKK influenced culture. But as my old teacher demonstrated, being gay and Catholic does not necessarily help one understand other forms of oppression.  That shouldn’t be a surprise to me as I know many gay people who, for example, hold racist beliefs – any black LGBT+ person will be able to attest to the racism in LGBT communities. It really saddens me to know that people I love and cherish can hold such racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and transphobic beliefs and values (though most would vehemently deny they have those beliefs). I realise that some of those beliefs have entered my unconsciousness and they do emerge at times to my shock and embarrassment. But why can I acknowledge that is a part of me and not get defensive, when so many of the people who shaped who I am today and love dearly are not able to do that? Why have the scales been peeled from my eyes so I can see so much of the various forms of oppression in our societies? If I knew that I could be a real force for good in the world. In the meantime I continue to gently speak my truth to those I love despite their racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic beliefs. 

Photo by Mathias P.R. Reding on Pexels.com

I sometimes worry that I become complicit in oppression by maintaining relationships with people with views I consider abhorrent.  But as I see the world becoming polarised, made up of echo chambers and unwilling to meaningfully engage with the ‘other side’ (whatever sides those are), I see fascism across the globe increasing. I wonder if there is a connection there?  I think one of the successes of the struggle for gay rights is that it became harder to ‘other’ and demonise gay people as we became visible. Through visibility and engaging with others, while being out, we became the gay brother, sister, uncle, aunt, neighbour, co-worker, politician, shop keeper, doctor, teacher, lecturer, street sweeper, delivery driver… Everyone, it turns out, had someone in their life who was gay. When allies started ’owning’ that they had positive relationships with gay people, that message got even louder. Demonising the ‘other’ is a powerful tool for oppression (just look at the anti-trans discourse for example), and through engagement we can disarm that powerful tool. So I will continue engaging with those I care about who also hold abhorrent views and gently speak my truth. It’s difficult to do this and I do experience moral distress, but perhaps my ability to love and gently confront at the same time is my superpower. I hope this superpower may put a few chinks in their echo chambers until the scales fall off their eyes. Now if I only really understood how those scales fell from my eyes…

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.