As part of LGBT History Month, Kevin Cartwright, Head of Estates Transformation and Sustainability, shares with us his experiences growing up as a gay man.
As LGBT History Month is upon us and as 2017 was the 50-year landmark since the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, I thought I would share with you my journey as a gay man.
Growing up in the late 60s I had no idea what the 1967 Act would mean for me or my sexuality or indeed how that would shape me in years to come. In junior school, sex education was about boy and girl and how a baby was produced. I think the teacher would have had a heart attack had she been required to talk about same sex relationships! At that stage, homosexuality was still illegal and seen as abhorrent. I attended an all-boys school which was driven on discipline and results. The days when the cane was still used, and we had public canings in the assembly hall for which every boy in the school was made to attend whereby the headmaster played judge and jury. As someone who was already shy and reserved (yes, I was!) that probably made me even more timid. I knew I was different but I didn’t know why. It was probably around the age of 15-16 that I knew I was gay. The intervening years I had been bullied, as had the only black boy in the school. We became friends and in our own way, looked out for each other.
School shaped me into someone that was not open about my thoughts and feelings. I stayed on into the sixth form but knew that when I left I didn’t want to go straight to University. At the age of 18 I knew that the 1967 Act had partially decriminalised homosexuality for consenting men over the age of 21 in private. As an 18-year-old I knew I still could not express my feelings towards anyone as that would potentially put me in breach of the law. I pretended to be ‘normal’ (whatever that meant!) and dated a couple of girls; an absolute disaster that was…
I thought there was something wrong with me so went to see my GP. He said he could refer me to a psychiatrist as there may be a ‘cure’. Stupidly, I agreed. I remember the psychiatrist to this day; Dr Mateo. He said he could ‘cure’ me if I was prepared for therapy and shock treatment. I’m not entirely sure what that would have meant but thankfully I never went ahead with it. Sometime later I recall going back to see my GP. He asked, “Have you proved your manhood yet?”
Upon leaving school I had no idea what I wanted to do so got my first job as a management trainee with a building society. I thought if nothing else, I would get a cheap mortgage! The role was very boring and I went on to work for a large book publishing company in marketing and sales. This was a great job and I stayed here for 7 years. Both jobs had however taught me that to ‘get on’ in your career, you needed to be the family man with wife and children. I was overlooked for an overseas job within the company because I was unmarried. From then on, I never bothered to put myself forward for anything in case it exposed or inadvertently outed me.
At the age of 20, I had met my first real partner which lasted for 7 years. He was a secret, but I guess for the time we were lucky as my parents accepted him and his parents accepted me. However, it wasn’t that easy. I am an only child and I always felt guilty, I would never produce the grandchildren that my parents may want. I am not sure who my mum initially thought my first partner was. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to ask her if she knew who or what Martin was to me and I will never forget here response. She said, “Yes I do but don’t tell your Dad and don’t let any of the family know. I never want to talk about it again.” To this day, I never did talk to my Dad about it nor to my Mum.
There was still that cloak and dagger about who me and my partner were, despite that we had purchased our first house together. We would like to think society had moved on, but it hadn’t, really.
The early 80s saw high profile deaths from a new disease called AIDS and it started to rock the world, particularly for gay men. The first Public Health advert in 1986 showed tombstones and played dramatic music. In many respects, this set the gay agenda back despite the fact AIDS was affecting heterosexual people too. A long period of ignorance followed from the public and sufferer’s endured stigma on an unprecedented scale. Attacks on gay men increased and many were too afraid to come out as gay. It wasn’t until 1986 that the virus was renamed Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and the first real treatments followed the same year.
I remember walking around London on some of the first Gay Pride marches and having missiles, eggs and all sorts thrown at me together with awful abuse. By this stage I had decided I was who I was, and nothing was going to change that. Soon after, I got involved in voluntary work to help other gay men who were ‘trapped’ and felt they had nowhere to turn.
In 1983, I went to Birmingham University to complete my social work training and first degree. I qualified and went into the Probation Service. Even at University I expected to feel comfortable, but I never really did and I keept my private life private. I remember doing a module called ‘facts and values’ and I was astonished at the ignorance of people on my course. I got angry one day and said, “God help the public if you are to be let loose on them!” I think that was a turning point and we started to see some of the first diversity training.
My early years as a main grade officer meant I kept myself to myself as I was paranoid that my colleagues or heaven forbid any of the offenders, would find out that I was gay. Even then in the 80s the family unit was still seen as man, woman and children. I had been doing the job for about 2 years when a colleague offered to give me a lift home. I remember her saying “What is the set up here then?” I told her and pleaded with her not to say anything. She never did and we are still friends today.
Things did not really get better for gay men as in 1988 the Thatcher Government introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act. The amendment stated that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. It wasn’t until 2003 that the Labour Government overturned this, and it was approved by the House of Lords and became effective on 18th November 2003.
In 1991, I was pushed by my then line manager to apply for management roles despite wanting to fade into the background for fear of attracting attention. I applied for my first promotion into management and was successful. I was a Senior Probation Officer managing one of the largest bail hostels in the Country. Again, being paranoid that anyone would find out that I was a gay man, I made up stories about partners and my private life. As part of that role I was on-call. I was so worried that I had a second telephone line installed at home which myself and partner referred to as the ‘bat phone’. He knew he could never answer it otherwise our cover might be blown. This system maintained for several years.
1994 did see things changing. The age of consent was lowered to 18 but it wasn’t until 2001 it came down to 16, the same as consenting heterosexuals.
The late 90s saw me move into Youth Justice where I became a specialist in the field and lecturer on the subject at Birmingham University. By this time, I was feeling a little more comfortable with myself but still paranoid anyone would know anything about me. I therefore never went for further promotion for fear of having to say too much about myself.
In 1998, I was seconded to work at the Home Office and at that point being in London it seemed no one was really bothered, and I let my guard down a little more, and I guess started to accept myself more and not care what others thought.
We have moved on thank goodness and although I still think there is some way to go particularly around religious influences on sexuality, 2018 feels very different to 20, 30 or 40 years ago. LGBT+ people are able to get married and adopt children. That would have been unheard of years ago and society’s attitude to tolerance and acceptance on many issues has completely changed.
I attended Manchester Gay Pride last year and became very emotional. It was a family day. It still evokes emotion as I write this piece. It is such a different experience – big companies and organisations wanting to be associated, displaying the rainbow flag and a huge contingent from the Manchester Police Service with senior officers leading their part of the procession. This experience was so different to my days of having missiles and eggs thrown at me and the police taking videos for goodness knows what purpose.
Things have also move on in schools. My friend told me his daughter came home from school upset as her friend had split with her partner. He said, “Never mind, there are plenty more lads.” she replied, “Dad, it was another girl!” This made me smile and warmed my heart to think kids could be who they wanted to be – something I never could.
I remember listening to an interview last year, marking the 50 years of the Sexual Offences Act on Radio 5 live. It was an interview between a man in his 70s and man in his 20s. The presenter said nothing and let them talk. It was quite emotional as the young man said, “Thank you for fighting for the freedoms we as young gay men enjoy today.” The older man said, “Thank you for going out there and being who you are and who you want to be.”
We have moved forward but there is still prejudice in the UK and other countries, and we especially need to fight for those who do not have the freedom that we now have. I won’t however forget how we got to this point.
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