My journey as a gay man

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.

If you liked this blog or would like to leave a reply for Kevin, please do so by using the comment box, below.

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  1. 1

    Great blog Kevin. We all know that feeling of being not accepted for being what we are. To this day my family still refuse to accept my choices as a gay man and i was brought up in the 80’s. Hopefully things will keep improving as time goes on. I am and you should be proud of yourself and everything you have achieved.

    • 2

      Thanks Lee

      It isn’t always easy. I know of men who were thrown out by their families for being gay as the ‘shame’ it would bring. Thankfully we have moved on and now a greater understanding and acceptance. That is not to say we should be complacent as there will always be discrimination – it is how we deal with it.

  2. 3

    What a wonderful piece of writing Kevin. One day we will ALL see people for WHO they are – not what they are sexuality wise.
    Be proud of yourself and everything you have achieved!

  3. 5

    Kevin, thanks for sharing your personal and moving story – it’s difficult to imagine that this was the norm. We have to recognise how much society within the UK has progressed – even though there is still work to be done. The abuse and discrimination you have faced will have undoubtedly made an impression upon your life but you should also be proud of your strength in supporting the progression of LGBT+ rights by being who you were born to be. A really inspirational blog.

    • 6

      Thanks Luke

      As you know it took a lot for me to write it. I have however been overwhelmed by the positive way the blog has been received.

  4. 7

    That was moving. Thanks for sharing your story with us Kevin. it takes a lot of courage to open yourself to others, especially for a shy person and you have done that magnifically.

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    What an enlightening piece Kev. I too didn’t realise the dictates of the Thatcher government (although don’t find it in the least surprising)
    Thank you for sharing some very personal and emotional details with us all. Well done you!

  8. 16

    Thank you for sharing your story Kevin. It moved me greatly – although aware of the law and the changes, to see their actual impact on someone has made me more aware of the struggle people faced – so unnecessary. So glad that times have changed for the better.

    • 17

      Hi Debbie,

      Glad you liked it. I think things are greatly different but nevertheless we can’t become complacent and still some way to go in certain areas of equality.

  9. 18

    I just wanted to say how moving I found your blog to be and how much I appreciate you sharing this which cannot have been easy to write.
    Very thought provoking.

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    Even in this day and age, it requires a lot of courage to speak so openly about your life and your experiences. I simply wanted to thank and commend you for sharing. We need more people like you to come forward!

    • 27

      Hi Samina

      Thanks for your response. Wasn’t easy but think I spent so long ‘hiding’ that it is now important to share and if it helps just one person then that is good.

  14. 28

    Kevin – that’s a hell of a read, thank you. Its difficult to believe that this was the way things were so recently, but it is heartening to see that things are so different for the next generation. I do agree there is still work to be done on tolerance, and powerful accounts like yours gives us all something to work with – thanks again.

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    So happy your story was published, very emotional read, it’s about time the truth was out there. Times are finally moving forward.

  16. 32

    Kevin this is such a moving piece in the challenges you’ve faced through your life to be the man you are today and thank you for sharing your journey!!

    There are many points you made about law and government that are just shocking and I am pleased to see we have moved on and i hear at home from my teenage daughter how teaching has changed in schools and judgement in any form is not tolerated.

    • 33

      Hi Jenny,

      Glad you enjoyed it – the law has indeed moved on from when there were periods of open and encouraged entrapment to raids on Gay clubs etc just to make more gay men go ‘underground’ – Thank goodness that has changed.

      Gay Social Areas (pubs,clubs etc) or ‘Gay Villages’ as they are now referred to are on tourist trails – so very different.

  17. 34

    What an incredibly moving account of your personal history. We have come on quite a journey in the past 20 years, and although we have some distance to go, I feel really hopeful for the future. Having grown up in a much more accepting society, paved by the difficulties that came before, our younger generations have such brilliant outlooks. They accept and celebrate diversity (in all its forms). My friend’s children are incredibly mature and open about their own identities, and do not see same sex relationships as anything unusual.

    • 35

      Hi Zoe,

      We have moved a long way – thank goodness. Its great younger generations can be who they want to be and live their ‘true identity’ – long may it continue.

  18. 36

    Kevin, fantastic blog and very informative, was not aware of the Thatcher school and local Government requirement, how far you have traveled and the changes you have seen, am sure there is still a long way to go but at least we as a Country are heading in the right direction these days, thanks for sharing, regards

    • 37

      Hi Matt, Thanks for you kind words. At times it seemed like a very long journey but we made progress and are where are today. Still some way to go though for other around the World.

  19. 38

    thank you so much for sharing your past experience, I still remember the heated discussions with my father who had his ‘historic’ position on many of the now protected charactertistics…., while mum kept ‘stum’.
    So glad next generation is able to be more open and accepting… and also challenging those perceptions from their elders. I would love to share your post (with your permission) with my team as part of their engagement time when talking about diversity and the caring value attached to all our jobs….. it also means caring about each other as well as donors. Looking at our own responses when seeing inappropriate behavior is important in the fight around the world as you stated so eloquently.

    • 39

      Hi Carol – of course you can share it. I think the more people that know about the issues that have and continue to be faced is for the better really.

  20. 40

    What a moving story. Thanks so much for sharing such a personal view of how things were and are for you. Hopefully it will inspire others to realise the impact that hatred and intolerance can have on individuals, and also for us to remember people who have worked hard for people to be able to be who they are.

    • 41

      Hi Marian,
      Glad you liked it.

      At times we seemed to cross one hurdle only find another waiting. I am pleased we have come a long way and have got to the point we are now. That is not to say we don’t still have work to do. The Diversity agenda is at different stages around the globe – we need to be mindful of that and do what we can to help.

  21. 42

    Thank you for your honest and thought-provoking blog Kevin.

    I’m a very glad that there have been some changes for the better and that my two boys are growing up in a more accepting world, however life takes them forward in the future.

    • 43

      Hi Ellen,

      Think its great that there is greater acceptance of the Diversity Agenda in schools now and the positive impact it has had on the young people attending.

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    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences, Kevin. Important to know that it has not always been easy to identify as LGBT+ in the UK. We have come a long way but still a way to go! I agree with Elisabeth; so great that the younger generations appear to be more open about their identity – especially at school which can be so difficult – and their peers are supportive and accepting. Very hopeful for the future!

    • 47

      Hi Laura,

      We do have a way to go but it is so much better now. We do however need to spare a thought and take action for LGBT+ people in parts of the World that do not share our freedoms.

  24. 48

    Fantastic blog Kevin ! I think there is still work to be done, but we have come a long way in the last 20 years. What gives me hope is the attitude of the next generation – my teenage daughter sees nothing out of the ordinary about her friends having same sex relationships – its just part of life for her 🙂

    • 49

      Hi Liz – That is what is great now that kids just see that as the way it is. The next generation will be very different. We just have to be mindful that although things have changed here but still with a way to go – it isn’t the same in all parts of the World and we still need to fight for them.

  25. 50

    Such a well needed reminder of how far we’ve come but also how far we still need to go!
    Thank you Kevin for sharing your experience.

  26. 52

    Kevin: thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s a really powerful reminder of how hard life is if you can’t be yourself in all of your life.

    • 53

      Thanks Sally – not always been easy but I hope it helps others to be who they want to be without shame or fear.

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