The Pride of the North

For decades the North of England lagged behind in the bid for gay equality. Stefan Roberts and finds out what’s changed

In 1967 gay men and women in the UK could only have dreamed that the gay movement would be in the position it is today. This was the year of the Monkees and the handheld calculator. Billie Jean King won Wimbledon. But in 2012 gay men have celebrated this year as the year when consensual sex between two men became legal.

This year a UK-wide government survey into the popularity of gay marriage and we have hosted an Olympics celebrating world diversity. The circumstances under which men were to live prior to 1967, and the terrible fear which shadowed most of their lives, are unimaginable.

Many were forced into sham marriages, committing themselves and their wives to lifetimes of unhappiness, which often produced children born into desperately unhappy households. Unmarried gay men often found employment difficult or impossible, having to combat rumours of being a ‘confirmed bachelor’, halting any possibility of career progression and often leading to the loss of their job.

Today, the international attitude towards homosexuality seems to be changing more quickly than even the earliest campaigners for equality could have hoped. Even nations that have deeply ingrained religious values and conservative governments are now embracing a more liberal attitude towards acceptance of homosexuality.

“I have no doubt that York needs this constant push, constant reminders.
There’s still a lot of work to do.”

However, in the UK the movement towards sexual equality is still not complete. Even over the last ten years, attitudes towards the gay community have shifted dramatically. For Julian Rudd, Vice Chair of York Pride, legislation has been a key driving force in changing people’s attitudes towards gays: “I think that some of the things in the last couple of years have really made a difference. With the civil partnership stuff I thought all of a sudden it was possible and it was visible that people of the same sex could marry.

“It was visible”. Placing gays in the public eye – in the street, on your television, in the media is, in Julian’s opinion, central to there being a whole new generation who see homosexuality as part of human life: something natural and normal. “I have three godchildren and each one of those has grown up knowing that I’m gay. They’ve seen me with my partner and that is a very normal part of their life. That isn’t something that would have happened a long time ago. To me there’s nothing stronger than people growing up with gays, knowing people and that just people being part of life. It being embedded from the start is how we’d all wish it to be.”

Julian has a host of experiences to highlight the problems that gays have faced in the past, and that reformed legislation has rectified: “The government before the last Labour government introduced Clause 28. I do remember terribly clearly what it felt like to think that if I asked my teacher whether it was okay that I was starting to feel things towards other lads, they wouldn’t have been able to say yes. They couldn’t reassure me or they might have lost their job.”

It is this ability to be truly ‘out’ that has allowed change to filter so fast. Where being gay was once, by necessity, a private affair, it increasingly has grown to shape people’s identity: “A lot of gay people have gone through that journey – oh this is something that I’ll keep quiet, it’s a private thing. It’s nobody else’s business. Through to getting a little older and thinking no I can’t live my life in that way.” And this is one area where Pride organisations are so key, and this is no more important than in smaller cities such as York. Julian sees York Pride as a driving force of gay social life, for example organising social events in bars and clubs.

Organisations such as Pride, and the Gay & Lesbian Foundation in Manchester, which now has the largest gay population outside London, are now central to gay communities in the north, but one can’t forget that the movement in the north was slow to grow. For many years London, and ‘satellite’ cities such as Brighton, dominated British gay culture. “London was always the easiest place in the UK to get lost in, to live your life without anybody else noticing. You could be gay in London and not have bigoted people at your front door every day,” Julian says. “I’m not saying that there weren’t gay bars in other cities, and people weren’t meeting – they were. But, in terms of where it was acceptable, London was leading.”

And Brighton? “Brighton in so many ways is just London by the sea anyway!”

Marchers at July's York Pride march, the first to take place in York

I was interested in whether celebrity culture was an important driver in people’s attitudes towards the gay community, for example Graham Norton or Alan Carr. Julian was adamant that these do not have much of a bearing: “There’s always been celebrity poofs of one variety or another going back to Kenneth Williams, people have recognised gay people and they’ve been celebrated, but they’ve been mocked as well. I suspect that the celebrity side of it has a lot less to do with it than just people’s experience of gay lives.”

He goes on to de-bunk the idea that football has a significant impact on perceptions, “Manchester is one of the top football centres of the world and it’s still got the most significant community of gay life in the north of England by a long, long way.” Gay life is easy to stereotype, as Julian admits, forgiving me as I suggest that open gay communities were more likely to form in areas disposed to the arts, “you do get a lot of gay people associated with the arts, but you also get a lot of gay people being farmers or builders. I think it’s easy to stereotype. It partly goes back to whom you know. In manual work and other areas it’s not so easy for them to be openly gay.”

And so we return to the central point that it is the individual’s exposure to the gay community that determines his or her attitude to it.

Julian tells me about his experience of being gay in the North with remarkable honesty; York, it appears, isn’t the centre of middle-class liberalism you might expect. But he does still find York “quite rural” and “drudgy” in its outlook and beliefs. This ‘approach’ can come about in quite an overt manner, Julian describes one example where a marcher at York’s first Pride march, which took place in July, was sent a letter to his workplace outlining how wrong he was and how wrong Pride was for York.

“York’s just another northern town, this one happens to have tourism, religion and some pretty buildings. But actually get out into the suburbs where people live and you could be in Leeds or Hull – it’s not that different.” But Julian has mostly had only good experiences in York, “My ex-partner and I were regularly in a pub in Heworth. It’s a very blokey pub, and when they found out we were gay you could just see the jaws hitting the floor. Since then we’ve had quite a lot of piss taking – at the end of the night we’re always asked whether we’re going to go out the back door!”

The declining role of religion in UK society also has a key role. In York, controversy was sparked earlier this year when the Archbishop spoke out forcefully against the government’s gay marriage proposals, likening the action to the works of dictators in tyrannical states attempting to change a fundamental staple of society.

“I think it’s fairly unusual for anybody under 50 for it to play that bigger part. I think for my parent’s generation it would be very different,” Julian comments. The Archbishop’s comments drew widespread opposition from the gay community, which Julian echoes: “What he was clearly doing was essentially a stall-out for his next potential job. A man who in many respects is massively principled has just driven so far away from those principles just for a bit of politicking in the Anglican church.”

The York Pride Hostess outside the Minster; Photos on this page: chippykev

But if religion isn’t important in crafting people’s views, were his comments in fact significant? “It’s significant for the church in that those who aren’t closely involved with the Church will now think that it is even less relevant than before and more out of touch with society. I think it actually did them harm.”

In the UK, the challenges presented for the gay community are no longer for legality, or for an end to discrimination, but for equality in marriage – something that the first gay rights campaigners would’t have dreamt of. But the message from Julian is clear: legislative battles have been won and attitudes are changing, as gays and the gay community enter everyday life, but there is still a way to go. Homophobia is an element that many men still have to live with even so long after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

“It’s hateful and shameful. It remains there. There are quite a few younger people, in their late teens and early twenties, who are terrified about their friends finding out that they’re gay. I think bloody hell, despite the progress there are still people whose lives are completely taken up by this issue. I have no doubt that York needs a constant push, constant reminders. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

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