Andrew King’s recent piece about older people and homophobia published on the website The Conversation got me thinking about my own research interviewees with gay and bisexual male (GBM) elders, which I undertook in the mid 2000s.
One of the notable issues concerning the homosexual law reform movement in Scotland during the late 1960s and 1970s was that it took on a largely ‘assimilst’ rhetoric. The Scottish Minorities Group (SMG), Scotland’s foremost homosexual law reform organisation believed firmly in the integration of LGB Scots into mainstream society, and demonstrated a sceptical attitude towards more radical organisations such as the Gay Liberation Front. Whether his was the result of a keen understanding of the cultural temperature of Scotland or a deeply held belief that assimilation was most desirable is debatable. What is not open to debate is that the SMG were successful in their campaign. However, some members were uncomfortable with this desire to conform; during the 1970s SMG were to suggest that although the use of police agents provocateurs to catch queer men cottaging was quite wrong, yet they also suggested that men who cruised for sex suffered from behavioural or mental difficulties.
When I interviewed two dozen older gay or bisexual men I was keen to understand whether assimilation and conformity was something that they had sought. Or had they been influenced by more radical approaches. ‘Brian’, born in 1936, saw more radical, politicised campaigning as unnecessarily confrontational. He included PRIDE events in this:
I’ve never taken part in [PRIDE]…and I don’t think I ever would; not my scene… Self-advertisement, there is a lot of that in it too, you know… But there is a certain breed of homosexual that wants to challenge all the time, they want to thrust it in your face.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Brian never participated in the gay rights or homosexual law reform movement, but does donate to LGBT support groups and charities. Brian was content separating his life into public and private spheres, only occasionally merging the two. Brian also feels uncomfortable about the contemporary gay ‘scene’; never venturing into gay bars. For Brian the ‘queer scene’ during the 1950s was governed by discretion, a quality that he has become rather nostalgic about. A lack of discretion, according to Brian can be problematic for today’s generation of LGBT Scots, as he described in a recollection of the experiences of a younger gay neighbour:
Until quite recently there were two gay boys living in this street. Funnily enough they had told me that certain people in this street actually shunned them because they were a gay couple. Now, I can believe it up to a point but I think that one of them in particular was kind of challenging people all the time to acknowledge him. He would go on about how they refused to acknowledge my partner…there was this sort of aggressive thing about, ‘You’ve got to recognise me for what I am and not for something else’. Is that necessary?
Nostalgia for a previous, less ‘complicated’ era may sound rather contradictory. The era is which my interviewees operated was an era where homosexual acts were illegal (although rarely prosecuted unless they took place in public), so discretion was not a choice it was a necessity. All of my interviewees were pleased that things have changed in Scotland, and many were envious of today’s generation who largely avoid engrained homophobia and scepticism. Yet, for some, something had been lost.
Robert, born in 1937:
It’s that slight double life thing and there is a feeling of pleasure in that. [It] fed something in me.
Yet, despite the ‘simplicity’ of the double life, it has left its mark on Robert’s ability to engage with a modern generation of GBM, and engage in meaningful relationships:
I’m deeply fucking annoyed that I have got to this age and I’m still so unfulfilled in areas of having a good connecting relationship and what fucking chance do I have now because of age and there is a bit of me that knows that I can’t do it but I do feel quite resentful that I have been deprived of that…
Alastair (b. 1948) was also quite nostalgic about being queer in Scotland during the 1960s and 1970s:
[There was a] lot of excitement because there was so much going on and whether or not it was legal didn’t actually matter too much. I can’t remember anybody having a great celebration party when the law changed, it just happened. [There was] a little bit of fear and a GREAT deal of excitement. The 60s were so exciting anyway and you know what they say, if you remember the 60s you weren’t there but I do actually remember quite a lot about it and the 70s were pretty wonderful too!
However, one must be careful not to assume that because Alastair, Robert and Brian enjoyed the excitement and thrills of queer life in post-war Scotland, that they were unconcerned about the denial of basic human rights to non-heterosexual men. Perhaps there is a temptation to view the years before decriminalisation as characterised by unrelenting misery, loneliness and isolation but what became clear from my interviews was that queer men created opportunities for pleasure, sex, love and companionship.
When I asked Morris (b. 1933) if he was in any way envious of young LGBT Scots of today he gave it considerable thought:
[Long pause] I think they are enjoying a remarkable freedom….I think they are lucky and yet at the same time, I don’t know. [It’s much easier now] and maybe they just don’t appreciate that. It was fun when you are being criminal you know, and getting away with it, it was fun doing it right under their very noses. You were having the time of your life and they didn’t know, well you hope they didn’t know!
Morris told me he would much rather have experienced queer life today as a young man rather than queer life in the 1950s but, at the same time, he would not change his past. His experiences, good and bad, helped form who he has become. However, the dramatic shift in lived experience for GBM today as compared to 50 years ago has led, in many instances, to a feeling of disconnect for some of my interviewees. I’ve already detailed Brian’s frustration caused by, in some part, so many years living a double life. Other interviewees told me how they find it difficult or challenging to relate to the ‘younger generation’.
Chris (b. 1958) told me:
When I am talking to gay men just now who are their teens or 20s it’s something they don’t even think about it [the struggle]… Just to be on that Gay Pride march every year in the early stages when people would throw things at you, was a political statement…
For Chris and other interviewees, the past was not another country: it played a part in forming the fabric of today, and some queer Scots of a younger generation are unaware or perhaps unappreciative at the endeavours, both personal and political, of their LGBT elders. While Joseph (b. 1959) has great admiration for this younger generation of LGBT Scots, who he believes, in the main, are aware of past sacrifices and battles, he does believe that commercial interests now dominate the ‘gay community’, which has been reshaped to attract certain groups:
I’m trying no’ tae generalise as it’s important no’ tae generalise but I do find on the commercial gay scene that there is an ageism which is very prevalent. I don’t actually buy into the idea that the gay scene is necessarily welcoming and affirming to everybody. I think individuals in that scene are but I don’t think that the commercial gay scene as a whole necessarily is and I think there is a lot of discrimination at work. You go to [a popular Glasgow gay bar] and you hear young people say, “What’s that old bastard doing here?”
Of course, ageism isn’t restricted to aspects of LGBT communities but is perhaps more pronounced due to its spatial limitations. Colin (b. 1945) acknowledges the problems of elder LGBT visibility, not only within queer commercial enterprises but within wider society, ‘it’s as if they’re not there…invisible’, but accepts that when he was younger and visiting gay bars in London he also participated, to some extent, in this process: ‘I was drawn into that consumerist world’. Joseph argued that LGBT life should not be measured by the merits and failures of a commercial LGBT ‘scene’, which he feels has been dressed up as being reflective of LGBT experiences. He argued that for many years the LGBT commercial scene was more a ghetto than a community; a place where a marginalised group could theoretically meet, communicate and engage. But as with most ghettos, Joseph feels that it offers you what you want/need for a while until A – you need or are able to find something more rewarding, or B – you no longer feel part of it, or are excluded.
My interviews with these GBM over 50 offered an alternative view of ageing, connection and disconnection, community, and isolation experienced by a sexual minority in Scotland. None of these men wished a return to some sepia-tinted, halcyon queer past but wished to make two main points: queer life during the post-war period wasn’t all misery, gloom and furtive fumblings; there was colour, vigour and plenty of evidence of how queer men shaped their own experiences in the face of hostility, homophobia and potential criminalisation. Secondly, the march of progress, and widening rights was met with relief and joy by these men but they were conscious of how their experiences had led to a measure of disconnection with a later generation of LGBT Scots.