‘So, when did you know..?’ ‘Know what?’ I knew what she meant but I couldn’t believe the question. So, I made her ask it again. ‘So, when did you know, er, that you were gay?’ I mean would you ask anyone when did they know they were straight? ‘Well, it must have been when I was about 11 or 12’, I told her. ‘Oh.’
One of the speakers at the Navajo Merseyside and Cheshire (M&Ch) Charter Mark awards ceremony was telling this story. The charter mark is for employers which can demonstrate they have effective policies and procedures in place to support people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, Intersex (LGB&TI) in the workplace. Such a lot of letters with an ampersand for such a lot of people.
‘You see’, the speaker from Age Concern Lancashire went on ‘what people seem to forget is that it’s all about love. People fall in love and want to be together, live together for the rest of their lives. And that’s it.’
I was at the annual ceremony, held at Liverpool Community College, representing my employer and had taken my seat by the Merseyside Police stall. There were lots of other stalls around the hall, representing various bodies such as housing associations, welfare rights, a cvs was there, and a couple of money advice agencies and the like. There was also a stall for the Goddesses, but that’s another story.
Three organisations were in line for the Chartermark – one from the voluntary sector, a welfare rights provider, the second, a large NHS Foundation Trust hospital from the public sector and the third, a first for Navajo M&Ch, a private sector employer. The chair of Navajo M&Ch, Tony Griffin, told us that he and his volunteers, funded entirely by donations, were working with over 60 employers across Merseyside and now Cheshire. Its inspiration was the successful Navajo model, set up in Lancashire. Feeling I’d rather not sit too close to the police stall, I spotted the name on a banner of one of our partner organisations across the room and moved over.
You might ask why is there a need for such a charter mark when there are equality rights in place in law for all. A number of speakers made the point that this is great but, by itself, not enough. They argued that there also needs to be a cultural shift in the workplace and beyond, so that people didn’t feel isolated or bullied. To back this up, we heard the story of a woman, called Margaret. She worked all her life for a local authority and lived quietly with her partner. People thought they were sisters. Then, when her partner died, she took half a day’s leave to go to the funeral, was the only one present and was back in work that afternoon. And there was Jim, too frightened to go into hospital because they would ask him who he lived with and find out his partner was a man.
There were funny stories too. Mike rang up Age Concern one day. ‘I need to see you right away. I need a Rembrandt.’ ‘A Rembrandt…are you sure? Ok, then, I’ll meet you outside the Art Gallery at one o’clock.’ And they did. ‘Why are we going in here?’ asked Mike. ‘Well, it’s a good place to look for a Rembrandt print.’ ‘But I need a carpet shop.’ The speaker looked at Mike before asking, ‘do you mean a remnant?’ ‘Aye, I do. One of them remnants. Come on.’
But what we heard and saw was a lot about shocking hate crimes and the terrible longlasting effects they can have on a person’s life. We heard speakers from activist groups, Merseyside Police Commission and Healthwatch UK all drum home the message that hate crime of all types are still too common in our society and unacceptable.
I was impressed by the speech made by a female police officer with eighteen years service. She spoke of the old ways in the force when she first started, which had nearly driven her away. She recalled the first meeting of several gay officers, all sat around a table, with their coats and hoods zipped up. ‘Tomorrow,’ she told us, ‘the rainbow flag will be flying proudly over Merseyside Police HQ. There’s still work to be done but we’ve come a long way.’ I looked across to where I’d been sitting, regretting I’d moved and seeing the police in a different light.
I thought of my own workplace, employing over 40 people in our region directly and another 200 plus sessional tutors. That must mean several people are likely to be gay, yet I don’t know of a single person at work who is open about their sexuality. It’s not something you talk about, is it, ‘though at times in our office that’s all we seem to talk about…on the other hand, why not? As the stories about Margaret and Jim and Mike, show, it’s no good for your physical or mental health, trying to hide this stuff from colleagues, friends or even family members.
Age Concern Lancashire has made a fantastic short film called ‘The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name’, subtitled ‘Older and Out’. It shows Roy and Keith, two of the loveliest men you could ever meet, telling the story of how they met and fell in love. They’d been together for fifty-three years when the film was made and had never spoken openly about their relationship to their families before.
It takes a sombre tone when they reveal the level of hate crime and abuse they endured for years where they used to live. Bricks through windows, stuff through letter boxes – paraffin, petrol, dung – day-in, day-out, they couldn’t sleep and their health plummeted. One person said to them why don’t they get a knife and chop their fingers off. ‘I couldn’t do that.’ Keith said.
You would hate to think you knew someone in their situation and not do anything to help, not even report it anonymously to Hate Crime UK. Hate crimes like these happen every day. Walking home the next day, I thought of the quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which goes something like ‘First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out….And, finally, they came for me, and there was no-one left to speak for me.’ A bit melodramatic, maybe? Try telling that to Roy and Keith, living in their former home. Thankfully, they live in a safer, more accepting place now.
Looking round the hall, it was difficult to tell who was straight and who was gay. Our general attitudes towards sexuality are conditioned by a range of social factors, some of which go back to the public school ethos from the nineteenth century, not exactly free from homophobia. I‘ve met people I thought were straight who turned out not to be and people I assumed were gay and they weren’t. It’s sad we’re not happy till we’ve pinned a label on. Keith summed it up for me when he said in the film, ‘What is gay, anyway? Am I gay? I’m made up of a bit of this and a bit of that. I don’t know if I am gay.’ His partner, Roy, of 53 years, sitting beside him on the couch, spoke to camera, ‘He is…100%.’ And the two of them fell about laughing.
It does matter because a big part of who we are is our sexuality. The smiles on the faces of everyone gaining their Navajo M&Ch charter mark status, together with all those in the audience tell their own story. There were loud cheers and clapping when the private sector company donated £1000 to Navajo M&Ch. Each of us makes a unique contribution to our community. There has never been nor will there ever be anyone quite like you. It is affirming to feel upheld by members of our community for who we are.