So when did you know..?

rainbow-flag‘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.

Hope so.




8 thoughts on “So when did you know..?

  1. I never wanted to retire but when I read of the sort of jamborees one has to go to all in a days work these days I’m almost glad to be one of the faceless great unwashed. But the stories were touching and not having a homophobic cell in my body, next Saturday I’ll be scattering the ashes of a dear lesbian friend of 59 years freindship, together with wild flower seeds on Beacon Hill Brighton. On July 1st I’ll be a witness at a civil partnership for which I have compiled an anthology of poems and really the labels are so irrelevant – they are (were) all wonderful people unlike some heterosexuals I know! But there again I’m old enough to remember women having to draw attention to the fact that they are half of society and life!

  2. Val writes…
    Really interesting and poignant piece. Why are gay people labelled? I would be most put out if people referred to me as straight as though that was an important part of who I am. Our sexuality is, of course, important to who we are but I do not think it should be important to how others regard us. I am, of course, straight but that is no-one else’s business as far as I am concerned so I do not see why people who are gay should have to admit to this fact as though it is a confession. Nor, of course, should they have to hide it if they do think it is something others should know about them. My friend at meeting makes a point of ensuring people know he is married to a man (or was until sadly they recently split) but he is up front with people as soon as he meets them and that works for him.

  3. Gill writes…
    Your post saddens me. It saddens me because of the abuse suffered by the people you mention and it saddens me because I believe that today it is not the same. Ally and Rudi are accepted, not only in their own social networks but across society. Ally tells me that he has suffered very little homophobia indeed, at school, at uni, at work or on the (largely council) estate where he lives. I believe that things have changed, people are more tolerant, there is more acceptance and sexuality is no longer ‘an issue’. The event you describe would be laudable 10 – 20 years ago but we have moved on. I hope we now live in a more tolerant society and to present awards for LBG&TI tolerance to organisations merely reinforces the myth that there is still something to be proud of if your are ‘gay friendly’. Can we not move away from this and accept varying sexualities as part of our society without making a big deal about it?
    Just a thought!

    • Hi Gill that’s not what Navajo is all about, we don’t present awards for LGBTI tolerance (although I can understand why you would think that was the case) the award is recognition of the steps an organisation takes in looking at its employment practices and its service design and access in relation to the needs, barriers, facing LGBTI people. Its a grass-roots initiative from the communities involved as a proactive way of getting cross sector partners at not only how they are meeting their duties under the Equality Act but also to go beyond legal compliance and develop good practice ways of working. The tangible changes Navajo has made are to long to list but I can assure you it isn’t a tick box exercise and the award lasts for two years so if an organisation fails to deliver on its action plan they will fail their assessment. Hope that explains things a bit better for you and if you live in the area Id be happy to discuss the work of the Navajo Community Partnership with you Best wishes Tony Griffin

  4. And this from Chris…
    What a thoughtful and inspiring piece. Something it reminded me of was that the problem is really with the so called ‘straight’ (not a very satisfactory word which also tells us an awful lot) people. What is it that makes it so hard for some to accept that not everyone is the same, thank goodness.

    One set of our immediate neighbours is gay and they’re the best neighbours that we’ve ever had.

  5. I hope so, Gill. I just wrote about what I heard and saw. Maybe, one point I left out a speaker made was that there is support (and understanding) for under 25s and over 55s but little for anyone in the middle. I hope we have moved on but it is only a few years ago that a young man was stabbed because he was gay. I think where you live in the country plays a part too.

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