There is something uniquely wonderful and liberating about being part of a proper lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) community. This does not mean just belonging to the LGB constituency, with automatically co-opted membership of an abstract community simply by virtue of possessing certain characteristics. The LGB community we need is one that is characterised by communing – defined as “getting very close to someone or something by exchanging feelings or thoughts”. It is where we can enjoy honest, respectful, and authentic interaction, based on friendship, solidarity, and shared experience.
Many LGB people still grow up through childhood and adolescence feeling like perpetual outsiders, hiding important parts of our identity to avoid negative responses and ostracism. As teenagers, we are forced to conceal our same-sex crushes on pain of eviscerating humiliation and exposure that we lack the emotional resources to endure. Coming to terms with being same-sex attracted (especially today, in the face of an aggressive and obsessive political culture that encourages many lesbian and gay children to believe they are transgender) can be very difficult. When, as young adults – or later – we venture out to meet other LGB people and find our clan, further challenges arise, which today include the LGB movement having had its history, ideology and campaign hijacked by gender extremism, with objectors risking further ostracism and victimisation.
My own first venture into the gay world happened in 1979, when I was 17. A call to Gay Switchboard resulted in a friendly volunteer providing information about the Gay Icebreakers meetings in London and also the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) group that held coffee evenings in Maidenhead: neither location too far from my home town of Slough.
Icebreakers held regular Sunday afternoon gatherings at the back of the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Marchmont Street. My heart pounded for the whole journey, and walking in to my first ever gay venue was close to terrifying – though I was quickly made welcome and put at ease. There were perhaps around twenty of us: all on our journey of coming to terms with being gay or lesbian and feeling relieved to have discovered a friendly and accepting community of people in the same situation, supported by kind Icebreaker volunteers.
Our shared minority characteristic was same-sex attraction, and nothing else. No one was there to hijack our shared issue and deflect from our shared experience by centring another, completely different and unrelated concern. Many of us had suffered significant trauma, and we needed a healing space such as this. Furthermore, no one was there to police our thinking. It was a time to be offered patient support and hear new perspectives.
..Icebreakers were gently insistent that coming out was very important, not only for our own self-esteem and self-acceptance, but also as a political action to establish the visibility of gay and lesbian people, to build confidence in our movement, and to model self-acceptance and authenticity to others who were “closeted”. There are clear similarities and parallels between coming out as LGB in those times and coming out as gender-critical today.
It was fascinating for me to be sitting on beanbags and chatting over mugs of tea with Icebreakers volunteers and with other gay people who had also only just started the process of coming to terms with their sexual orientation. The avuncular volunteer who seemed to be in charge was memorably called “Charlie Brown”, and his very name somehow added a further benign level to this welcome respite from my hostile quotidian reality.
The facilitators would move around the group, encouraging conversations about shared struggles in our coming to terms with being gay. Icebreakers urged us to come out as gay or lesbian to other people in our lives, and much discussion was focused on this topic. Coming out then was a particularly hazardous undertaking: many of us had a precarious foothold in life, and the possibility of jeopardising our existential lifeline to our families and friends by telling them we were gay or lesbian, involved significant risk.
Gary at 17 in 1979 when he first called Gay Switchboard
Yet the Icebreakers were gently insistent that coming out was very important, not only for our own self-esteem and self-acceptance, but also as a political action to establish the visibility of gay and lesbian people, to build confidence in our movement, and to model self-acceptance and authenticity to others who were “closeted”. There are clear similarities and parallels between coming out as LGB in those times and coming out as gender-critical today.
It was immensely empowering and encouraging to attend those Sunday tea parties at Icebreakers. Here, we enjoyed an authentic community where it felt safe to share our greatest vulnerabilities with one another, and where we felt supported by well-informed people we could trust. It was particularly reassuring for me to discover that the people I was meeting were so much like me, and nothing like the ridiculous gay stereotypes regularly peddled in the homophobic media. They were people from my tribe, who shared my struggle, who knew what it was like to grow up as gay in a homophobic society. This opportunity to identify and connect helped to pull me out of my isolation and alienation.
It was at a CHE meeting that I met my first boyfriend. We had both turned 18. Graham was a rockabilly with a crazy sense of humour and an easy-going nature that unfortunately was not shared by his homophobic mother, who denounced us both to the police after discovering he was gay and that we were in a relationship.
Emboldened by my experience at Icebreakers, I decided to attend my first CHE meeting. Although it was called The Campaign for Homosexual Equality, the organisation’s special contribution was not political, but social, with regular coffee evenings held in private houses at various locations across the UK. Again, it was a friendly group, and what was particularly helpful to me was that everyone seemed so ordinary: apart from being gay, they were no different from anyone else, and this resonated with my own experience and identity, and shored up my fragile self-esteem. As one of the youngest members of the group, I enjoyed more than my fair share of attention, and the discovery of being found sexually attractive by other males was a new and very interesting experience for me, and it was also good for my self-esteem. Although some flirting went on, it was a non-predatory environment that provided a supportive and nurturing space with appropriate boundaries.
It was at a CHE meeting that I met my first boyfriend. We had both turned 18. Graham was a rockabilly with a crazy sense of humour and an easy-going nature that unfortunately was not shared by his homophobic mother, who denounced us both to the police after discovering he was gay and that we were in a relationship. Fortunately, the police took no further action, despite our both being three years under the then gay male legal age of consent: a crime that could carry a two-year prison sentence. We were boyfriends for a year and were prepared to risk prison to be true to ourselves and assert our right to love. One of the slogans doing the rounds then was, “Keep your filthy laws off our bodies”. That was a slogan close to our hearts.
Gary at teacher training college in 1989 shortly after the introduction of Section 28
In 1982 I went up to Oxford, with my self-acceptance as a gay person greatly improved, having by that point become a militant gay activist. Oxford GaySoc voted me in as its Secretary, and the following term I became GaySoc President. With my pink triangle badge, I was one of the few students to come out openly as gay in the university at that time. We believed Oxford GaySoc to be the largest university LGB society in the country; and once again, this was a very supportive and friendly community that also extended a warm welcome to non-students. The basis of our community was our shared same-sex attraction – and we had not been hijacked by any other unrelated interest or ideology.
Very importantly, GaySoc provided an environment where opinions were not policed, and where people were not subjected to puerile accusations of “hate” simply for having a view others didn’t agree with. There was a whole range of opinions held by members on gay and lesbian rights and other topics, with the rights to freedom of speech and belief regarded as sacrosanct. It was a supportive and accepting environment, and it served a particularly important role at that time because of the emerging HIV (HTLV3) pandemic and AIDS crisis. We invited regular specialist speakers to keep members informed as these very frightening events were unfolding.
My experience is that LGB people can forge great social communities that provide the opportunity to commune: to really connect authentically on the basis of trust, empathy, mutual support and common experience.
It was a particularly harsh time for LGB people, particularly for those who were out. I suffered several incidents of public humiliation, including one time when my room nameplate was defaced with a label saying, “KILL THE QUEER”. The student responsible later carried out a violent homophobic attack on a friend of mine. There is much more that I could write on this topic.
Gary at a party with Slough Gay and Lesbian Young People’s Group in 1984
While at college, I co-founded a gay and lesbian young people’s group in my home town, with the help of a £50 grant from the local council. This turned out to be yet another friendly, supportive, vibrant, and fun LGB community. My experience is that LGB people can forge great social communities that provide the opportunity to commune: to really connect authentically on the basis of trust, empathy, mutual support and common experience.
When we find our authentic communities, we can find ourselves. We can find joy, we can find security, we can find friendship, and we can find love. Let us build up our magnificent LGB communities once again. They are urgently needed.
Gary Powell is a gay man and has been active in gay politics since 1980. He is the Research Fellow for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity at the Bow Group and the European Special Consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.