In the bad old days being a gay man in the UK, quiteÂ apart from beingÂ not respectable, was illegal. Lesbianism was never made against the law since Queen Victoria refused to approve such legislation, believing women wouldn’t get up to such things. (Or perhaps she had a crush on her maid of the bedchamber after Albert kicked the bucket.) Anyway, she obviously wanted men to be breeding loads ofÂ young male cannon fodderÂ to fight her imperialist wars and add to her ever-expanding Empire, and gay men didn’t produce young recruits and conscripts.
Whatever the reason, male homosexuality had to wait till the 21st Century before it was made fully legal in UK. This legislation was forced on the UK by EU membership and the European Court of Human Rights. In the latterÂ third of the 20th Century we lagged far behind such countries as USA, Australia, all of Western Europe, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and post-Franco SpainÂ in matters of gay liberation.
True we had the 1967 SexualÂ Offences Act which legalized homosexuality in strictly defined circumstances only. Basically you had to be already in a gay relationship, both over 21, neither of you in the armed forces, and practise yourÂ ‘sexual deviancy’, for that is how it was still regarded, within the privacy of yourÂ own home with nobody present anywhere else on the premises. All possible ways of meeting another gay man and indicating a romatic/sexual interest were illegal and liable to a charge of ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’. Plain clothesÂ ‘pretty policemen’ wasted many man hours seeking easy arrests of gay men by entrapping them.
In contrast to this,Â as far back as 1968 in East Berlin it was commonplace to see gay men kissing and walking hand-in-hand down FriedrichstrasseÂ after coming out of one of the gay bars there. What went on in the Mocca coffee shop in that East Berlin street would have resulted in the place being closed down and everyone inside arrested in London oneÂ year after the 1967Â Act supposedly ‘legalizing’ male homosexuality was grudgingly passed by Parliament.
As late as 1990, on a visit to Sydney, Australia, my partner and I remarked on howÂ the gay clubs there would not be allowed in England. An Australian voiced how many in the Western world felt about England at the time: ‘You are still living in the Victorian age!’Â
Things onlyÂ started to change for the better in the 1990s when gay clubs of the sort prevalent inÂ the big citiesÂ of Western Europe,Â Australia,Â and manyÂ states of the USAÂ started opening up in defiance of the law in UK. Only innocuous gay clubs and bars were legal here, where no sex took place on the premises. But even approaching another man in a gay bar and inviting him home was technically in breach of the law on importuning for an immoral purpose.
However in the 1990s, possibly due partly to campaigningÂ articles in the gay press (one of which I wrote myself) pointing out the illegality and lack of safe gay cruising places (backroom clubs) in the UK,Â theÂ police and the law courts started turning a blind eye to gay clubs/bars which provided ‘safe spaces’ for gay men away from the cruising grounds and public conveniences whereÂ queerbashers, muggers and murderers stalked theirÂ gay victims.Â Allowing these backroom clubs to open also gradually got rid of the ‘nuisance’ caused by gay men cruising open spaces and public conveniences.
In the past few years there have been enormous strides in gay liberation in the UK. We now have an equal age of consent at 16, gay clubs/saunas/bars of the kind existing all over the Western world are now legal, gay (and straight) porn is now legal for the first time, and now we have gay marriages (civil partnerships) recognized in law.
This comes a bit late for those of us in our 60s and 70s whose partners died long before civil partnerships became legal. We have no official status as ‘widowers’, and many were thrown out of their homes, disinherited and some didn’t even have the right to visit their partners in intensive care, or even to attend the funeral if the family turned nasty.
Back when I first realized I was gay at the age of 13, it was all still totally illegal in Britain, punishable by imprisonment. This was 1958. Because it was illegal, the gay underworld was totally invisible, not only to heterosexuals, but to many gays like myself.
There were then two classes of gay men – those who were initiated into the secret gay underworld, and those like myself who didn’t even know it existed. We were totally isolated, and felt we were the only gay men on the planet. There was no gay press, no gay helplines – there was absolutely no way for us to discover this secret gay underworld, except by chance.
Even if you somehow stumbled across a gay club, you could not gain entry. Most of these clubs had strict membership rules which meant you had to be introduced by a member. True you could stumble into a gay bar, but unless you went the right time dressed in the right clothing and knew the ropes, you’d be treated (as I was) like a straight man who had stumbled in by accident.
There was a secret gay language known as ‘polari’, so you wouldn’t even know what the gays in the bar were talking about. If you weren’t ‘in the know’ you were totally excluded.
The best, probably the ONLY way, to break into this secret gay underworld was by continuously visiting ‘cottages’ in gay parlance – public conveniences. This is where a lot of action took place, but of course it immediately stopped when a straight man walked in. So you’d need to hang around before the gay men in there assumed you must be gay also, and the activity started up again.
It never even occurred to me to ever enter a public convenience. My mother had always told me never to enter these places, and also never to talk to strange men. I obeyed these rules thruout my teenage years and well into my 20s, so had no possibility whatsoever of ever meeting another gay man.
I remained a total virgin, not so much as a kiss or a cuddle from a man or a woman, until I was well into my 22nd year – 1967. This was the year the Sexual Offences Act decriminalizing co-habiting gay male couples (for in effect this is all it did) was passed. As a result of this legislation, the London Evening Standard, which I read regularly, publishedÂ a series of articles on the gay underworld in the capital.
For the very first time I realized, as probably did many other isolated gay men, that a whole gay network of bars, clubs, cinemas and cruising grounds existed in London, but though these places were described in some detail, they were not named, and there was little clue as to where they were.
I had to pluck up courage and buy a gay magazine imported from the USA which I just happened to spot on a stall near Euston Station. By answering anÂ advert in there I eventually managed to obtain a ‘Guide to the Lavender World’ from Los Angeles.
It was full of mistakes. I spent wasted hours searching for streets in the Kings Cross area of London, only to discover they had been entered erroneously under London – they were on the other side of the world in Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia.
I wandered into gay bars at the wrong time in the wrong clothes and was ignored. Previously I had wandered into local woods where I lived, which was apparently a gay cruising ground, at the wrong time, walking too fast and wheeling a bike. Needless to say I didn’t spot any gay activity, and never got ‘picked up’ in any of these places. It turned out a colleague at work in my office was gay, and had been picking up guys all the time. He never suspected I was gay.
When he knew, he took pity on me and took me to a gay bar – The Champion in Bayswater. Next day he said to me: ‘You just haven’t got a clue have you?’ I asked what he meant. He said I’d never in a million years ever get chatted up in a gay bar because I looked like a straight man who had wandered in by mistake. I was dressed all wrong, and was unable to make eye contact, to read body language or to give out the right signals. To this day all of this still largely applies – I just can’t make eye contact or read body language, or chat guys up. I have rarely, if ever, been picked up in a gay bar.
While my life-partner, now deceased, was sexually active from his early teens or before, and so were most of his friends, I was still struggling to learn the ropes of this newly discovered gay scene in my mid-20s. The place I eventually found, listed in the American gay guide, was a cinema in Victoria – reputedly the oldest in Britain. It was known as The Biograph (demolished in the 1980s).
I never did learn the subtle art of flirting, eye signals and reading or signaling my interestÂ by body language. If any strangerÂ looks me straight in the eye, even today, I look away automatically, it’s an unfortunate reflex action I can’t control, and instantly tells any gay man that I am not interested.
Having learnt belatedly to meet other gay men by a more direct approach in that cinema, in cruising grounds and in ‘cottages’, I can now only meet them in so-called gay ‘backroom’ clubs and saunas, which have taken over from the earlier three ‘Cs’ (cinemas, cruising-grounds and cottages.)
However the younger generation of gay men tend to ignore these backroom clubs/saunas and meet in highly respectable wine bars/pubs in Soho, and then go to equally highly respectable disco-dancing clubs where they play ‘house’ type music. Most of these are in the West End of London, and none of them have ‘backrooms’ for sex on the premises.
The younger generation of gays tend to meet their partners at these respectable discos and bars, or via the Internet. They seem to have no qualms about chatting to complete strangers on Internet chat-lines, not really knowing who is on the other end unless they both have webcams, and even then one of them could be a new David Nielson looking for a gay victim to murder. I would never even consider a webcam – too many nutcases out there who might recognize me in the street and decide to attack me.
So the older generation of gay men tend to dominate the backroom clubs/saunas now, whilst the younger generation ape their heterosexual friends by dating in bars, discos and via the Internet, and then getting married by means of a civil partnership.
Gay men are becoming respectable at last. In less than 50 years, when we older ones have died off, I doubt any gayÂ backroom clubs or cruising grounds will exist. Gays will learn the art of flirting and reading eye signals/body language and how to respond to them, how to date safely on the Internet, and end up in life-long civil partnerships.
Already nearlyÂ all the gay cottages in London have gone, and open air cruising grounds are dying out. The saunas and backroom clubs are often largely deserted, except for a few old queens like myself.
It’s a whole new world out there.