This blog is written from a British perspective, the history being quite different in other countries.
The modern gay world, Britain included as it has finally caught up with the advanced Western countries, includes civil partnerships, an equal age of consent and completely different ways for gays to meet each other than existed in the past.
When I came on to the gay scene back in 1967 there were few places where gay men could meet each other: basically the few gay bars/clubs in big cities, cottages (public toilets), cinemas and cruising grounds.
This was the year the Sexual Offences Act ostensibly legalized male homosexuality (lesbianism never being illegal). In actual fact it only legalized those already in a steady relationship who had a place of their own with no visitors staying overnight, who were both over 21 and neither of whom were in the armed forces. For all other gay men virtually all ways of meeting each other could be breaking the law, the charge being: ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’. In many places ‘pretty policemen’ set out to make easy arrests by entrapping gay men. They encouraged gay men to make advances, then arrested them.
The gay clubs which existed in big cities were closed to many gay men. You could only gain admittance if introduced and recommended by a member. So isolated gays could not gain entrance, and as there was no gay press or gay guides until some time after theÂ 1967Â Act was passed, finding a gay bar wasÂ difficult. Even if you found one sometimes there was a straight bar and a gay one and you had to know which was which. Also some were only gay at certain times, Sunday lunchtimes for instance. You also had to be aware of the codes for dress and eye contact. Dress wrongly and miss the eye signals, and you would never meet anybody. Gay bars in London have never been particularly friendly places, and the same is true today from my experience.
Gay bars tend to be where gay friends go together or in groups,Â sometimes just to drinkÂ or to watch some cabaret. Isolated gay men, unless very self assured and able to pick-up easily, willÂ often feel out of place, and with few exceptions anyone over 35 or 40 will certainly feel they don’t belong. I can only think of two gay bars in London where older men areÂ not outnumbered by those in their 20s and 30s.
In those early days I remember of the late 1960s, the 1970s and early 1980s the places to meet were largely cottages, cinemas and cruising grounds – the three ‘Cs’. Nowadays it is a different three ‘Cs’: Clubs, contact ads and cyberspace.
There are very few cottages left, and ‘cottaging’ has becomeÂ largely a thing of the past. No longer can a gay man find a ‘working’ cottage almost anywhere he goes.Â Cruising grounds still exist, but have become increasingly dangerous with all the gangs around, many extremely homophobic. Cinemas have disappeared from the gay scene altogether, apart from a couple of ones showing gay porno films.
The cinema scene in the 1960s/1970s was very active in London. The main one was the Biograph in Wilton Road, Victoria. There it was very easy to meet partners, and indeed I met my two live-in boyfriends there, one relationship lasting 21 years till his death. There were other cinemas in London where gay men met such as the Eros cartoon/news theater in Piccadilly Circus and the Tolmer off the Euston Road. None of these cinemas showed gay porno films, but were good places to meet other gay men.
It was only in the 1990s that the kind of gay clubs existing in Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco, Sydney and many other big Western cities were tolerated in big cities in the UK. These kind of clubs, which allowed sex on the premises, were still illegal in Britain until the law was finally changed in the early 21st Century. They then provided safe space for gay men who (before the law was changed legalizing such places) were at risk of homophobic attacks, arrest by the police and of course the random serial killers like David Nielson.
I find it very difficult to adjust to some of the changes. The new-style clubs are fine, though many are now very late night/early morning places. Except for 24-hour gay saunas (not really my scene), most don’t even open till 11pm and don’t get busy till after midnight. The ones which are open earlier have of late got much quieter for some reason, or else they are largely for certain age groups. One in South London, once very mixed, is now almost entirely frequented by men over 50, some well over 50. Another in North London just outside the West End makes anyone over 40 feel ostracized and very unwelcome. Not the staff, but rather the clientele have this ageist attitude it seems.
Cyperspace has largely taken over from contact ads in the gay press as another way of gay men (and women) meeting each other. I have never been attracted to this phenomenum, though it seems to be very popular and killing off a lot of the older ways of gay men meeting each other.
There are so many problems and dangers associated with meeting on the Internet. First, the other person may be on the other side of the world. Secondly, you don’t really know who’s on the other end of the line. They can put any picture up, say they are any age. They could look completely different and be much older. Parents are aware of the dangers of the Internet when their kids hook up with strangers there, who may make out they are the same age as the kids.
Also homophobes and psychopaths could pose as gay men and lure their victims on the Internet. For this reason I would not even consider a webcam, the method by which many gay men meet each other on the Internet and at least know what the person the other end looks like. This is extremely dangerous, since any homophobe or psychopath can pose as a gay man when really they are just looking for victims to queerbash or murder. Once your face is known you are very vulnerable.
So I have mixed feelings about the changes which have taken place over the past almostÂ 44 years since I first discovered the gay scene (before that, in my teens and early 20s, I didn’t discover it because it was entirely underground, secret andÂ also totally illegal). Â I do miss the old three ‘C’s, but welcome the safe-space and legality of the newer gayÂ clubs.
The biggest change is that in the past it was possible to meet gay partners during the daytime, now it usually involves setting out just before midnight and being prepared to be up most of the night.
As for civil partnerships, these could well change the whole gay scene entirely. For the first time there is legal recognition of gay relationships and therefore some incentive to stay together. Previously society was constructed to discourage such relationships and all the pressures were against long-term gay relationships. Now civil partnerships offer gay men and women most if not all of the legal rightsÂ enjoyed byÂ married heterosexuals.
This is really a dramatic change from the days when male homosexuality was entirely illegal in Britain (before 1967), and two men living together as partners were liable to eviction and/or arrest and imprisonment. Is it any wonder, in those circumstances, that the practice of quick, furtive encounters with strangers in cottages, cinemas or cruising grounds andÂ one-night stands became part of gay men’s culture? It was usually much safer than risking setting up home with another gay man and thereby drawing attention to your sexuality. Landlords would throw gay men out on the street for breaking the law, and the police and courts were always a threat.
Even after 1967, if a relative or friend was staying overnight gay men were technically breaking the law if they slept together in a completely separate room. My mother was justly worried she’d lose her councilÂ tenancy because my life-partner and I shared a bedroom in her council flat.Â This extremely narrow definition ofÂ ‘privacy’ applied to gay men only, and was in legal force until the early 21st Century. This is what made all gay saunas and sex clubs entirely illegal in UK until that date, whereas they existed in big cities in most other Western countries.
So a lot of changes for the better. Some difficult for us older gays to get used to. Some have just come too late for us to enjoy the full benefits. I’d have welcomed a civil partnership with my life-partner of 21 years for many reasons, but they simply didn’t exist at the time. My relationship with him, therefore, remains entirely unrecognized officially, and my status as his ‘widower’ also unrecognized.
I would, of course, be able to have a civil partnership with someone else were I to meet them, but at 66 this seems increasingly unlikely, and anyway since my life-partner died I have not felt the inclination to share my life andÂ home with anyone else, with possibly one exception and he was already in a relationship, unsatisfactory as it may have been. He also had fullyÂ not come to terms with his dual sexuality, so a civil partnership would probably have been out of the question.