I realised I was gay in 1967
As a young woman, I was so deeply ashamed that if somebody had found out, I would have committed suicide. You would hear people say, “Oh, she’s a lesbian. She’s not natural”. The word 'lesbian' was always whispered. People thought they were perverts - that’s why I was in the closet.
I got married to a man at 19 because I couldn’t be out. I am 100% lesbian, I have zero attraction to men but I had to date boys. I really thought and hoped that being married would make me straight. I was married for 23 years but it didn’t make me normal at all. I got divorced eventually.
Slowly accepting myself
Over time I have gradually become less ashamed about being gay, largely because of society changing. The ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s were grim but the ‘90s were a little bit better. More things were happening, little bits on television and in the newspaper. Or somebody would come out gay and they weren’t pilloried for it. People like Elton John, David Bowie and Boy George. For me it was painfully slow, but it did happen.
Back in the closet
When I retired it was a bit of a shock because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I heard about the University of the Third Age (U3A), so I thought I’d join them after I retired and I have to say it’s a great organisation. It’s just all the things you couldn’t learn when you were working. There’s also a huge social aspect to it.
Within weeks of joining, there were a gang of us U3A members sitting around a table. Suddenly the conversation became very hostile about the LGBT community. I thought okay, if I want to belong in this group, I’m going to have to keep quiet about my sexuality. So I went back in the closet about six years ago. That was a very hard thing to do. When you’re with a mixed group everybody talks about their partner unless they are the same sex.
Recently, one of the ladies lost her female partner after 37 years. About a week or so before, one of the male members lost his wife of 25 years.
There were lots of condolences and outpourings of comfort for the man. This lady didn’t say anything, she goes through the whole grief process on her own.
It's lonely in the closet
There is a young couple called Rose and Rosie who do improvised comedy on YouTube. They occasionally talk about being LGBT and their message is that it doesn’t matter what other people think: if somebody is homophobic, that is their problem. After watching their show, I thought it was time to make a change. After all it’s very lonely in the closet.
I noticed that the U3A magazine has 400,000 members in the UK. In the five years that I’ve been a member, I’ve never seen a single article alluding to LGBT people. I thought well, hang on, around 10% of the population are LGBT+, there needs to be some representation.
The U3A have been hugely supportive and they are very well aware that they have a diversity problem. I wrote an LGBT article for the magazine and included my photo and email address. I got 70 emails back from isolated older LGBT people all over the country.
I received an incredible response
I was sent lots of stories by people all over the country, the only place I didn’t hear from was Ireland. One chap, who was 82, told me that when he was a young man his parents sent him to a mental hospital for a year. He had electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for a year and insulin injections to put him into a coma as a gay cure. Of course this failed. Many of the people who wrote to me were lonely and isolated. This is what made me think I’ve got to get these people to join up with each other.
The unintentional activist
That was six months ago. I’m still the only ‘out’ LGBT member in my local U3A. There are others who have come up to me privately but I am the only one who’s put my head above the parapet. You can’t blame them wanting to stay in the closet. They’re like me, they’ve come from such a homophobic early life.
I never thought I would become a spokesperson for the LGBT community, I just fell into it. I do find it a little bit overwhelming at times. I have unintentionally become an activist but it’s a job that has to be done. I’m gobby enough and confident enough to do it, so I’ll carry on with it.