Homosexuality did not begin with Oscar Wilde, it has been prevalent in all societies and cultures for centuries. He just happened to be a high profile victim in 1895 of a malevolent British law that wasn’t overturned until 1967. In Ancient times, gay relationships were treated as normal and often celebrated but through the heavily religious Victorian era, sexuality was not something to be talked about and feelings were often repressed. With homosexual acts banned by law, it took many years before people felt able to stand up for gay rights.
During the early part of the 20th Century, many prominent people had to keep their sexuality private with draconian laws in place. Alan Turing, who led the cryptology team at Bletchley Park that did incredible work for Britain during the Second World War, was prosecuted for homosexual acts in 1952. He was then subjected to horrendous physical and medical treatment and was found dead at the age of just 41. The tragic loss of a man who had so much to offer wasn’t acknowledged by the British government for over 50 years until Gordon Brown finally apologised in 2009 for Turing’s treatment.
Since homosexuality was legalised in Britain in 1967, much of the focus of campaigns has been about young people exploring their sexuality. The campaign to bring the age of consent for homosexuality in line with heterosexuality to 16 was won by 2000 and young people are now encouraged to talk about their sexuality in a more open manner. The role that elderly gay and lesbian people bring to society and the cultural impact that elderly LGBT people have played are however often overlooked. Actor Sir John Gielgud was notably homosexual who tried to keep his private life discreet fearing his Hollywood career would suffer. Following his death in 2000, it was revealed that Gielgud had secretly been contributing to the campaign group Stonewell in his old age and he had long been a private supporter of gay rights.
Many gay people will not have ‘come out’ to family and friends, even after 1967, and as they have grown older, opening up about sexuality becomes even harder. The charity Stonewall, who campaign for gay rights, say on their website “Society assumes that LGBT people are young and active; it does not occur to society that older people may be gay too.” They point out that older LGBT people are more likely to live alone in their later years and are reluctant to discuss their sexuality with carers and support groups. Australia has specific LGBT housing for the retired but Britain at the moment has no such facilities.
In an interview with Age UK (whose website has an area specifically aimed at the older gay community) campaigner Lindsay River focuses on the problems older LGBT people face in modern life. “The older LGBT community are more likely to be single because our relationships have had little societal support, which makes them harder to maintain. We’re less likely to have children and to have family support. We also may have had illnesses and mental health challenges which relates to the life-long discrimination that we face.”
Gay characters often appear in popular culture as eccentric stereotypes, for example “La Cage aux Folles” but older people tend to be forgotten by mainstream media. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in 1994 was notable for featuring an older gay man in a relationship with a younger man but didn’t feel the need for gross humour or innuendo. Instead, the relationship between Gareth (played by Simon Callow) and the other characters is touching and normal with one of the most moving scenes showing how important his presence has been in their lives.
“Vicious”, a new ITV prime time comedy, is notable for focusing on two older homosexual gentlemen, played by national treasures Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, both of whom happen to be gay in real life. The show has a very traditional sit-com feel but doesn’t dispel any of the stereotypes and myths surrounding gay men perpetuated by the media however. Instead it has over the top, camp performances with the central characters still unable to ‘come out’ to their families and pursuing the young boy from next door. Whist it is refreshing to have see older gay men in the schedules, the show doesn’t necessarily represent gay relationships accurately.
In 2008, “Coronation Street” brought in the character of Ted Page, a gay old man played by Michael Byrne. Ted’s story initially focused on him dealing with the death of his long term partner and connecting with his ex girlfriend Audrey and daughter Gail, becoming a respected figure to his extended family from whom he had been estranged. The character made regular appearances and, whilst he was often mocked by the outrageously bigoted Blanche, he was a popular presence with his sexuality hardly ever questions by young or old on the Street.
Gay people have contributed enormously to Britain and its culture over the years and the older LGBT community have played no small part in that. The first London Gay Pride parade in 1972 featured a few dozen marchers but the events have grown to regular Pride festivals around the country today. Those campaigners who fought for gay rights (when their lifestyles could have meant losing jobs or homes with the threat of violence and even imprisonment) helped set up the freedoms and acceptance that LGBT people experience today.