Repaying debt owed to brave elders of gay community

Ian Murray outside The Wardrobe in Leeds.
Ian Murray outside The Wardrobe in Leeds.
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Amid fears older gay men are being forced back into the closet as their social circle shrinks, Sarah Freeman meets The Friends of Dorothy.

When Ian Murray was growing up, no one admitted they were gay. At least not in Carlisle. It was one of the reasons he moved to Leeds, which even back in the 1970s seemed a more welcoming place to be.

“In Carlisle it was like gay people didn’t exist,” says the 75 year old. “There wasn’t even a gay nightclub, but then one night at a party I met Kevin and everything changed. He was from Leeds and before I knew it I was leaving my home town and heading for Yorkshire. Leeds was like a different world. I’m not saying it was perfect, far from it, but compared to Carlisle it felt incredible liberal and with Kevin it instantly felt like home.”

The couple had many happy years together, but four years ago Kevin died and since then Ian has had to face the future alone. It’s a situation many widowers fear, but for older gay men and women it can be further complicated. While many of those who are now approaching their 70s and 80s were at the forefront of the fight for gay rights, now as they get older and their social circle shrinks many fear that they will end their lives forced back into the very same closet of their earlier years.

“It is a particular problem for those going into care homes,” says Ian, who has now launched a support group The Friends of Dorothy. “They might have lived their lives openly, but then they find themselves living in an environment with people whose views belong in the dark ages. They are forced to share the same space with the same people who abused them in their youth and that’s frightening.

“Every generation has its hang ups and however much the world changes, you carry them with you. I guess this is ours, but I just thought maybe there is something I can do to change things.”

It was while attending a friend’s wedding that Ian got talking to Craig Burton, a trustee of the Leeds Community Foundation, and it was then that the idea really began to shape. The name of the group is a nod to earlier times when being a ‘friend of Dorothy’ was a euphemism for being gay and was taken from the Judy Garland film The Wizard of Oz.

The group was officially launched at The Wardrobe in Leeds – with no bar called The Closet it was, some joked, the next best thing – and while it will begin with monthly get together but eventually hopes to have its own permanent base within the city and will be open to everyone regardless of age or sexuality.

“There are a few of us who often joke that when we get older we will set up Gay Gables,” says Craig. “It will be our version of a retirement home and open to anyone who wants a place. Friends of Dorothy is much the same. Yes, it is a response to the research about what happens to gay people as they get older, but the key is really bridging the gaps between the generations and between gay and straight.

“Those of us who are in our late forties and fifties owe a debt to the elders of our community who bravely campaigned, faced hideous stigma and brutality. This is our time to pay them back.”

While there has much publicity surrounding the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, that landmark change in the law was only a partial victory. In much of society, prejudice against the LGBT community remained and it was only in 2000 that the age of consent for gay men was reduced to 16, the same as their straight peers.

While the Friends of Dorothy is very much in its infancy, Ian and Craig now want to reach out to those who might benefit from being part of the support group. “There is no retirement age in life,” adds Craig. “And our LGBT youth could have even better lives if we could create the forum away from bars and clubs for youth and older people to share their unique perspectives, knowledge and experiences.”

Michael Tennant.

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