LGBT History & Mental Health in the UK
Part One — History
Homosexuality, historically, has been about sex. For most LGBT people themselves it’s about higher issues — rights, equality, belonging — but societies through the ages have viewed LGBT issues through a prism of different sex. It’s my sex that makes me gay; objectively as a man, nothing separates me from my straight best friend, other than I have sex with men. In an ideal and truly equal society, this difference wouldn’t matter.
Unfortunately it does matter, and has mattered to a great many people, including the Catholic Church and British Establishment. The official line of Catholicism is still that homosexuality is ‘ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil.’ The British Establishment, as represented by each ruling government, has progressed in its attitudes. But alas, until 1967 male-male homosexual acts were illegal in the United Kingdom.
Historically, this began with a sodomy obsession. In England and Wales sodomy was institutionalised under the name of ‘buggery’, and made a felon by King Henry VIII — he of the six wives, codpiece and gut — in the 1533 ‘Buggery Act’. As Henry disbanded the monasteries to grab their land, a vast amount of monks were sentenced to death under the Act. Some scholars suggest wily Henry implemented it for this very reason.
The Buggery Act was replaced by the Offences Against the Person Act in 1861, which mitigated the death penalty to life imprisonment. But it also paved the way for the ‘gross indecency’ amendment of 1885, widening homosexual acts to include male fellatio. The poor last souls to be executed for buggery in England were James Pratt and John Smith in 1835, reported after a nosy landlord spied on them through a keyhole.
‘Gross indecency’ was, of course, the infamous charge by which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted. It also caught out Second World War computing hero Alan Turing, who was chemically castrated with oestrogen and committed suicide after developing female breasts. The humiliations cast upon gay men are manifold, and until the 1970s, electroshock therapy was available on the NHS to ‘cure’ what was perceived to be a mental health disorder.
But what of L, B and T?
Lesbianism has largely been ignored by the law in England. However, that does not mean it’s been tolerated, or escaped social stigma. The notorious 1746 scandal of Mary Hamilton followed a woman who posed as a man from the age of fourteen, qualified as a doctor, and married another woman, Mary Price. When Price — after two months of marriage — discovered the truth, Hamilton was sentenced to whipping for ‘fraud’.
By modern standards, Hamilton may well have identified as trans. Unfortunately there was minimal understanding of trans identity at the time. LGBT History is full of crossdressing and gender-play scandals; the most famous of which is Fanny and Stella. Born Thomas and Frederick, they were arrested whilst dressed as Fanny and Stella at the Strand theatre in 1871. The law could not prove anal sex, so the case was acquitted.
We can’t know whether Fanny and Stella identified as crossdressers, or were trans women. Mainstream history robs many LGBT people of identity. When the sexual act that made you gay was illegal, you could have no public identity of being gay. Henceforth, neither was there a real concept of bisexuality; and many gay men were ‘forced’ bisexuals, leading public lives married to women, amid secret flings with other men.
Indeed there was no widely accepted notion of homosexual identity itself until the nineteenth century. If you were prosecuted for sodomy, you were simply a man who had committed unspeakable wickedness; not ‘queer’. It was early gay rights activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who first coined the term ‘Uranian’ to describe men attracted to other men in 1864. And the term ‘homosexual’ was conceived shortly after in 1869.
Lack of public identity didn’t stop LGBT subcultures from flourishing, as referred to in Oscar Wilde’s A Portrait of Dorian Gray. A thriving homosexual brothel at Cleveland Street was famously busted by the Victorian police in 1889. The novelist Sarah Waters has written about that era’s lesbian women escapades in Tipping the Velvet. And the secret gay slang of Polari was even invoked to keep conversations safe from police ears.
Who knows if there were hundreds, if not thousands, of Fanny and Stellas who escaped ever being found out. Perhaps there were Mary Hamiltons who lived happily as men with their wives, as depicted in the Glenn Close film Albert Nobbs. Some scholars argue that lesbianism was never coded into British laws because of men afraid to even acknowledge its existence. The enforced secrecy gives us a patchy version of LGBT history.
But what becomes clear is the necessity of discretion: operating in the shadows, in the Heath at night, behind closed doors, and away from prying eyes.
This was until the Wolfenden Report of 1957. Post-Second World War Britain saw an anti-homosexual crackdown, which the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe claimed would ‘rid England of this plague’. Unfortunately, it instead filled up England’s prisons: by 1954, 1069 men were in prison for homosexual activity. After the British aristocracy was rocked by high-profile cases like that of Lord Montagu, the government had to act.
John Wolfenden, a past headmaster of Uppingham School, was assigned with leading a departmental committee of twelve men and three women into discussing Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. After meeting for 62 days and interviewing various witnesses, including Peter Wildeblood, the Report recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence.’
The consensus surfed an international wave of advances in LGBT psychology. Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 book Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male argued that homosexuality was normal, building upon the theories of Sigmund Freud and Havelock Ellis. Freud believed all humans were born bisexual, and Ellis wrote in his 1896 book Sexual Invert that a homosexual ‘harms himself by fearfully limiting his own sex behaviour.’
The Wolfenden Report was published on 4th September 1957. Its influence on English prostitution — which resulted in a draconian police crackdown — were swiftly enacted into the Street Offences Act 1959. However, it took another decade, and a change of government from Conservative to Labour, for the Wolfenden Report’s recommendations on homosexuality to finally be implemented under the Sexual Offences Act 1967.
Finally, there was partial decriminalisation. Homosexual acts between two men in private, aged above 21, were no longer illegal in England and Wales, providing you weren’t in the armed forces. Combined with the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York, leading to American gay liberation, the late 60s heralded a brave, new world for LGBT rights. If only the rest of the non-LGBT world could have been quite so brave or so new.
Earl Dudley politely voiced his opposition to the bill in 1966, when he stated: ‘[Homosexuals] are the most disgusting people in the world… Prison is much too good a place for them.’ And Lord Arran, one of the sponsors of the bill, caveated his support by saying: ‘I would ask those homosexuals to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… Any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful.’
Although changing the law had been achieved, changing the hearts, minds and tastes of society was a battle still to be fought. Equality posed a slippery grail.
In New York, gay liberation ushered in a hedonistic era of unabashed gay sexuality, as covered in the documentary Gay Sex in the 70s. Over here, Lord Arran’s admonishment not to ‘flaunt it’ in public was remembered. Peter Tatchell tells how ‘it remained unlawful for two consenting adult men to chat up each other in any non-private location… It was illegal for two men even to exchange phone numbers with a view to having sex.’
In fact, if you and your partner even had sex in a house with somebody else in the next room, it was breaking the law. Arrests for cottaging in public toilets went up, and even some gay clubs were charged. The case of April Ashley in 1970 also set a precedent for trans rights: Ashley’s marriage to Captain Arthur Corbett was annulled on the grounds that she’d been born male. Trans people were unable to record their gender on birth certificates.
But now, the first LGBT rights groups began to form. Visibility and freedom from discrimination were central issues. The Gay Liberation Front held their first meeting at LSE in 1970, and in 1971 lesbians invaded the platform at the Women’s Liberation Conference to demand recognition. In 1972 the first Pride march was held in London, and the seminal biopic of Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, was broadcast on ITV in 1975.
Although homophobia was still widespread in society, it seemed the genie was out of the bottle. As the chant went: ‘we’re here, we’re queer, we have no fear.’
The fearlessness would, alas, not last for long.
In the summer of 1982, Terry Higgins was working at Heaven when he collapsed. He was rushed to St Thomas’ Hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. His partner Rupert Whittaker and friend Tony Calvert feared the worse though: Terry often went on DJing trips to New York, where the horror stories of GRID had recently emerged: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. It was cutting young men down in the US.
Their fears were confirmed when Terry tragically died on 4th July 1982. GRID was later reclassified as ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’: AIDS had arrived in the UK. From the early 1980s onwards, thousands of people were diagnosed positive with the HIV virus in the UK. The disproportionate majority were gay and bisexual men. There being no effective medication until 1996, most developed AIDS and died.
Leigh Chislett, clinic manager of 56 Dean Street, was a student nurse on an AIDS ward in St Mary’s Hospital. ‘I remember having to lay out three young men who had died that night and wrap biohazard tape around their bodies, or the porters would not take them to the mortuary,’ he says. ‘Some lost their whole groups of friends. People in their 20s and 30s going blind. For many young gay men, sex and death were so interlinked.’
AIDS set back the fight for LGBT rights almost overnight. The academic Yuval Noah Harari writes in his history of the human race Sapiens that ‘if you want to keep any human group isolated — women, Jews, Roma, gays, blacks — the best way to do it is convince everyone that these people are a source of pollution.’ The British tabloids gleefully went about this, with The Sun running a 1983 front page naming AIDS as a ‘gay plague’.
The general public did not react with sympathy. There’s a scene in the film Pride where the heterosexual brother of a lead character refers to AIDS as ‘anally injected death sentence.’ Sir James Anderton, chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, memorably described gay people, drug users and prostitutes who had HIV/AIDS as ‘swirling around in a human cesspool of their own making.’ Margaret Thatcher herself stepped in to save his career.
Gay sex, already stigmatised, had become the purveyor of disease and death. Professor Brian Gazzard, one of the first AIDS doctors, was asked (unsuccessfully) by his hospital CEO to close his clinic. It fell to the LGBT community to mobilise themselves in this period. Whittaker and Calvert set up the Terrence Higgins Trust, Gay Men Fighting AIDS came into being, and lesbians would travel across the city to care for their dying brothers.
Finally, in 1986 the Conservative government took action. Lord Norman Fowler, the then Health Minister, commissioned the ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ advertising campaign, featuring tombstones and icebergs. He states that ‘it was a life-and-death situation… The wards were full of young men dying.’ Some however, claim the campaign was motivated instead by fears of AIDS ravaging through the heterosexual population.
Whatever the truth, the campaign worked and diagnosis went down. But the LGBT community would be gifted a more toxic legacy from that era’s panic.
In 1983, the Daily Mail ran a story that a London school library was stocking Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. The Danish children’s book told how a young girl Jenny lived with her two gay dads Eric and Martin. The Mail was characteristically apoplectic with rage that such ‘homosexual propaganda’ was being paid for by British citizens’ council tax. By 1986, many tabloids were whipping up moral outrage about LGBT books.
It was a classic case of ‘won’t somebody think of the children?’ Framed against the fear of homosexuality driven by AIDS, Margaret Thatcher made it a staple of her 1987 election campaign, claiming that Labour wanted the book Young, Gay and Proud read in schools. MP Jill Knight shrieked that explicit gay propaganda was being made available to ‘little children as young as five and six.’ The Conservatives won a landslide victory.
Of course, the material was neither explicit nor propaganda: straight Danish author Susanne Bösche wrote Jenny lives with Eric and Martin in order to highlight alternative families and combat homophobia. But when one poll showed 75% of the British population thought homosexuality to be ‘always or mostly wrong’, and people still misunderstood being LGBT as a choice, the arrival of Section 28 was not entirely surprising.
Enacted on 24 May 1988, Section 28 stated that local authorities ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’ or ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ Simultaneously vague and all-encompassing, most schools simply eradicated any LGBT references.
Section 28 remained in law until New Labour repealed it in 2003. This meant that an entire generation of LGBT people, including this author, grew up invisible within education. I can count the references my teachers made to being gay on one hand, most of which involved Alexander the Great, and the subject was never directly discussed. That one Stonewall poster in the science labs was the sum total they made to LGBT inclusion.
But if there was any silver lining, it was the retaliatory politicisation of the LGBT community. On the eve of the Section 28 vote, lesbians famously broke into the BBC and handcuffed themselves to the Six O’Clock news desks. Ian McKellen, along with many other activists, set up LGBT rights movement Stonewall UK. And Peter Tatchell lead the formation of ‘OutRage!’ which would aggressively combat homophobia.
Derek Jarman had recently died, when Wendyl Harris attended a candlelit vigil outside Parliament in February 1994. Inside, MPs were debating to lower the homosexual age of consent from 21 to 16. ‘All the organisations were there,’ said Wendyl. ‘It was a cold February, there must have been a thousand of us… I’m glad Derek had died because it would have broken his heart to see us lose.’ The age of consent was lowered to 18.
Although the battle had become increasingly political, focussed on rights and equality, at its kernel was still that issue of sex. The heterosexual age of consent had been 16 since 1885. Originally the age of consent for gay men had been set at 21, due to fears that men of a homosexual persuasion were more feeble-minded than other men. It was not until 2001 that the British government introduced an equal age of consent for gay men.
I myself was at school at the time, beginning to explore my sexuality. I remember watching a stand-up show of Ricky Gervais, where he spoke about the age of consent protest. ‘I didn’t see many 16-year-olds on the march,’ was his punchline. All my friends laughed. The lazy equation of equal rights activists with pederasts is all too prevalent in a slanted society. It smothers and silences the very real needs of LGBT youth themselves.
Lazarus was a figure in the Bible who rose from the dead, now immortalised as the David Bowie musical. In 1996, HIV/ AIDS clinics across the country began to report seeing this effect with their terminally ill patients. People described seeing men get up from their deathbeds, and take their drips to the ecstasy-laced dancefloor of Trade. Antiretroviral therapy had arrived in the UK, and it was miraculously saving lives.
Gay sex was still intimately associated with HIV: one of my friends states that when he came out to his parents ten years ago, their first reaction was ‘just please don’t get AIDS.’ But it had shaken off the shackles of death. Over the next few years, legal advances in LGBT equality followed. Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw were both elected as openly gay MPs in 1997, and MP Angela Eagle voluntarily came out as a lesbian shortly after.
After the equal age of consent win and Section 28 repeal in the early 2000s, a monumental achievement for trans rights was secured in the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. Christine Goodwin, and a person who chose only to be named as ‘I’, took their case for legal recognition of their genders before the European Court of Human Rights. They won, resulting that trans people could now change their legal gender.
But changing the law was one part of the battle; although society was slowly morphing, other minds remained behind in hate. On 30 April 1999, a nail bomb exploded in the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street. Three people were killed: Nik Moore, 31; John Light, 32; and Andrea Dykes, 27, who was four months pregnant. Seventy people were injured. The bomb had been planted by neo-Nazi David Copeland.
Fifteen years later, hate had not gone away, but perhaps the most significant step of LGBT history in our lifetimes was enacted. Same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales in March 2014. Sex, on a surface level, had become love. Straight rapper Macklemore released his global hit ‘Same Love’, #LoveWins was the hashtag for supporting LGBT rights in the US, and #LoveAlwaysWins was a theme of last year’s London Pride.
How far we seemed to have come since Henry VIII’s ‘Buggery Act’. Yet for some, sex wasn’t that far below the surface: Ian Paisley Jr, MP for the Theresa May-propping DUP, stated that he’s repulsed by the ‘actions’ of homosexuality. In 2010 US governor Mick Huckabee claimed that the ‘ick factor’ formed part of his opposition to LGBT rights. Same-sex Sex and Relationship Education is still palpably absent on the UK schools syllabus.
Schools are perhaps the truest litmus test of modern LGBT treatment. What parents say behind closed doors can become vocally expressed in the playground. And, although having decreased since 2012, we know homo- and transphobic bullying to be rife. Stonewall’s Schools Report 2017 states that 45% of LGBT pupils are bullied for being who they are, including 64% of trans pupils. 86% hear ‘gay’ used as a derogatory term.
Stonewall and Diversity Role Models do great work in schools, teaching both pupils and teachers how to reduce bullying of LGBT kids, but there is a limit to their reach. Matthew Todd writes in his seminal book on LGBT mental health Straight Jacket that between them, these two groups reach around 1130 schools. Including both primary and secondary, 2017 statistics show there are close to 25,000 schools in England alone.
Lack of education feeds into hate. Because we live in a politically correct society and most adults do not express homophobic views, it does not mean some are not thinking them. The LGBT world was rocked by the Orlando massacre in 2016; the Daily Mail didn’t cover the story on its front page. It did, however, enthusiastically splash HIV prevention pill PrEP across its front page, calling it a ‘lifestyle drug’ for promiscuous gay men.
I don’t want to finish this part as a doomsayer. LGBT rights are undoubtedly progressing in the UK, but we must not become complacent. I’ve experienced hate on the street myself, when kissing a man on Shoreditch High Street, and a group of lads threw full beer cans at our heads. And when volunteering for Amnesty International recently, it was sad to see how many older Church groups did not view LGBT issues as human rights.
As Matthew Todd says, the world is still not as safe for LGBT people as it is for their straight friends. It never has been in the UK. Being LGBT has long been disproved as a mental health disorder of itself, but a legacy of discrimination still lives on in our education system and within wider society. As a people, many LGBT came of age in the shadows. We must not underestimate the effect this may have on their mental health.
Part Two — Mental Health
In an ideal British school, a boy would realise he was gay at the onset of puberty and immediately tell his friends. A teenage girl could feel completely comfortable speaking to her form tutor about her lesbianism. Trans kids would be supported in their gender identity expression. Bisexuality would be accepted as a normality of nature’s spectrum. All these kids could meet other LGBT kids to explore fledgling relationships and intimacy.
I sincerely want all LGBT youth in British schools to be true to themselves, and find happiness. I’ll go one step further: I want that for all LGBT people. What gives me hope is that in some schools it’s becoming easier. A story did the rounds in 2013 that Brighton College had overwhelmingly voted in an openly gay Head Boy. Nearby Blatchington Mill School is working towards the Rainbow Flag Award 2018 for LGBT inclusion.
Unfortunately other areas of the country lack woefully behind. Stonewall reports that in 2017, only two in five LGBT pupils were taught anything about LGBT issues, and that fewer than a third of bullied LGBT pupils say that teachers intervened in their bullying. 53% of LGBT pupils say there isn’t an adult at the school they can talk to about being LGBT. I crucially remember this lack myself in my own schooling during the early 2000s.
I survived school through a performance. I realised I was gay at about age 12, and had no frame of reference for my identity at either school or home. Terrified of being the only different boy I knew, I locked my sexual thoughts in my mind, and mimicked a persona of girl-chasing heterosexuality until age 17. It’s a phenomenon so normalised amongst LGBT people that it’s even got its own nickname: being ‘in the closet’.
The closet is forced upon LGBT people, and its effects can be deeply harmful. David Stuart, the Substance Use Lead at LGBT specialist clinic 56 Dean Street, says: ‘it’s a hyper-vigilance about not being discovered, about being rejected. That’s a very unhealthy way for a child to spend every minute of their young life and it’s the exact opposite of intimacy.’ Closeted adolescents learn to associate their sex with fear and shame.
Matthew Todd expands upon the notion of shame in Straight Jacket. He writes that ‘a black child being racially bullied will at least receive the message at home that it is fundamentally okay to be who he is… For LGBT children, to complain is to out oneself. If a child is not yet okay with him or herself, or not in a home where it is safe to be out to their family, they will likely do anything to avoid this.’
Many LGBT people then grew up doubly alone, isolated from both their friends and family. The messages absorbed from society can become pivotal in forming a sense of identity: invariably this isn’t good. Whether they came of age when gay sex was illegal, or during the AIDS epidemic, or they’re one of the kids today who hear ‘that’s so gay’ every day, the message remains that there is something wrong with their sexuality.
Where this message becomes most toxic is if they internalise the homophobia and start to believe that they themselves are somehow wrong.
Many of my gay friends around my age are currently single. A fair few of my older gay friends are also single. Almost all say they’d like a boyfriend, although it’s caveated by the fact they haven’t met the right person, and they’re enjoying playing the field. After all, their sexuality ‘gifts’ them a liberation from babies and the heteronormative couple clock. Doesn’t it? Or can their relationship to being LGBT affect their ability for intimacy?
There’s a quote in Straight Jacket where one of the interviewees talks about his porn addiction attained at an early age. ‘What I craved was love, touch and intimacy,’ he says, ‘but there were no illicit magazines for that.’ With there currently being no same-sex Sex and Relationship Education in schools, many LGBT people grow up with pornography as their learning manual. Not only does porn not teach realism, it eradicates intimacy.
Yet there may be an even deeper reason. LGBT people learn not to express their truth to the people they love, for fear of rejection. Their brother might be able to tell their Dad about his teenage girlfriend, and receive a patriarchal backslap to affirm his sexuality. That’s not possible for kids in the closet. And if they can’t show their parents their real selves, how do they do that to a complete stranger in later life, in the name of romance?
They also might subconsciously dislike that person, however much they consciously desire them. Why? Because they’re also LGBT. If you’ve internalised homophobia and regard yourself as wrong, then it’s unlikely you’ll consider other LGBT people to be right. Dr Rusi Jaspal says in his research into gay men’s identity and wellbeing, that they ‘most often talk about divisions in the community, rather than a sense of solidarity.’
Ultimately that fear of rejection can haunt LGBT lives. There’s a line in the Pedro Almodovar film Bad Education that goes: ‘he let me penetrate him frequently, but only physically.’ People put up magnificent barriers to stop others seeing their vulnerability. The gym-obsessed jock finds it far easier to transform his muscles than work on his mind. And complex layers of control can sabotage LGBT relationships as they begin.
It’s important here to state that this doesn’t apply to all LGBT people. The same-sex marriage laws saw a wonderful array of intimate couples marry. But if you feel you’re on a losing streak, remember that you’re just one LGBT person fighting against a bigoted history. You may not even have realised what might be wrong. Identifying the problem is the major step forwards in holding a mirror to the mind, and healing wounds.
Learning a straight-washed version of history in schools can greaten feelings of isolation for LGBT youth. It also emboldens their potential persecutors: when the state-sanctioned syllabus contains no official mention of LGBT people, it reaffirms a sense of them as second class citizens. Teenagers who bravely come out at school, or any child who doesn’t conform to their assigned gender, can become prey for bullying.
I wrote a piece on LGBT bullying for QX Magazine in 2014, where I interviewed several gay men. Some described being stabbed and spat at, including having bricks thrown at their homes. Johnny Hollywood said ‘every day for as long as I have memories… Name calling, beaten up, objects thrown and humiliated on a daily basis. Bullying is horrific. Affects me to this day.’ David Hodge also stated ‘it had a long-term effect on me.’
When writing a piece on LGBT Mental Health for Vice in 2015, I asked the psychologist Dr Rusi Jaspal about these effects. ‘Any form of psychological trauma can resurface and manifest itself in later life,’ he said. ‘Homophobic bullying is a compelling example of this psychological trauma as it can severely compromise one’s sense of self-esteem… [This] can affect several dimensions of bullied people’s social and sexual lives.’
Chronic low self-worth can be a prevalent symptom of the LGBT community. It ties hand in hand with ‘gay’ used as a synonym for ‘bad’ in schools: if you constantly hear the word associated with your identity to describe the worthlessness of things, it’s not long before you begin to think you are worthless. This may colour the formation of friendships and romances, with some LGBT people struggling to believe other people value them.
Perhaps this accounts for the aggression festering in parts of the LGBT scene: where certain people achieve social status by throwing the most spiteful ‘shade’. Dr Rusi states that ‘psychologists have long been interested in a concept called ‘downward comparison’. This refers to a defensive tendency that human beings have to compare themselves to others that are worse off, in order to feel better about themselves.’
Historically, we describe the oppressed becoming the oppressor. If you suffered growing up being bullied, then it takes an awesome amount of self-belief to rise above the cycle of suffering in later life. Ironically, this can worsen mental health for LGBT people searching for belonging. ‘Abuse and exclusion from people from whom one expects and hopes for acceptance and inclusion can challenge one’s self-image,’ says Rusi.
Of course this doesn’t mean that bullied LGBT people transform into monsters. They’ve developed defensive coping mechanisms from a period so traumatic that some don’t survive it. LGBT teens committing suicide is a real problem. 2015’s RaRE Report found that 34% of young LGBT people made at least one suicide attempt in their lives, with that figure rising to 48% amongst young trans people. Bullying was a leading cause.
The HIV epidemic is not forgotten in the LGBT community. Many men of a certain age can tell heart-breaking stories of the partners and friends they saw die. Leigh Chislett tells of the trauma left in its aftermath: ‘I think many people who lived this time had some of PTSD often years later: feelings of guilt, anger, panic attacks, nightmares, difficulty re-forming relationships, fear of death, psychosexual problems and a terrible sense of loss.’
He describes use of humour or alcohol as a method of repression. Many interviewees of the HIV Conversations project at Chelsea and Westminster have described ‘survivor’s guilt’: why, after all the deaths and funerals, did I survive? And although HIV medication came through in 1996, that did not stop gay sex being laced with fear. Not only was gay sex already stigmatised, paranoia of the virus added more complexity.
With all these ingredients in the centrifuge, you may imagine condom use amongst the LGBT community to have skyrocketed. Yet until recent years, HIV rates not only remained high amongst gay/bi men, but were increasing. Dr Rusi Jaspal suggests this could relate to growing up: ‘decreased self-esteem (possibly as a result of homophobic bullying) has been associated with sexual risk-taking, which can increase the risk of exposure to HIV.’
If you don’t truly value yourself, why would you protect yourself against HIV? Some men describe receiving a HIV diagnosis as a confirmation of their worthlessness. Others feel there’s inevitability to their procurement of the virus; I’ve had men tell me they don’t want HIV ‘yet’. Another theory is to do with intimacy. If sexual intimacy has replaced emotional connection, then the condom is a literal barrier to achieving that raw, carnal bond.
Perhaps because it’s not such a barrier, PrEP has revolutionised HIV diagnosis. But a persistent problem for those living with HIV is stigma. ‘It is clear that this manageable chronic condition is highly devalued as are people associated with it,’ says Dr Rusi Jaspal. ‘We like to associate risk, danger and negativity with others because this allows us to distance these disturbing phenomena from ourselves — psychologically, at least.’
I wrote an article for Dazed about HIV stigma last year. A 22-year-old gay man named Shyelle told me he’d experienced appalling HIV stigma on Grindr, and showed me some screenshots, the nicest of which read: ‘Gd lookin, handsome and clean / Well ur positive / Change that / Mug / Keep ur ass closed.’ Shyelle described how he was left feeling isolated, and not in a mentally stable place to handle these toxic responses online.
Sometimes if people feel isolated and triggered, or overwhelmed by a sense of trauma associated with their identities, they may seek solace in self-medication.
Alcohol is a dependent crutch for the LGBT community. Bars, clubs and even Prides revolve around its intake, and many afford the drug a sacrosanct glamour; that it brings more colour and fun to life. But for some this can go too far. I myself took a year’s break from alcohol after a blackout. Matthew Todd writes about his early struggles in Straight Jacket, and trans writer Shon Faye documented her journey to teetotalism on Twitter.
2015’s RaRE Report found that 37.1% of lesbian and bisexual women took part in hazardous drinking, and that studies ‘consistently demonstrated a higher frequency and intensity of alcohol use’ than their heterosexual counterparts. Many risk factors were identified, including British binge culture and work drinks, but a significant theme was managing uncomfortable feelings around same-sex attraction.
Simone, a 36-year-old lesbian, stated that ‘sort of knowing that being gay was not considered a good thing may have intensified the need to push down difficult stuff.’ Others used drink to mask a gay guilt of not living up to their familial expectations. ‘When I did come out there was the disappointment,’ said Yvonne, 43. These childhood issues don’t suddenly disappear by graduation to a LGBT scene that adulates hedonism.
Alcohol can be used as a facilitator of sex — ‘excuse me, can I buy you a drink?’ — and feel like it enhances connection. For LGBT people who may suffer from low self-worth and anxiety, it can provide a temporary armour of confidence. ‘When we are plagued by these feelings we feel out of control,’ writes Matthew Todd. ‘Changing these feelings with a drug gives us a sense of being in control… Ironic, because it easily leads to a loss of control.’
And ultimately, alcohol is a tragi-romanticised soother of loneliness. Loneliness is hardly the sole belonging of the LGBT community: in January 2018, the British government appointed its first Minister for Loneliness, estimating it affects nine million people. Yet many LGBT people can be particularly susceptible, especially if they have barriers to intimacy. Some gay men state they want connection, but are caught in a cycle of sex.
Often this cycle can include chemsex. Drugs like mephedrone, GHB and crystal meth are used for extended sexual bouts, often in groups. The sometime consequences of chemsex are well-documented, including repeated mortalities from G overdoses, and I’m not writing to moralise. But the rise of apps like Grindr, cheap drugs, and the historically-imposed fragility of LGBT mental health have created a melting pot in London.
At its heart still lies that issue of different sex. ‘Too many guys are not feeling horny when they’re sober,’ said David Stuart. ‘It’s tied up with their sex being about HIV. Gay sex is about death. Historically it was illegal, a mental health disorder. It’s the sex you don’t want your Mum and Dad imagining. Sex is really complicated for a lot of people, so to find a drug that makes you feel ‘I’m allowed to be horny’, that’s a real relief.’
David says many men get involved via hook-up apps. When feeling isolated in a massive, anonymous city, apps like Grindr and Scruff offer instant access to thousands of gay men in the palm of your hand. But easy access to chemsex is not the only concern. Just like alcohol and drugs soothe loneliness and low self-worth through an illusory sense of validating connection, so can apps. Technology contains its own addiction.
This is particularly true of social media. Many gym-toned gay men post topless photos of their torsos on Facebook and Instagram, and receive a sense of validation from the resulting likes. This can quickly turn into addictive behaviour, which arrives with its own potential harm. A Guardian article by David Smith reported on ex-tech workers warning of the links between tech addiction, anxiety and depression for children.
Whether it be alcohol, drugs or a smartphone, all addictions are a distraction from deeper feelings. Matthew Todd writes in Straight Jacket that ‘a major problem with ‘disassociating’ from our feelings is that it doesn’t just block the bad feelings: it blocks the good ones too. You can’t grow emotionally if you can’t fully feel and express your emotions and your authentic self.’ To heal those feelings, first cut out the addiction.
I hope I haven’t seemed too gloomy. I always write from a place of help. Historically, the LGBT community has been abhorrently persecuted, and today they still suffer the brunt in an unequal society. It took me years to realise these issues myself. At age 20 I’d have aggressively told you I was fine, despite drinking and partying myself into oblivion through university, and for years into my twenties afterwards. Repairs begin with understanding.
Dylan Jones, editor of QX Magazine, recently wrote an op-ed for Attitude entitled ‘Young queer people shouldn’t be obliged to care about LGBT History — and that’s the biggest sign of success there is’. He argued that a new generation of ‘young, confident, chatty gay men’ should be allowed to exist happily and freely, unencumbered by their history. Before accusing older gay men of having ‘poison and jealousy’ for their carefree younger peers.
The article was deeply problematic on many fronts. It rose to my attention just as I was researching the Stonewall 2017 statistics that 45% of LGBT children are still bullied at school. But it did highlight, in a skewed way, LGBT people who may feel that learning history and mental health is too painful. Some voices wish no dissent from a narrative of LGBT happiness. Yet to turn away from our history is to deny our community.
Community is potentially the strongest tonic for LGBT mental health. The writer Johann Hari explored environmental effects on addiction in his book Chasing the Scream. ‘If your environment is a safe, happy community with lots of healthy bonds and pleasurable things to do, you will not be especially vulnerable to addiction,’ he states. ‘If your environment is like rat cages — where you feel alone, powerless and purposeless — you will be.’
Strengthening community can improve a sense of wellbeing, identity and self-worth. As homo sapiens we have a genetic, tribal need to belong. And whereas LGBT people can’t directly change the school system, they can get their own house in order. Dr Rusi states that ‘active engagement around issues of social stigma (HIV, racism etc) will surely enable us to go forward with building a stronger, better and more inclusive community.’
I’ve seen this firsthand with the ‘Let’s Talk About Gay Sex & Drugs’ events I ran with 56 Dean Street. Designed to facilitate an open and honest discussion about chemsex amongst the community, they took the form of monthly open-mic nights. Over three and a half years, an intergenerational LGBT community formed around the events. The emphasis was always on empathy and shared histories: regular attendees stated it helped them to change.
In fact, two have begun developing a new version of ‘Let’s Talk’. The BME community is often woefully underrepresented in LGBT discourses. A 2015 report by Public Health England stated that lack of visibility and representation can increase rates of suicide, self-harm and HIV for BME men who have sex with men. Nyash Langley and Ozzy Amir are creating a ‘Let’s Talk — Queer POC’ in the heart of Soho to combat this historical shortfall.
The trans community has suffered awful persecution in the British press recently. Feminists such as Germaine Greer have made shocking comments, and the outspoken visibility of Paris Lees, Munroe Bergdorf and Shon Faye fights for trans rights. LGB people should fight with them. Not just because Marsha P Johnson threw the first brick at Stonewall, but through shared understanding of what it is like to grow up different.
Trans people are also at high risk of HIV and sexual assault. There are only three trans-specific sexual health services in the UK: CliniQ at 56 Dean Street, ClinicT in Brighton and ClinicTrans in Birmingham. LGBT homelessness is still a major issue in the UK: the Albert Kennedy Trust states that 24% of youth facing homelessness identify as LGBT, and 77% experience rejection and abuse at home. And in three months after the Brexit vote, reports of LGBT hate crimes rose by 147%.
We have to be realistic of how inequality affects LGBT people. The police caveat their hate crime figures that the LGBT community may simply be reporting more attacks. But the fact that it happens at all is a disgrace. Education is a key step forward. Same-sex SRE in schools would combat LGBT isolation and demystify LGBT for straight kids. Some US schools are trialling Gay-Straight alliances. Stigma feeds from fear of the unknown.
For any LGBT people who may be suffering in silence, there is help available. I’ve mentioned 56 Dean Street in Soho repeatedly as it advocates wellbeing services, psychosexual therapy, trans-specific services and a chemsex clinic. Myriad other charities include London Friend, Metro, Galop, Switchboard and THT. Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket expands upon all these issues eloquently, including a comprehensive list of services.
Ultimately, although LGBT history can be painful, it is a tale of optimism. Historically, the LGBT community has shown itself to mobilise in times of need, fighting for its rights. Spectacular gains have been achieved. But the battle has never been so crass as LGBT versus straight people. It’s for a simple human need to belong. The closer we come to equality, the better LGBT mental health grows and thrives. Equality shines on the horizon.
History, after all, is written by the winners.