Interview: Bernard Greaves: ‘I’ve been the first openly gay man to hold national office in a UK political party.
As part of our #ShineBrightInColour Campaign, we are using the rainbow flag colours to explore different LGBT+ issues. In the first month of our campaign, we are focusing on the LGBT History Month, highlighting some of the key moments for the LGBT+ community in the U.K.
Today, we are interviewing Bernard Greaves. His long career as an LGBT+ activist, his involvement with the Centre for almost 40 years, his contributions to the local ‘Untold Stories’ LGBT+ History Project and his personal experience as a member of the LGBT+ community made it impossible for us not to talk to him.
When did you realise you were gay?
That’s a difficult question to answer, for a start, the word gay wasn’t around and homosexuality in my youth was a very taboo subject. It was not talked about and there wasn’t anything in the public arena, and if there was, it was stories in the tabloid Sunday press about men committing homosexual offences. Gay people were simply out of sight. The idea of people being openly gay was unthinkable, there might have been one or two, but even then, it was never talked about publicly; there was a convention of silence.
I first went to school at the age of 4, and there was a boy who I fancied. I had no idea what it meant, I knew it was something that you couldn’t talk about to other people and how I did know that, I don’t know. So I was even afraid to come close to him and be friendly with him. And if I take it from that point, there were always boys and later on men who I fancied. It was when I was about 16 and as a result of a talk by an Anglican Franciscan friar, that I became aware that the feelings I had towards a boy were love. Even then it took a while before I realised that it would always be men that I loved.
‘I felt that the world around me had grossly misled me about what my life was going to be’
Did you experience a conflict within you?
I grew up with the expectation to be married and have children, so I wouldn’t say there was a conflict inside me but I had feelings that were very strong that I simply didn’t understand, but when I did there was a big change for me, because I felt that the world around me had grossly misled me about what my life was going to be and I thought If I can’t trust them on that, I can’t trust them about anything else at all, and I had to question everything that I’ve been brought up with. I wouldn’t say I rejected everything I was brought up with, but it led me into politics and it also led me to a rejection of religion.
You mentioned the social environment wasn’t recognising anything like being gay, so apart from feeling misled, did you feel isolated?
I certainly felt isolated, I don’t think I ever had that feeling that other people talk about as being the only one. It did feel, however, like a barrier between me and even my closest friends, because it was a central part of me that I couldn’t talk about. The next barrier to overcome was when I first told people. That was a gradual process. The concept of coming out didn’t exist then. The first person I told was my younger brother, and that was at my last year at school, I had an accident and I was detained in the school sanatorium and my brother came, and I told him and that was no great issue. We were always very close until he passed away several years ago. He wasn’t gay. That was never a barrier.
When I started campaigning for gay rights everyone assumed I was gay because of the cause I was defending. It was like coming out in a very public way. But it was hard to adjust to, because I still had negative feelings about being gay, and I had negative feelings that I knew I shouldn’t have, I know this sounds like a perfect contradiction. So I very publicly affirmed that I was proud of being gay and in the process I became proud of being gay.
As you were growing up, was there a gay scene? How did you interact with people?
The gay scene as we know it now didn’t exist. The internet didn’t exist. There was no gay press, there were a few magazines featuring the male body, most of them were not really overtly gay anyway but they were aimed at gay people. The idea of gay pubs and clubs didn’t exist. Maybe in London but nowhere else. Gay people really met mainly in two ways, the first was by cottaging and it was very anonymous, it was risky to know more about the others and it was a one-off incident. You wouldn’t form friendships with them. If you met somebody while cottaging, in the rest of your life you just ignored them. You couldn’t afford to acknowledge one another. The other way of contact was in pubs, where there were usually just one pub or bar where gay people gathered at one end at one of the bars. That was a small scene, again it was not overtly gay, although some of the behaviours were extravagant over the top and the essence of that was: you get away with that pretending it was all a joke, but not serious. Once you learned where gay people congregated, getting to know them wasn’t very easy because we were all suspicious of one another. I was naïve, I didn’t know how things worked and I had to learn. There was something else that happened, that was sounding out people in straight settings to see whether they were interested and were gay.
Did you receive any treatment to cure your sexuality?
I was very unwell because of my allergy disease, but medical knowledge about allergies didn’t exist, so I was treated for 20 years with mental illness. I was once referred to a clinic in London where their view was that my depression was caused by me being gay. And they were prepared to treat me to cure me of my gayness. I knew that that was not the cause of whatever was wrong, so I walked out of that consultation and I said to them: I don’t think you can be of any help to me. So they said: well if you’re like that, we can’t help you. At that time, I was not campaigning or openly gay but I was living a gay lifestyle and I knew it was for me.
How did you feel when the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private?
It was very interesting, I wouldn’t say we didn’t notice the decriminalisation but in terms of how we lived our lives, it made virtually no difference. What it did was to open the way for gay organisations, the pink press and campaigning. Only when those things got under way, the change in social attitudes followed. Even the change in the law was pretty minimal if you look at it in detail. But symbolically it was a huge step.
After 67 not everything got better. The police around the country started to try and crack down on cottaging. They weren’t doing it before the act was passed, they did it after the act was passed. They said: well it is alright to do it in private now, but you mustn’t possibly do anything in public.
After campaigning in Cambridge, you became a one of the leading pioneers of the Liberal Party in terms of equality…
Yes, I thought in 1971 it would be the end of me in politics. I really thought not even the Liberal Party would cope with someone campaigning for gay rights, and I was actually wrong. And it attracted a lot of interest in the party and over the next few years, I campaigned within the Liberal Party to adopt a policy on gay rights (the term of that time, that would embrace LGBT+). After being in important positions within the party, in 1976 I put a proposal to the national executive committee to have a public campaign on gay rights. They said the party was not ready for it and what was required was an internal education campaign on gay rights within the party. They put me in charge of it and by the 1979 general election, we had a commitment in the parties’ manifesto for equality before the law for gay men. My prospects improved and I ended up becoming the first openly gay man to hold national office in a UK political party.
You’ve been part of the LGBT Centre since it was a gay line…
I arrived in Leicester in 1979. I didn’t know anyone who was gay and I rung the gay line. Within a few weeks, I was part of the collective in answering the phone. As soon as I got in touch, they recognised me and dragged me in. It was operated from a private house, the people who lived in that house moved out of Leicester and the line moved into my house.
‘For all the changes in society today, most people are brought up with the expectation that they are going to be straight in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. Coming to terms with the fact that you’re not like that, is difficult for everybody and the harder step is to identify yourself and meet other people who share that identity. ‘
Many things have changed since then, but the Centre is still up and running. How does it make you feel?
Well, that’s enormously gratifying. A lot that’s happened in the Centre, I played a part in, but it’s not just because of me, there’s a lot of other people that contributed to it. The important thing to realise is that although the world has changed for LGBT+ people, there is a range of needs that a Centre like this one needs to address. The change in the law with near equality, the same-sex marriage and the beginning of rights for trans people lead people to think that all the problems are solved and they are not. For young people growing up coming to realise they are gay, for a lot of people, in particular people from disadvantaged backgrounds, is very difficult. And it is even more difficult for trans people, and what’s happening with trans people is what happened to gay people in the seventies, as they become visible, the transphobia becomes visible too. What’s also happening is social attitudes on trans issues are changing as well, part of the role of the Centre is to promote that change. And the other thing about the Centre is that if you look across the UK, this place is pretty unique. Centres like this ought to exist everywhere because the need is everywhere and the need is not met.
For all the changes in society today, most people are brought up with the expectation that they are going to be straight in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity. Coming to terms with the fact that you’re not like that, is difficult for everybody and the harder step is to identify yourself and meet other people who share that identity.
What advice would you give to the LGBT+ communities, taking into account your experience?
My personal advice is ‘be proud and confident in who you are.’
What would you say to the wider society?
Society thrives through the diversity of the experience of the people who live in it, of different communities, different traditions and different cultures; and LGBT+ people add to that richness. In the end, it is the same for us as for all sorts of different diverse identities and communities, at heart we are human.