Barry tells us what it was like to be gay in the United Kingdom, in the 80’s. A time when AIDS was the ‘gay plague’ and homosexuality highly controversial.
Talk to us about your childhood and what growing up in the UK was like.
I have a twin brother and we both grew up in North Eastern Mannington. We had the same friends and the same influencers.
Growing up gay there wasn’t brilliant. Our town wasn’t the most gay-friendly place on Earth. I got spat on in the streets once. I had a lot of teenage angst, because I think I knew I was gay when I was about 6-7 years old. I didn’t have the terminology for it but I definitely felt different from everyone else around me.
When did you come out?
I remember I had an epiphany one day - I must have been 20. I had spent years not telling people I was gay. Not lying about it, but not denying it either.
One day I just decided that no matter what the consequences were, or what happened, how much trouble it would cause, I was never going to marry someone and ruin their life. I decided that I had to embrace who I was as a gay man, and that made me come out to my parents. My mother’s reaction was just: “‘I knew it! I knew it when you were at school!” and my Dad said he was disappointed, but then said “it’s not like we didn’t have any idea”.
I remember that my parents had a friend, whose son came out to them and the parents’ immediate reaction was to take him to a psychiatrist. On top of that, both his dad and brother stopped talking to him for a few years. So, I guess I was grateful to know that although my parents were upset they were still accepting of me.
I remember saying to a friend at the time, if more people came out and said they were gay then we would realise how many people we were. Having had this epiphany, I was pretty comfortable because I had reached the point where I didn’t care what people thought anymore.
What changed when Thatcher came to power in 1979?
When Thatcher came to power I was about 18, but you’d obviously heard of her before that because she was rising. But the height of her power is when she did the most damage. At that time, I was already comfortable and old enough to be politically active and have an opinion.
At the time before Section 28 was passed, it was starting to get more acceptable to be gay in this country. People’s attitudes were relaxing, and it became more acceptable. Then AIDS came along and knocked everything back 20 years, and Thatcher jumped on the back of this and came up with Section 28 which forbade the promotion of homosexuality.
In essence Section 28 was this simple act that just forbade the promotion of homosexuality, but the “promotion of homosexuality” was so vague that it could be used against you in so many ways.
Thatcher was conservative and she believed in what she called family values, having 2.2 kids, and homosexuality was just immoral, going against the will of God, and all that to justify the bigotry.
She was promoting family values, but what it did was similar to what’s happening today in Russia - it made being gay wrong again. It knocked it back underground. So there were a lot of protests about it. My first political march was through the streets of Newcastle, and there were about 200 of us marching down the streets with banners against Section 28. And then I went to another march in London which was obviously bigger and better attended.
How did the media portray gay people back then?
When I was a kid, there was only one reason why gay people were on TV: to be mocked. Something to laugh at, because they were always shown as effeminate, weak, feeble, girly men, and it was straight people taking the piss out of you.
People used to ask if you had a partner, which one was the man and which one was the woman. It was stereotypes abounding anywhere.
There were absolutely no gay role models when I grew up. There was a show called “Are You Being Served” and one of the characters was called Mr. Humphries. He was really effeminate, and that was the only type of gay representation you would see on TV.
It was just all negative. We also suffered from AIDS being "the gay plague". There was absolutely no support for gay people to be found on TV, nor in the papers. There was an advert once and it was a huge tombstone, with the word AIDS written on it, and the voiceover would say: “There is an epidemic sweeping the country from which there is no cure - don’t die of ignorance!".
Did you feel discriminated against back then for being gay?
Yes of course, and especially when the AIDS crisis happened.
I remember at that time I was working as a chef, and when AIDS came around people stopped coming in the work canteen because they thought they would get AIDS from the food. That’s how bad it was. Or how ignorant people were. They wouldn’t touch you, they wouldn’t shake your hand because they thought they would catch AIDS and that everyone who was gay had AIDS.
Another example of this is when I went to the dentist in the 80’s. I had developed gingivitis, and one of the first things they said to me was if I was in a 'high risk' AIDS group. I said yes because I was gay and that’s what justifies that you were ‘high risk’. They sent me away and told me to come back a week later. When I came back they had an AIDS clinic. It was ‘Clinic 5’ and when I asked the receptionist where Clinic 5 was, she moved back from the desk and pointed in the direction. When I got in the dentist’s office, the whole place was covered in plastic and the two dentists looked like space men. They were fully covered and wore hat masks gloves, goggles, the whole deal. I remember going in and making a joke about it saying: “You’re not taking any chances, are you? Do you want me to ring a bell?”.
You felt unclean, like a beast. Although I didn’t have AIDS and still remain HIV negative to this day, they hadn't bothered finding out. They just assumed: I was gay, had a bleeding gum, was in a high HIV group, therefore I had to have AIDS! Nonsense.
It just sounds really weird now and incredible that this was the mentality and the attitude at the time.
Do you feel like society has evolved in 2018?
If you look today, I guess the gay climate is completely different. It’s just so accepted now, even in places in the UK outside of London. You see couples holding hands, kissing on the street but back then you would have been beaten up for doing that. I wouldn’t have dared to do it.
When you think about it, we’ve come a long way and today people have more rights and are free to love and to be who they are. It’s a much better and easier environment environment for kids to grow up in now than when I grew up. In general, it’s much healthier, much more accepted, and probably one of the best countries to live in for gay rights.