What was the first place where you identified as publically gay (even if you were in the closet elsewhere)?
It was Jester, a pub in Birmingham. In 1978 I was 19 and had just started college. For the first time, I met other LGBTQ people. I was taken to this pub and I remember my nervousness at going in. It would be another 20 years before I was forced out of my closet though yet even now, 30 years on, I still catch myself sometimes feeling nervous or instinctively embarrassed when I walk into a gay venue.
In which place/s did you feel most uncomfortable to identify as gay (in the past and present)?
Funnily enough, the place where I feel the most uncomfortable is the same now that I am very public about my sexuality as it was when I was in the closet; the place where I grew up. My awareness of my own sexuality started to develop when I was very young. I was a child of the late 50s and 60s living on a small island, the Isle of Wight. There everyone knows each other. Behind the lace curtains in the windows, it still feels as if eyeballs are watching you. My awareness was developing at a time when it was illegal to have gay sex. Our local newspaper delighted in publishing the names, addresses and photographs of men caught 'cottaging' in toilets; often having been entrapped by cute police officers in plain clothes. That feeling of embarrassment about who I am and of having to hide who I am is so instilled in my being from childhood that I experience it on the Island to this day.
What do you think the effects of Covid19 have been on the LGBTQ+ community and do you think this crisis will have a long-lasting effect on the community in Brighton?
The greatest impacts are being felt by those who are young and those who are older where we are already seeing the disproportionate economic impact of unemployment and difficulties in getting new jobs. Very often young people are also isolated with families; often unable to be themselves and to socialise. Older people often live alone and also experience difficulty finding new careers and social isolation. Minorities with a minority such as LGBTQ people of colour or our trans friends have a particularly difficult time. There will be awful economic consequences for many in our community and a mental health legacy both of which will need the support the Ledward Centre will provide.
From Stonewall until the early 2000s, LGBTQ+ people concentrated in clubs, bars, a few LGBTQ+ centres and cruising areas. Online dating apps, decriminalisation, tolerance and the welcoming of LGBTQ+ people in cities (especially in the west) brought a change. LGBTQ+ people can feel comfortable in many places and traditional LGBTQ+ spaces have been in decline. How do you feel about this change?
This situation is not unique to the LGBTQ community of course. For many people in our community, the club or bar has been declining in importance over recent years as the ability to hook up online has developed. For many others though we must remember that their social lives do not revolve around the pub or the club. Many members of our community do not drink for example or feel uncomfortable in a crowded venue. Once the restrictions on our social lives caused by COVID are lifted I am sure that people will relish the opportunity to socialise more than perhaps they did before.
In relation to the previous question… Brighton is considered to be very welcoming to LGBTQ+ people. Therefore, what gave you the idea for it? What needs did you identify? And what are we expecting to see there?
Yes, Brighton is welcoming superficially but most of us have experienced that dreadful loneliness in a crowded bar where you stand around on your own and no one talks to you. As I explained earlier many people for various reasons prefer not to use the gay scene or are isolated from it because of family circumstances, health or other reasons. Those are the very people we want to reach. The need was first identified in a study 10 years ago. More recent surveys indicate that need has grown. Now that a very bleak economic landscape lies ahead which will mean that many LGBTQ+ organisations struggle to meet rising costs, the Ledward Centre gives the opportunity to save individual groups' costs, provide great facilities and to use our own extensive volunteer base. The centre will have a large cafe with food provided by Fareshare Sussex. This will be the heart of our Centre with people paying what they feel they can afford. The cafe will have a small LGBTQ+ bookshop and art from our friends in the Socially Engaged Arts Salon (SEAS). We will advocate the art and culture of our talented community especially in the gallery on the floor below. Our community radio station will broadcast to those who are isolated. There will be activity rooms and classrooms. There will be counselling spaces. Young people will have their own dedicated room to relax away from adults. Our trans friends will have a large dressing room with properly lit mirrors and a shower. There will also be a fully fitted kitchen so that those community groups who like to centre their meetings around a meal can do so. There will also be a cinema area and we will show LGBTQ+ films courtesy of our relationship with the British Film Foundation.
How is the centre going to cater to segments of the LGBT community who still suffer marginalization and discrimination within the mainstream LGBT community?
We are already engaging with those who are particularly vulnerable as they are a minority within a minority and making sure that we meet their needs and provide a safe and welcoming space. We will also make sure that these groups are represented at Trustee level. For all our members, groups and service users we will operate a feedback system so that we constantly review our effectiveness and where we need to do better. One of the prospects I relish is to be able to meet and learn from our different communities and learn about different cultures. I know that I will personally grow from that experience.