“I met my partner in 1955. I was 24 and he was 36. There was no coming out in those days, we could have gone to prison.”
Eric Mountain, a sprightly 88, is part of a generation of gay men for whom being true to themselves in their youth was a crime. They are also the survivors of the 1980s, when so many of this generation saw friends, peers and loved ones die during the Aids epidemic.
These days, many older LGBT+ people face a new challenge. The isolation and loneliness of that effects far too many older people in the UK is further compounded by issues specific to members of the LGBT+ community.
Not only are older people who identify as LGBT 50 per cent more likely to be living alone than their straight peers, but they are more likely to be estranged from their families, less likely to have children, have seen the decline of the gay bars as a social space in the age of the dating app and may still have lingering, internalised feelings of shame from growing up during a less enlightened age.
When it comes to sheltered accommodation and care homes, studies show a number of older LGBT people who came out in the 1960s or 1970s feel unable to share their life stories and do not feel comfortable displaying their photographs, so they can end up effectively going back in the closet.
Friends of Dorothy is a social enterprise that launched on 27 July 2017, half a century after the Sexual Offences partially decriminalised homosexual acts, with the specific aim to combat isolation and loneliness among older LGBT+ people.
There are monthly gatherings at the “Ruby Slipper Café” for a natter and a platter – where friendships are made and inter-generational links forged with younger gay men and women. Friends of Dorothy also has a befriending network that ensures someone is always at the end of the phone or available to visit.
“It is about respect to that forgotten generation,” says local business leader Craig Burton, who set up the group. “Social Isolation is invisible and difficult to diagnose because most of us will never admit to it. Loneliness doesn’t come with a bank of nurses or people who genuinely care. We, as a community are that care and support network.
“I spent my Christmas morning in France, drove up to the local village community centre car park for a better phone signal, and rang Eric, Robert, Bill and Barry. They come to every gathering – I got them together, they have loads of fun.
I rang them all and a few others from that car park. Two of them cried. I cried. I was the only person some of them had spoken to. Imagine that?
“What comes out from reports is that older LGBT+ people have particular issues with loneliness and mental health problems. You are five times more likely to suffer from mental health issues if you are an older LGBT person. And those young people, we assume have it so good? Actually they don’t always. You only have to look at the number of homeless young gay people. So inter-generational friendship is key.”
Eric’s partner died in 2014. “When they brought in civil partnerships I asked if he wanted to take it up and he said no, because he never wanted to do anything to embarrass his family,” says Eric.
Robert, Tim and Eric from Friends of Dorothy in Leeds
“I found out when he died that they all knew anyway. If he had lived another six months it would have been 60 years. We never lived together.”
Today, we have been attending a Friends of Dorothy fundraiser at Leeds Civic Hall. The room is a mix of generations, sharing stories and enjoying being among friends old and new. The former Lord Mayor of Leeds Jane Howson is presented with a ruby slipper before Shane leads a singalong of When I’m 64, Oom Pah Pah and Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag.
“I am thoroughly enjoying it,” says Eric. “They are all people I know I don’t have to be afraid of. I can talk in front of anyone here and I know they are not going to criticise me behind my back. It is supportive.”
I have had the easiest ride. And I found it so easy because generations ago they went through such hardships
Junior Solomons, 28, was one of the first younger people to join Friends of Dorothy. His reason for joining is simple and moving.
“I have been really lucky. I don’t have any stories. I have not had to go through any hardship. I have found life really easy and never had any issue with coming out or being accepted,” he says. “I have had the easiest ride. And I found it so easy because generations ago they went through such hardships.
“I’m now trying to support them to make sure they don’t live in isolation, they are not forgotten about. It is paying back.”
The name itself is a playful throwback to a time during which openly discussing one’s sexuality could be dangerous. Being a “Friend of Dorothy” became code that allowed those in the know to communicate more freely.
Over lunch, I talk with Barry, 77. He is, he says, one of the lucky ones. Over decades he has enjoyed three long-term relationships – the first ending when his partner died having never known how it felt for their love to be legal, let alone being equal.
“You could be out of a job if you were openly gay,” says Barry. “Which was why a lot of gays came to the big cities, to find work and to find community.
“We knew each other by female names. Dorothy, Vera, Daisy, Aggie, these are ones I know, Vanessa – she was great. These were really living legends at the time in Leeds. So if you were in a straight bar you could say, ‘Have you seen Vera lately?’ Anybody listening thinks we are discussing a woman. ‘Oh yes, she was out last night.’”
The times did far more than force gay men to speak in code.
“We grew up in a sub-world of our own. I was 26 when the law changed. My whole teenage years were influenced by the fact I couldn’t do what felt natural. You could not easily make a partnership,” explains Barry.
“It was very much one-night stands. You didn’t give your name. You didn’t give a telephone number. You went to these lengths because if you got into a spot of bother, the first thing police did was confiscate your address book. So it was very hard to form an ongoing relationship. That is what society did to my generation.
“I am interested in Friends of Dorothy is because I am aware that a lot of elderly gay men went through all this and didn’t have the luck or opportunities I did. And my biggest luck was having supportive family.
“I also have a partner who is still alive – we have been together 37 years – and a group of friends who socialise together. But there are a lot of older people who will benefit from a centre where they can go, have coffee, and meet people of their own age and younger people as well for some social interaction.”
Barry explains that legalising sexual relationships between men in 1967 did not change attitudes and did little to protect his generation from the fear of losing jobs, being excluded, being ostracised by family or victimised by police. But Leeds was a beacon in Yorkshire, with neighbouring smaller towns slower to make progress.
And he vividly recalls the impact of the Aids epidemic on the scene in Leeds. “It was devastating. Some people just, you know, vanished. You just stopped hearing from them and about them.”
Some young people he talks to are still suffering in silence, hiding their true selves. The loneliness this engenders in people is difficult to imagine.
“When the law changed, it didn’t mean society’s attitudes changed overnight. I was in business, you had to still keep quiet about what you were doing. I kept myself off the frontline. I survived by keeping my head down.”
But Friends of Dorothy members were centre stage at Leeds Pride in 2018. And they have been busy ever since, learning contemporary dance moves with Yorkshire Dance, enjoying regular Sunday lunches, and attending a special screening of the BBC’s Queers at Park Lane Picturehouse in Leeds.
Looking ahead, the aim is to raise funds for their own space – a community hub where older people can work, volunteer and meet people, but younger people and straight people also welcome.
And the ultimate aim, says Burton, is to build their “Gay Gables” – a care home that will cater for all, but particularly for the specific needs of older LGBT people.
“You shouldn’t need to go back in the closet when you go into sheltered living. That shouldn’t ever have to happen,” says Burton. “But it does. I am not trying to build barriers, but it has to be inclusive and cater for and meet those individual specific needs.
“These are the elderly LGBT warriors who marched, metaphorically and literally, against prejudice and legally-enshrined bigotry and refused to believe messages they were getting – from politicians, the media, the church, even their parents – that there was something wrong with them. Something shameful, dirty, perverted, evil.
“Even before 1967 they refused to be silenced or shamed. Because of their campaigning and the sacrifices they made, we have gay marriage, gay adoption, workplace equality enshrined in law, gay characters on TV, gay politicians in parliament and council chambers up and down the country. And remember: they didn’t know they were going to win this fight.
“But the battle for gay rights didn’t just make gay people’s lives better. It made everyone’s lives better. It made for a better society. More inclusive. More compassionate. Kinder…”