This is the third in a series of reflections after the Shared Conversations (edited 31 March)
In a previous post, I’ve commented on how wonderful it was to get to the loo and sit alone in a space where nobody was talking and where the walls were plain, rather than being covered with posters of questions and answers. And now I’m back to that topic again – but from a rather different angle.
Yes, this is a gents’ toilet: well spotted.
In the central part of the three days of the Regional Shared Conversations format, we were asked to go away into the grounds of the conference centre, or find a spot in one of the lounges, and reflect on our lives in terms of sexuality, preparing to tell our stories in the groups of three. For many of us, we already had experience of thinking back and reconstructing our story in different ways; I’ve certainly done it as part of the discernment process of my own vocation, where the focus was on identifying those times when I’d felt most alive, most confident that I was where I should be. But this theme gave it all a different spin.
Obviously I’ve no idea how other people, outside our group of three, chose to do this; how open they were, how much they felt they didn’t want to discuss, whether they concentrated more on their own lives than on the influences on their current attitudes. I’m not going to share all of my story here, but instead concentrate on one aspect which I only really appreciated was important to me when I came to look at my life from this angle.
This was my early experience of others who didn’t fit the ‘heterosexual marriage’ model. I realized for the first time that, although my immediate family was very standard, and nobody was divorced, let alone – to my knowledge – gay, there were many additional influences on me. At the SC, I discussed growing up with awareness of the existence of gay men, from childhood onwards, as my dad was an architect and several of his friends were gay. It was just something that some people ‘were’, so my first encounters with gay men were within the stereotype of the arty, theatrical, often camp type, but were also entirely nonjudgemental.
Since the SC, I keep remembering other examples of non-standard lives I’ve known. For example, I had a much-loved, never-married, great-aunt, who always treated me like an equal, a very satisfying situation for a child. While I was doing ancient history at school, she was teaching herself ancient Greek so that she could read Homer in the original. We wrote to each other regularly for many years, as well as meeting up. Eventually I discovered that her earlier life had been far from that of the standard maiden aunt; she had lived for a while in a suburban ménage à trois with the man she loved and his wife. With this man, she had enjoyed ballet and opera – she told me about how they made kneelers so they could kneel through the whole of ‘Parsifal’, their favourite Wagner opera. They shared a crush on a particular ballerina; when my great-aunt died, I found photographs and letters from this crush, and a long poem she had written about her relationships.
To this early awareness of gay men, and of people with complex heterosexual and maybe homosexual feelings which were not as far as I know physically expressed, I’ve realized that one other friendship shaped how I react today. This is a far less positive story. In an early job, one of my closest colleagues was a gay man. This was the late 1970s. He lived with his mother, and he had a drink problem. Sometimes he’d come into work but be too hungover to do anything; he was our friend so we’d cover for him. His sexual life was one of secrecy, but circumstances meant that he told us something of it. He would meet other men at the local public loos; these were apparently under police surveillance, so this was always a risky activity. On one occasion he came to work with a black eye as a result of one encounter that went wrong. The police came in to question him; staff in other departments kept asking us what was going on, but we refused to answer. As I’ve said, he was our friend.
When I was thinking about this time in my life, I remembered that in one of the SC exercises the plenary room was decorated with images from the 1960s onwards, charting the introduction of the Pill, the Lady Chatterley case, developments in reproductive technology, and the first civil partnerships and same-sex marriages. As a strategy, this gave participants the impression that ‘change’ in human sexuality was something recent, something restricted to our lifetimes which only we, of all human generations, have had to face. Of course, this isn’t true; change is normal, as any historian will tell you. Try, for example, just for the early twentieth century this link or this one. Laura Ramsay has recently published her findings on the C of E’s role in change in homosexual law reforms in the 1950s and 1960s; interesting, and surprising, reading.
Leaving aside that important point about history, one of the ‘changes’ to which the display in our plenary room brought our attention was the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. So for the first time I’ve been wondering why my work colleague was still living his secret and troubled life, a decade later.
Only now, as I’ve been asking myself that question, do I realise that it wasn’t that simple. Not all homosexual activity was decriminalised; only that between two consenting adults aged over 21, in private. That means that a threesome was criminal, even in a private house. Toilets were, and even now remain, a special case because of the chance of someone being offended by coming across a consensual act, a ‘crime’ with no victim. Toilets are not private, but neither are lovers’ lanes or lay-bys where heterosexual couples may go. In both cases there is some potential for another person to see what is happening and be offended. But in the case of gents’ toilets, after the 1967 Act some police forces thought it was a good idea to monitor what was happening, using plain-clothes policemen.
In 1984, Jim Wallace proposed an (unsuccessful) amendment to the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. This would have meant that an officer could only make an arrest if in uniform, and that there would need to be evidence that someone other than the officer had been ‘offended’. In his speech introducing the amendment, Lord Wallace noted “Section 32 of the 1956 Act makes it an offence persistently to solicit or importune in a public place for immoral purposes. My understanding of the law on soliciting is that it dates back to the 19th century and was primarily directed in those days to acts of a heterosexual nature and particularly to prostitution, but latterly it has been used in particular against homosexuals. Since the 1967 Act, which made legitimate sexual acts between consenting adults in private, the number of prosecutions has almost doubled and the number of convictions under subsection (2) of the 1956 Act has trebled.”
Wallace went on to note that the effect of the 1967 Act, then, was not “to foster and encourage a more tolerant and understanding attitude towards homosexually-oriented people”.
Where we are now has shifted somewhat. In 1997, Peter Tatchell outlined some of the most bizarre aspects of the legislation. Some changes, including the lowering of the age of consent, have come into operation with the Sexual Offences Act 2003: but in section 71 of this, public toilets remain a special zone. And here in 2016 they remain an important space where discussions of sexuality and gender are concerned, with the current focus on trans people; in one of those binaries which many people in the churches seem to like but which to me always seem very false, where do trans people ‘fit’? Ladies or Gents? If they use the toilet corresponding to the sex to which they were assigned at birth, this could put their safety at risk – imagine being a trans woman, legally obliged to use the same toilets as men…
The Regional Shared Conversations weekend was framed in terms of interrogating both our culture and the Bible. So far, I’ve been thinking mainly about the different ways we read the Bible, but I now think we need to explore how we experience our society – including the changing legal situation – at the same time. For me, one of the effects of taking part in the Shared Conversations is to make me think about my (liberal? progressive?) attitudes and to find out more about the contexts in which my ideas were shaped. I hope others who’ve taken part are similarly thinking, reading and researching. If this process leads to a greater understanding in our churches of the legal realities around homosexuality even just in the last 50 years, and how these affect the ways in which people of different sexual proclivities and of different ages respond to the current debates, I think it will have achieved something worthwhile.