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What's it like to grow up as a gay person in Norfolk?

PUBLISHED: 20:00 21 June 2019

A rainbow flag flying above Norwich Castle. 
Picture: Nick Butcher

A rainbow flag flying above Norwich Castle. Picture: Nick Butcher

Archant © 2018

How the Stonewall riots in New York 50 years ago inspire a revolution still being felt in Norfolk today...

David Fullman was Lord Mayor of Norwich   Picture: Sonya DuncanDavid Fullman was Lord Mayor of Norwich Picture: Sonya Duncan

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn in New York.

The riots which followed were one of the most significant events in the fight for equal rights for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people in the United States, and beyond.

Very few bars or nightclubs welcomed openly gay people in 1960s New York. The Stonewall did, but police raids were routine. On June 28 a raid escalated into confrontation. During the following nights there were more protests and within weeks activist groups had begun finding places for people to be open about their sexual orientation without risking arrest. New gay and lesbian rights organisations were launched and a revolution begun in a back-street mafia-owned bar spread around the world.

On the first anniversary of the riots the first gay pride marches took place in cities across the USA. This month New York has been hosting the world's largest pride celebration, with a huge 50th anniversary march planned for Sunday June 30.

Michelle and Stevie on their wedding day. Picture: RuskiMichelle and Stevie on their wedding day. Picture: Ruski

So how has life changed in Norfolk?

David Fullman, 66, twice Lord Mayor of Norwich

Dela Logotsou   Picture: suppliedDela Logotsou Picture: supplied

"I never really realised I was gay - I just was. When I was young there were no positive gay role models, so there was nothing to measure myself against. I always found men more attractive than women and what little advice there was then was that I would grow out of it. At 19 I realised that there was no chance of that!

"My parents encouraged me and my two older brothers to be ourselves and develop ourselves. It did not seem to concern them that I had the best dressed teddy bear in the area."

"I started a relationship with another man in 1972 and we were together until his death in 1996. We just were a couple and, if anyone had a problem with that, we tried to help them out.

"In 1972 being 'out' was not socially acceptable. I did come out to the Labour Party in Norwich when I was nominated as a city council candidate in 1975. They asked me whether there was anything in my personal or private life that could cause embarrassment to either me or the party. I replied 'No. Unless you count being gay'. They didn't think it counted."

James McDermott. Picture: David BaleJames McDermott. Picture: David Bale

David said he had always found it difficult to tell people he was gay. "You're telling people that their assumptions about you might not be quite right." But he continued: "People don't make as many assumptions as they used to. Direct and casual homophobia is much more likely to be challenged now. When I was Lord Mayor in 1989 I did not make an issue of being gay. When I did the same job again two years ago I took the same attitude, but one of my consorts was male and that was totally accepted."

David would still like to see more openness, more tolerance and better protection in law, and does not think his life would necessarily be easier if he was growing up gay now. "In terms of sexual orientation, yes. In many other ways, no," he said. "Young people are under much more pressure today than I think we were when I was young."

Michelle Savage, 50, is a school counsellor. She lives in Norwich with her wife, Stevie

Michelle realised she was lesbian at 18. "At school I started to wonder because I realised I wanted to spend more time with my best friend than my boyfriend but it was while I was at university aged 18 that I fell head over heels in love with another woman. We were almost completely closeted for two years. We were both Catholic and it didn't feel like it was something we could talk about. That was really damaging - to be so happy and have to hide it. Eventually the pressure was too much for our relationship and we broke up. I came out to my parents when I was 21 and swore I'd never hide my sexuality ever again or work in a place where I couldn't be myself.

"It was scary telling my parents and they weren't great. My dad said he knew it would be the nuns or this. My mum was worried that people would hurt and reject me. I said 'As long as I know you support me I will be OK.' I think the most difficult thing was not having any role-models so not really knowing what my life would be like.

"It's definitely much easier now that we have equal marriage to be able to say to people 'my wife' and know that it's almost certainly going to be ok.

"One thing that does concern me is that lots of same-sex couples still find it hard to hold hands in public. For me that shows that although we pretty much have all equal rights under the law now, it doesn't mean we feel safe and proud to be ourselves all the time - except of course on Norwich Pride day."

Before she became a school counsellor Michelle believed it was easier to come out now then when she was growing up, but said: "Young people are coming out earlier and earlier and sometimes the support isn't in place at home and school to help them celebrate who they are and feel confident in their sexuality and gender identity. Social media can be really liberating - they can meet LGBT+ young people all over the world, but it can also be a pressure."

She wants to see equal marriage extended to Northern Ireland, and for people all over the world to have a right to 'live peacefully without fear of state-sanctioned hatred, imprisonment or death.' "Will that happen in my lifetime? Well we've achieved a lot in the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots so who knows…"

Dela Logotsou, 28, is a college student. Born in Togo, West Africa, she now lives in Norwich

"I knew all my life that I liked girls," said Dela. "When I was very young in school, about six, I liked this girl so much. I wanted to spend all my time with her. I had my first girlfriend when I was 14. I didn't tell anyone until I moved to Sheffield in 2014. A friend said 'You are a lesbian aren't you,' and I said 'Yes.' In Togo I could go to the prison for being gay; here in the UK it is not difficult for me to be a lesbian. My life is much better than before, I am free."

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And what changes would she still like to see? "Don't judge, just love the person for who they are. I'd like the world to be a place where there was less hate."

James McDermott is a 25-year-old scriptwriter and creative writing teacher. He grew up in Holt

"Growing up, I remember only ever fancying boys. I didn't realise that made me gay until I learnt what that word meant at school aged nine."

James came out at 18 and said: "I feel like so many of my childhood friendships were built on lies as I couldn't talk honestly about myself. This led me to be a very shy, private child. As I was constantly terrified of being outed, I was hyper-conscious of how I behaved in company which made me very socially anxious."

He told his mum first: "I was listening to Eva Cassidy's 'True Colours' in my bedroom. Mum came in, asked if I'm okay and I looked towards the CD player. Eva told Mum for me. Mum gave me a hug and told me that she'd always known and that she'll always love me. Soon after that, I gathered school friends together in the sixth form common room and told them I had something to tell them. Before I could say any more, they all asked me if I'm gay. They too had always known and loved me for it. Thunder stolen...

"It was difficult telling friends and family because you fear people will reject you, you'll become the punchline to people's jokes and people will stop seeing you as a person and start seeing you solely as a sex act. While some people at school did treat me like this, close friends and family were supportive. Those that matter didn't mind and those that did mind didn't matter. In the main, friends, family, colleagues and peers have never been prejudiced towards me and if they have then I've instantly challenged them about their views.

"Whilst I've never been physically attacked in Norfolk for being gay, I regularly drink with friends in pubs around Holt and many men in those pubs still think it's amusing and acceptable to make jokes or comments about my sexuality. Of course, their obsession with my homosexuality says more about their confusion with their own sexual identities and toxic masculinities than anything else. When they do make jokes at my expense, I always remind them that I'm an ordinary person made extraordinary by their strange obsession with what they think I do in the bedroom."

James has written a one-man show about growing up gay in Norfolk but said that it might actually be harder for young people today. "In this age of social media, school bullies can now target victims anytime and anywhere.

"Some parents irrationally believe that teaching about queer life will make every child queer. This is nonsense. I was constantly taught about straight life at school and that didn't make me straight. If we teach the next generation about LGBTQ lives in schools, I think over time we'll slowly start to eradicate prejudice towards LGBTQ communities."

But he added: "In other parts of the world it's far more dangerous to be queer now than it was when I was growing up."

Norfolk Pride

Norwich Pride will be on Saturday, July 27. The first Norwich Pride was held in 2009 and Julie Bremner, one of the founders, said: "Our vision to turn Norwich into a rainbow was a simple but powerful one. Now people line the street and watch the parade go by clapping which is fabulous. Although I would like them all to join in with our parade, this is a real change from the first year when people were much more antagonistic.

One of the moments that always brings a tear to my eye is when the Norwich Castle raised a rainbow flag on the first ever Norwich Pride in 2009. We didn't think it was possible but it really made us feel the city was ours. Similarly, as a Canaries fan, when Norwich City Football Club first flew a rainbow flag at Carrow Road."

King's Lynn and West Norfolk Pride will held in Lynn on Saturday, August 17.

Creative pride

Norwich's Theatre Royal, Playhouse and Stage Two is holding a month of plays, workshops and events to link with Norwich Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

A powerful play will track five decades of LGBTQ rights since Stonewall, based on the stories of three activists.

Hard-hitting, funny, provocative and political, Riot Act was written by and stars Alexis Gregory, and features themes of sexuality, activism, addiction, community togetherness and even a Hollywood diva. It tells the stories of Michael-Anthony Nozzi who was one of the final survivors of Stonewall, radical drag artist Lavinia Co-op who shot to prominence in 1970s London and 1990s writer and AIDS activist Paul Burston. Riot Act is directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair who also wrote the award-winning Stonewall for BBC Films and the Channel 4 series Metrosexuality.

Riot Act is on Wednesday July 3 at 7.30pm at Stage Two, Norwich Theatre Royal.

Local people can help create a new piece of queer theatre to be premiered in the Norwich Playhouse Playroom on July 22. A new course, Playwriting With Pride, will run at Stage Two. Participants will work with James McDermott, whose play Rubber Ring was based on his experience of growing up gay in north Norfolk.

Norwich Playhouse hosts a visit from comedy cabaret chanteuse Miss Hope Springs on July 12. She will mix show tunes, pop, and heart-rending torch songs, with showbiz tales of her time in Los Angeles and Paris, and her current life in a camper van in Dungeness.

Suzi Ruffell brings her show Nocturnal to Norwich Playhouse on July 13, focusing on everything human rights across the globe to her cat's quality of life.

An evening of music with singer-songwriter Sue Lane at Stage Two, Norwich Theatre Royal, on July 23 includes a host of songs, including some inspired by people from the region who shared their coming-out stories in 140 characters.

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