LGBTQ+ history month at Hackney Museum: 'There's still prejudice – not because we're gay but because we're older'
PUBLISHED: 12:04 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:36 20 February 2018
Custom-made wallpaper is now on show at Hackney Museum for LGBT history month. It’s inspired by the experiences of older queer people – and the prejudice they still face 51 years on from the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK. The Gazette speaks to two of them
Rowena McCarthy feels more prejudice now than she did decades ago – not because she is gay, but because she’s a pensioner.
Aged 74 she feels that, while society’s attitude towards lesbian, gay, bi, trans or queer (LGBTQ+) people has improved, towards older people it has got worse.
“Things have changed, but they haven’t changed for me,” said Rowena, who is one of seven older people from the LGBTQ community to take part in a project at Hackney Museum for LGBT history month.
“As an older woman I’m still invisible to most people in society, and younger LGBT people.
“They can more or less do what they like when they like, but I think there is still a lot of prejudice against older people.”
Rowena is a pioneer. She campaigned for LGBTQ+ issues in Manchester, where she moved 40 years ago, before returning to Hackney. “There’s a myth that older people don’t have a sexuality and can’t be gay,” she lamented. “Even in the LGBTQ+ community there is still prejudice against older people.”
Rowena remembers that when she was younger, older folk generally “hid themselves away” and stayed at home.
“They weren’t activists and they didn’t go out and about,” she said. “Now we have a modern world where older people want to go out and about. What I can’t do now – and what I used to be able to do when I was younger – is to be able to go to gay venues, partly because they have gone, but also because they aren’t accessible to me, because I’m older and disabled.
“Being British we don’t look at our elders and honour them. We just ignore them, really.”
She is grateful to the Out And About group for “trying to do something about it”.
The LGBTQI+ group for people aged over 50 commissioned artist Angela Groundwater to work with LGBTQ+ elders on a collaborative wallpaper design. Using objects of personal significance from their past, Angela designed a special print using each of their symbols, which is now on display in Hackney Museum.
Angela said: “This particular wallpaper was about their personal histories. A lot of the objects were personal or something significant about the way they feel about being LGBT. Some of them had only recently come out. They grew up with prejudice, and it was about celebrating who they are now.
“It was to talk about their lives, their sexuality, their struggles and their journey.” Another participant is journalist Donald Hutera, 61, met his partner Alan in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 35 years ago. Alan was his editor.
Donald’s object was a white rabbit.
“It’s in reference to a term of endearment I use for Alan, who I now care for since he nearly died last December,” said Donald. “He’s doing very well.”
Like Rowena, Donald campaigned for gay rights in his youth.
“I did some Act Up marches in America and never got arrested. I remember seeing cops trundling past me with people they had arrested,” he said.
But Donald wasn’t participating in the Out and About project to commemorate any political landmark.
“It’s simply as a person who identifies as a gay man that I was invited, literally, to the table where we sat down and shared things,” he said.
“Each brought things that had a personal rather than political resonance, but those personal things can be framed in a political context. It’s all about how much you hide or don’t hide. How much permission you are given by society to have a private life without any shame or needing to hide or to be afraid, which is still relevant throughout the world, as we know.”
Is he happy with the situation in England nowadays, 51 years on from the decriminalisation of homosexuality?
“England is a haven compared to other nations – the places where you would be imprisoned, or in some cases murdered by people on the street,” he said.
“I really value what Out and About team have done. It makes me feel part of that thing called community, which a lot of people talk about but it’s not experienced all that much.”