1999 SLAGO Conference
Written and presented by Peter Robins
Copyright © Peter Robins, 1999
The first time I was taken to the school at which I was subsequently enrolled as a mixed infant was a year or so before the war. It was a morning late in May. My mother lifted me onto a chair so that I could look over the heads of the five and six-year-olds massed in the big classroom. A small Union Jack was thrust into my hand. Since it was a Church of England school, the vicar justified his presence by offering a few prayers. I recall nothing of all that. My memory is of an undulating sea of red, white and blue bunting and of 150 small voices piping a chorus of "What Is The Meaning Of Empire Day?"
It is a question to which I have never discovered a convincing answer.
Now - more than sixty years later - we've an afternoon in front of us during which we can - I suggest - attempt some answers to a question far more relevant to our own situation and interests ... ie ... What Is The Meaning - that is to say "What Is The Purpose - of SLAGO?"
Let's use a minute or so to eliminate what perhaps it should not be.
Should SLAGO try to be a natural successor either to the Campaign for Homosexual Equality or the Gay Liberation Front? Dear old C.H.E. Yes, I admit to satirising it as middle-aged, middle-class and middle-sexed. Yet, at the beginning of the seventies it did a fine job in coaxing from the closet far more nervous gay men than Gay Lib had ever heard of But the Gay Libbers were brave in their own way, too. There was a place for both.
Today, the Age of Consent has been lowered throughout Britain and Northern Ireland to 18 despite the puritanical squeals of Ian Paisley. Thank Heavens he's not typical of straight men ... I mean, the man's almost a walking aversion therapy.
Soon, despite Baroness Young, the Consent law will be amended to 16. And our Armed Forces will no longer differ - so far as the recruitment of lesbians and gays is concerned - from those of many of our enlightened European partners.
Yes, the years and events have moved on. So, it is to be hoped, have we.
It would be difficult for SLAGO to assume the roles once played by C.H.E. or Gay Lib. For many of us - we who constitute the SLAGO groups or observers - our marching days are over. I did not say our days of involvement are over. Further, you should bear in mind that among the many gay groups that exist in the Counties of London and Surrey there are those that receive aid from public charities or who themselves have been given charitable status. The Pimpernel Group, of which I am Secretary, is one such. To engage as a group in overt political activity would endanger our modest income from Age Concern. In more colourful terms, it would be hazardous for us to indulge on Saturday mornings in that happy pastime of "Here We Go A-Leafleting from Stepney to Parsons' Green."
That does not mean that the Pimpernel Group is not of the real world.
We never, ever, as gay men, forget a remark made back in 1977 by the late Denis Lemon - one-time editor of Gay News. "Gay men," said Denis, "constitute the last minority it is safe to insult." Insult a Jewish person and you'll have the Board of Deputies on you like a ton of bricks. Be derogatory about an Afro-Asian citizen and the Race Relations Board won't be slow to act. Women have some protection against harassment. We have none.
There's an area m which we - as individuals - could usefully assist both Stonewall and Outrage. But as groups? ... That needs very careful consideration in many instances.
Nevertheless, any reservations that the Pimpernel Group might have would be put aside were a government of the fascist Right or - to quote Baroness Shirley Williams - of the fascist Left were to be elected. Then of course we'd beat our way to Westminster or the Hague with zimmer frames at the ready. It isn't likely. We'll start to worry when we see at Westminster - piled round the statue of Richard the Lionheart (one of our lads, remember) the corpses of Michael Portillo on the Right and then - a little to the Left there'd be So-and-So. Further still to the Left of course there'd be Chris ... and Ron ... and Nick ... and Peter back again. You can fill in the rest for yourselves. You know the sort of thing: the usual ten per cent of six hundred and fifty.
Wit great respect I'd like to suggest to you that it might be unwise to imagine the majority of your own group's members are champing at the bit impatient for you to unleash them on a public quite unaware that their own awareness about gays needs to be raised. To proceed on any such assumption these days would - I fear - result in many a potential member of your group moving on. There are dozens of other groups on offer to him within the gay diversity ... The gay WHAT? You ask. Oh yes we come in all shapes, sizes and opinions. No point in getting twitchy. Get real. We are a diversity. In answer to the nervous question: "I take it we're all Guardian readers here?" The reply these days might well be "No".
Do I need to remind you that there was once a splendid badge sported by both lesbian and gay activists? Blazoned on it was How Dare You Presume I'm Heterosexual! Great. But what if there are now whispers that it might be time for a badge reading How Dare You Presume I'm a New Labour Supporter!
Make no mistake. My expenses here haven't been paid for by friends of Mr Hague or Mister Kennedy. I'm merely trying to point to some of the areas that you should - as realists - consider in connection with the groups you organise and support.
A last word on steering gay groups towards overtly political ends.
It was tried - again - on an inter-group level some six years ago. Three well-meaning gens - two from the south of the Thames and one from North London - attempted an umbrella organisation for gay men over fifty. The Pimpernel Group was committed - behind its collective back - to something a mere wafer away from a campaigning and pressure organisation. So were two other groups. On the pretext of staging an inter-group social, a couple of dozen visitors arrived at the Pimpernel's old venue. It was a building now demolished, known affectionately as "Incontinence Corner".
Only when the speeches began that evening from the Three Unwise Men did Johnnie Gay realise what was up. The Pimps rose in fury. They may have been meeting for years on Thursdays for coffee and a laugh like an all-male sewing circle but they were not about to begin sewing banners. It wasn't on ... the project foundered. More recently - indeed this year - there have been stirrings in different parts of what we might call the SLAGO region, indicative of a desire to provide more social activities and opportunities for older gay men. If you think about it such a development was inevitable. We are now close on thirty years away from the founding of any social scene for Everylesbian and Everygay, as opposed to the discreet traditional network open to the Oxbridge gay Mafia.
Not every new attempt has been long lived. That was to be expected. A Sunday afternoon group at the King's Arms in London's Poland Street foundered, principally - I'm bound to say - because of over caution on the part of the two selfless organisers.
All very well recoiling in horror from the notion of establishing a committee that might impose a programme on members but ... to be practical about it ... things are much the same in a social group as with bed sharing - someone has to make the first move.
Nevertheless, Sunday afternoon is a well-chosen time for get-togethers -especially with the winter coming on. I have heard a whisper that Alan Louis is about to sort something for those of you living in North East London. Maybe this afternoon we'll hear more.
Unlike the Poland Street venture, there was a successful Sunday afternoon project; Polari set up a Line Dancing session for older lesbians and gays as part of a Lambeth based Festival. How many turned up? Between twenty-five and thirty of whom twenty per cent came from the Pimpernel Group. So, as I say, there are stirrings - with people trying to devise happenings for those gay men realistic enough to look into their shaving mirrors and admit they can no longer pass for twenty-nine and a bit. Or thirty-nine and a bit.
Let's be brutal. Well, let's be realistic anyway.
If anyone is about to interject "What's all this older gay bit? We have members of barely nineteen in our group." I might just reply in so many words, "Sure, sure, but exactly what percentage of your active membership do they form? And how many of them are on your committee?" And I'll pose a further question to which we often do not give enough attention. "How far from the centre of London -from the Scene and Be Seen, as it were - do you meet?" A very pertinent factor that. If you're in your twenties, for instance, and live and maybe work in Mitcham or Rayners Lane or Harold Wood and you've no car, you'll not be able to be as picky about the group you join. Even if it does entail sitting among a bunch of men all old enough to be your father.
So let's get real. Take two very successful events this past season. First, the one-hundred-and-forty-nine gay men (plus one Mum) who attended the Guildford Gay Group's splendid annual garden party. Second, the eighty or more guests with access to cars who made it to the SLAGO sponsored - and Redhill organised - lunch and sculpture exhibition at South Godstone. What did the two events have in common ... or those who attended them? Well, the overwhelming majority wouldn't see forty again.
All of which brings us to the central question: What is it that the punters want and what more could SLAGO be doing to maintain the enthusiasm of its constituent groups? It will be for you in the next few hours to put forward practical ideas. But there's no reason why we shouldn't - as a curtain raiser - consider just why Johnnie Gay should turn out to go to a group meeting or a SLAGO event on a wet November day.
So just who is Johnnie Gay, now in his forties?
Well, he may have been pressured into marriage in his twenties. Let's remember that not all of us have enjoyed the luxury of understanding parents or the anonymity of a Balham bedsit in our sexually inexperienced and uncertain years. Having been married, Johnnie is - willy-nilly - steeped in the concepts of pairing and sharing. Whether he admits it - or whether we admit it - Johnnie is on the lockout for a partner: It may be for an overnight cuddle or for a significant other on a longer-term basis.
In this he's not alone, is he? Hope certainly springs - if not eternal - then at least until well after pension day. And why shouldn't it? Of course, Johnnie may prove to be a group cruiser, though more and more Group Secretaries, much as myself, are asking potential members whether they have tried other groups nearer their home areas. If not, why not? And if so, just why are they moving on?
For he shouldn't forget the predatory instinct can work both ways. We can all be very principled and warn our existing group members that if they consistently proposition first-timers they could be on their way out. Let's also remember that even the quietest newcomer can be a wolf in lamb's wool scarf.
Having pointed out those hazards, I must add that within the past four weeks I've had an enquiry from a gent living south of the Thames who'd already tried a couple of groups before ringing the Pimpernel. What, I asked, had been so off-putting about the - let's say - River Effra Group and the River Graveney Group? Well, he said, nothing happened. It did cross my mind that he might have been hoping for a personal manifestation of the Almighty - or at least of God's representative, on earth, dear Tony Blair. But no. He admitted ruefully that no one had made a pass at him.
Perhaps, however, Johnnie Gay has made efforts in other directions before contacting your group. He might have tried the Box Number routine through his local paper or with one of the many contact agencies. If - after that - he's coming to you - then it's likely he's found such contacts as he did make as promising and as long-term as an encounter in a cottage with the light on.
A third alternative before we move on.
Johnnie may have become realistic enough through experience to accept that it's "no-go" for him in his forties - or fifties - or whatever - to sit weekend after weekend at the corner of the same gay bar. After all, gay bars - like their straight counterparts- cater for those with the maximum disposable income, ie the 18 to 28 year olds not yet burdened with mortgages, washing machine repayments, family outings and clothing expenditure on the kids. So, there's sat Johnnie - wet Saturday night after wet Saturday night - standing drinks for the lads who - at their cruellest - will say, "Sorry, uncle, find someone your own age ... and weight", and at best? Best turns out too often to be the lad who remembered to have his No.1 pubic haircut but forgot his umbrella. All the same, he only goes back once with Johnnie. It's the law of diminishing returns as the years slide by. When he's sober our friend Johnnie realises this. Then he turns to you.
So what are your groups offering him?
To keep him, I mean. To ensure he'll renew his annual subscription. This has always been a problem and it may not be confined to gay groups alone. How many new recruits to the local theatre club, stamp out twelve months later if they haven't been offered Hamlet or Lady Macbeth?
Within C.H.E. one well remembers Roger Baker at the helm in the London area, setting up no fewer than sixteen - yes, 16 - new groups, each of thirty-five men, in little more than a year. That was in the halcyon days of 1970/1971 ... but ... by 1972 & 3?
It was as the inimitable Brian Sewell put it, "the open drain syndrome". People flowed through. It would be good to think that many a Johnnie had met his Frankie or whoever. It may have been so in some instances. We do not know, however, that after an average lifespan of 12 months, declining attendance dictated that those sixteen groups became eight ... and so on down ...
I am indebted to Brian Sewell for another observation made at that time. It may be obvious but it is easily overlooked. What have gay men in common outside the bedroom - on a personal level, that is? Come to that, as Brian said, what does a carriageful of straight men in a rush hour train have in common after a brief discussion of the local football team and the shape of the barmaid's tits?
At this point I'm delighted to be able to applaud those developments in SLAGO over the past twelve moths that recognise the diverse needs of members. Of course, not all of your members enthused about the concept of the Guildford garden party. Why should they? Walking along a country lane in full sunlight as a group of men without women is not for the nervous. Nevertheless, the Pimpernels mustered ten. I have mentioned the sculpture park outing. We managed two carloads. Add to these the now traditional SLAGO away day to Brighton and you're on a road, which I suggest you explore further.
Yes ... yes ... there will never be one hundred per cent support for any one particular event you organise on behalf of SLAGO. Some like Brighton and others don't. The same applies for a gay pub-crawl, a visit to a flower market, or a gay and lesbian line dancing session. And there are some who will not ... here comes the biggie, folks ... who will not join in any kind of sport or intellectually demanding pastime. It's the provision of an ever-widening choice that's important.
I make no apology for a bit of satire. Satire is meant to point to shortcomings and to leave the subject of that satire to put things right. I offer - not nastily - but as a warning, a couple of lines that parody a 1930's poem by Louis MacNeice. He was satirising his fellow intellectuals who were far too romantic about working lads of that time. MacNeice wrote:
"What we want is a packet of fags and a bit of skirt in a taxi."
I offer this, not unkindly, but to make you sit up.
"It's no go the 'varsity quiz', it's no go the 'ping-pong';
We want a bloke who can do the biz ... after a pint and a sing-song."
If SLAGO conjures up an image of only quizzes and table tennis competitions then there is no way that the Pimpernel Committee - on which I've only one vote - could persuade our membership to apply for re-admission. I cannot speak for any other groups that may have seceded.
Let me speedily add that the Pimpernel Committee is very well aware of the hard work unstintingly undertaken in organising inter-group events. In particular we are all aware of the efforts made by Philip, Brian and now Ross and Roger over the years. It's a list that could go on and on.
The group of which I happen to be Secretary does not dismiss all you've achieved with a patronising snigger. What I'm underlining - if necessary for the umpteenth time - is my view that SLAGO's scope should be broadened. There should be a steady and visible building on what has been constructed so far.
Maybe you'll not think it too presumptuous of me to offer a possible topic of discussion for you to explore later:
Might it be useful to set up a SLAGO Working Party, not as yet another talking shop but as an organising group charged with at least compiling a list of inter-group events to be undertaken within the next twelve months. The composition of such a group would obviously not be my concern but - rather than laying an extra burden on those who already hold office in SLAGO - why not seek four or five among those attending this afternoon, with one of their number reporting progress (and detailed plans) at the quarterly SLAGO meetings?
To return to my argument and to sum up:
Because we have all been reared in a predominantly Judeo-Christian - that is to say basically puritanical - society, the realisation that we may be enjoying ourselves (or enjoying one another to be more accurate) is likely to provoke a sense of guilt.
Beware, I do beg you, of being seduced by that same sense of guilt. Do not set aside enjoyment and delight and then divert the major part of your energy into campaigning. The simple fact that you are meeting openly and giving confidence to each other as gay men is - in itself - a great campaign. Forget the cardinal, the rabbi and the commissar. Instead, look after those who are nervously edging their way into your meeting room for the first time.
To get them to lift a telephone, call you, and finally come to a meeting is an achievement. For them - never forget - it is a gigantic Neil Armstrong step.
Can you have heard correctly? Did I really use the word nervously about a gay man in 1999? Or are you quietly murmuring, "Oh, come on, there are gay characters popping up all over our television screens and dotted like punctuation marks through every paper and magazine."
Yes, I did say nervously. Nervous gay men are there throughout the SLAGO catchment area as they always were. There's the country lad beyond Redhill or Sutton busying himself round the village and hoping no one will notice he's 28 and still unmarried. But they do notice, those apple-cheeked old ladies with mouths like rat-traps. One day he'll spot them at it. Then he'll need to find a phone number and a group ... There's the single guy at Barnet going home to disabled mother, while his married siblings - those slick verbal tapdancers - apologise with a smug grin that with another kiddie on the way they just don't have a spare corner for Mum. One day, he'll find a phone booth after his evening class and call you ...
Just one more instance from a list that could go on and on. There's the working guy who's made himself secretary to the rugger and swimming clubs because then he can be closer to the bodies he dare not touch. He's been married long enough for the regulation two offspring to be off to college next year. Soon, in the tube train, it'll be the moment for him to leaf through Time Out (never Gay Times or Pink Paper) and then, with his wife safely at Bingo, he'll nerve himself with a drink, punch up 141 to avoid his call being traced and finally call your group's contact number ...
What are you ... What is SLAGO going to offer him?
Consider him this afternoon.