Ruth Middleton: Full Interview
Interviewed by Robin Kiteley
5th July 2019
RK: I’m Robin Kiteley, this is the 5th July 2019 and I’m interviewing for the West Yorkshire Queer Stories Project. So if I can just ask you your name?
RM: Ruth Middleton
RK: And your date of birth?
RK: Ok, thank you. And whereabouts do you live, Ruth?
RM: I now live just outside the catchment area [Ruth is referring to West Yorkshire]. Uhm, live in Harrogate. Erm, but was, I’ve lived in and around West Yorkshire for most of my life.
RK: Ok. And how do you identify?
RM: As a lesbian.
RK: Ok, and so to start Ruth, I’d just like to ask you what your experience was, of coming out?
RM: …That’s always a difficult question [laughs]. Erm, I’m just trying to think if there was ever a time that I would say, “oh, that was when I came out”. And, I don’t think there was as such. It’s something that still happens today. Erm, and that I have to take decisions about. This morning a district nurse came, erm, to check for pressure sores, and I said about having been on holiday recently and she just assumed that, erm, when I talked about Janet that that was my sister, for some reason. And I chose not to say anything [laughs], erm, Janet’s my partner, and then afterwards I felt annoyed with myself for not having, erm, corrected her, and made a point. But, in terms of coming out, erm, it’s quite funny because I’ve come out on various national stages, I suppose. And then, y’know, in my bedroom discussing my pressure sores and me bum, I choose to stay quiet [laughs], which I always think is quite ironic.
Erm, growing up I didn’t always know that I was gay. Erm, I…there’s lots that looking back I can sort of say, “ooh yes, I would have known if I’d looked at me from outside”. Because I was the one who always had crushes on her best friends, and on the women teachers. Erm, I can still sort of, name lots of the women teachers that I liked, and how upset I was when Miss Heap married Mr Sharp, erm, instead of waiting to marry me. Erm, but uhm, at that point sort of marrying between the same sexes was something that I’d have thought was a fairy tale anyhow. Erm, so, and I was always very interested, I suppose, in, I was an avid reader and although I don’t think I read a great deal about, …with lesbians in, I certainly started and perhaps felt as if, gay men, I certainly, sort of met, through reading, I think, long before I sort of met them in reality. But there were, uhm, sort of several gay people around, as I grew up. I had an Aunty Winifred and an Aunty Jean, who, uhm, were not biological aunties, but were always known as aunties. And I still don’t know, to this day, whether they were lesbians or not, because my mum and everybody would say that they weren’t. And that they just shared a bedroom when we went to stay, so that we could stay at the same time, and things like that. But I’ve always thought that was highly unlikely, and that they certainly both, as teachers, had decided to live their lives together. Erm, and I think they, y’know, 99 percent .9% sure that they were lesbians. Erm, even if they may not have called themselves that.
I think growing up, I did see it as being, y’know, that gay men existed but it was like, the women that I saw who were lesbians were sort of more like spinsters, than lesbians as such. Erm, there was a man who lived across the road from us, who uhm, was a gay man and he used to have men coming round to his house. Erm, and I was alw..he was always quite open, in terms of saying that he had relationships with them, and he taught me how to speak Polari. Not Polari, sorry. Erm, it would have been better if he’d have spoken, taught me how to speak Polari [laughs], but he taught me how to speak Esperanto. And told me about Polari and things like that. And the other way in which I was aware of gay men, really, was that my dad was a male nurse, and had an abiding, erm, annoyance that people assumed that any male general nurses in particular, had to be, be gay. And so, erm, there was a feeling that, sort of, there was the butt of jokes and things like that. Erm, and that, y’know, that gay men were very much characterised like your Larry Grayson type people, or your John Inman, erm. And, y’know, would carry little handbags and walk like teapots or whatever, and it was all very, very stereotyped.
Both headmasters of my primary and my middle school, I think, not whilst they were teaching, erm, but in their retirement, were both, at one point or other, arrested for importuning, if that’s the right word, erm, but in the toilets of the park. Our school was in the middle of the park, and that was one school, and the other school was opposite the park. Erm, I don’t think the two headteachers were there at it together, but [laughs] erm, they could have been. At different times they were. So I always knew about cottaging, erm, from a very, very young age. And then many years later, when I was doing HIV prevention work, erm, in the Black Country I used to spend many hours sort of hanging around men’s toilets, usually with a flask and a book, or writing notes whilst the gay men that I worked with would disappear in the toilets to do prevention work, or to have a good time. I was never quite sure which. Erm, and I used to sit outside [laughs], with the flask of tea. I think, y’know, I think for a long time I didn’t, I didn’t think that, I didn’t think that, sort of, being gay was an option for a woman, or, for me. But certainly I knew that that’s more where I sort of was, erm, and I had very, sort of, intense relations with, relationships and friendships with various girls through school, erm, and then through working at Boots as a Saturday girl. Erm, sort of opened things up to me a bit more. Erm, at that point I’d moved, we’d moved, initially I was born in Skipton, brought up in Grassington, and we’d moved by…during my schooling we’d moved back to, we moved to Wakefield. So most of my childhood was in Wakefield, the childhood that I’ve just described.
By the time that I was, sort of, 14 plus, I was going out a lot with girl friends, but not people that I was in any kind of relationship with. But, ironically, we used to come through to Leeds. I used to go to the bar, that I then later got to know was Bananas. And it, sort of, made me laugh in later life that I realised that I’d actually been frequenting gay venues for some time. I think it was just that we used to find, y’know, find it less threatening to be in places with gay men, and there weren’t necessarily an awful lot of women in those, in those places.
My first sexual experiences were with men…and, uhm, by the time, but again it’s interesting looking back, because by the time that I was leaving school…I’d had a succession of boyfriends who were all pretty unavailable. So, Gary was in the navy, John, who I was in a relationship with for quite a while, and then, does appear, sort of, later on in the stories, he uhm, he was in the RAF. Erm, and I had, my first, sort of, relationships with women…were not one…were, erm, with other student, were with erm…I had quite a long term relationship, but as I say, it wouldn’t have been called a relationship, erm, with somebody who I won’t name for now, but was also a student nurse, erm, as I was. And we lived in the nurses’ home and you had 3 flats per, 3 bedrooms per little flat, with a kitchen. And we had a relationship and spent every night together in the same bed. We were very, very, sort of, close. But, she was with a married man and I was with John from the RAF, so we both, sort of in effect, had this sort of, cover story. And…I think I was probably the first in that to, to start to question and think well this is the, this is the important relationship to me. I’m not sure it ever was to her, but it was very much a, y’know, we were, in effect, living together, but then these men would occasionally, sort of, come home or we’d have to go and be with them. And that would be the only time when we weren’t together, or whatever. But we did it in a, I don’t think people would, sort of, we didn’t sort of say to anybody, “oh yes, we’re having sex” but [laughs]…we did it in many ways quite openly.
And I do remember when I hadn’t been at the school of nursing for very long, uhm…a nurse coming up to me and saying, erm, was I gay? And that there were rumours that I was, and I, to my embarrassment and forever shame, completely denied it, and said, “Absolutely not. I’ve got a boyfriend in the RAF”. And I would say that there was that first few years of my lesbian life was spent in that, in that kind of state. And that all of the…semi-relationships I had were with women who weren’t [laughs], were involved with a man. I’m wittering…can I have some help to get me back on track?
RK: So, you were, when you were asked, uhm, whether you were gay, and you said “no”, was that partly about fear of uhm, was it around your position at work, were you concerned of other people knowing?
RM: [Overlaps above] Yeah, yeah. I think it was a big issue in terms of being a psychiatric nurse…
RM: As I say, there’d been this issue throughout my childhood around not being gay, and my dad, and male nurses. And certainly at the time I was absolutely sure that if I’d have said “yes – I’m gay”, that I would have been, that my work would have, that I would have been removed from working closely with some of the women patients that I worked with. I think there was no doubt that that would have, that that would have happened, and in fact, the woman who asked me whether I was gay, erm, I knew that she was and I knew that she was not considered, sort of, trustworthy etc, although she was a staff nurse. It was very much, there were patients on our wards who were there…and sexuality was seen as being part of their mental illness. Part of their, the reas…certainly the reason for their mental distress. I was becoming aware, in those years, of people who were committing suicide because they didn’t want to be gay, and felt that they were… A couple of young people who I nursed, I worked with, that was the case for. And…yeah, I’m sorry to say I never, at that stage, I wasn’t brave enough to say, “oh yes, I, I am”. And continued really, to have, cos I’d moved to London to do my nurse training. But then [laughs] I say that, and say I wasn’t brave enough to do it but I was also involved in Lesbians and Gays Support the Mine Workers.
Perhaps, I think I sort of started separating my life into very distinct areas, which I think a lot of us did. And I hope that people don’t have to quite do that as much now. I mean there was no way that I would have talked to my parents or to my sister about being, being gay, in those days. Although my parents and sister have known for…30 odd years now, it’s still not something that…it’s not sort of easy, or it’s not something that they’re pleased about. My nephews, so I suppose the generation below, it’s always been much easier with them, and so, for instance…When my old, well no, he’s not my oldest, when my nephew got married both myself and my partner were automatically invited to, to the wedding. Whereas there were many occasions, I think, over the years where I was invited to things, in terms of the family, but the plus one bit was missing. Even when I’d been in a long term relationship, and I often chose not to do family things because of that. And I would say that my relationship with my family now, erm, is not close and one of the reasons for that is that erm…I, I never expected or received any sort of affirmation in terms of being gay, from my family. And so quite early on I decided that I would create my own family of friends, and have done so…uhm, I’m getting muddled again. I think I might need a break, or a bit of water or something, sorry.
RK: So, you were talking about being involved in the campaign to support the miners and I’m just wondering how you got involved in that?
RM: Yeah, uhm, I think it was a matter of being from Yorkshire, and….we, or my parents, moved to Nottinghamshire, erm, well in the middle of the mine-working dispute, which wasn’t a very good thing to do, erm, because the two places politically, had quite distinctive [laughs] views on the dispute. But I just remember learning to drive and…the police were not held in great esteem, by my neighbourhood or my friends or my family. Erm, and as I learnt to drive in an old mini, on numerous occasions, especially when I started driving between Nottingham and Yorkshire, the police would stop and look in the boot etc, as if, y’know, it was going to be full of flying pickets, erm, as the song said, or the wording was for people who went to support miners in different areas.
So, erm, I sort of had, I already was sort of sympathetic. I did politics at A level, and I was quite an academic person and…just thinking about the first time that, sort of, I’m just thinking of two teachers who were particularly important to me, and both of those were called ‘Ms.’ And they, sort of, came into my life, and one of them was an English teacher, who used to encourage us to do lots of work around nuclear disarmament and things. So, by the time I was, y’know, sort of already in CND before I left, before I left school. Erm, and the other was my politics teacher, erm, and so, as I say, by the time I did my A levels I was very much, sort of, a ‘leftie’. And…involved, y’know, sort of already sort of wanting to be involved in national politics, and party politics, as well as in local issues. So, going down to London, it was natural that I looked at how to support the mine workers, uhm, and found out and started to get involved in Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Mine Workers. I was at the, y’know, it was towards the end of the campaigning, erm, but…only this week a friend of mine got in touch with me because he [laughs], he was helping Jeremy Corbyn write his speech for Pride, which is tomorrow. Erm, and this particular friend remembered that I’d got a copy of Dancing in Dulais, which is the film that we put together, of our work. And it’s the film that Pride – the movie, really, sort of, sanitised and broadened and lengthened and everything else. And so…I made available to the leader of the opposition the film, for him to look at, and then I saw that he’d actually posted a copy of that and some other stuff from those years on social media yesterday.
Erm, the thing for me, remembering that, and looking at that film, which is very grainy and old now, is just how strong the feeling of community was, and is the fact that most of the people on that film are no longer alive. Erm, several of whom died in terms of HIV/AIDS, but also…other people died and, y’know, I think one of the big issues for me has always been that, uhm, because of the toll that, I think for many people, their sexuality not being accepted, had on them. I think things like, sort of, the incidence of mental health problems, mental distress, certainly I’ve known a lot of people who’ve committed suicide over the years. Erm, and I think, y’know, alcoholism, drug use, all those things, seem to be much more prevalent in the community, communities, that I’ve been involved in. And I think even, even in terms of smoking, it was like, y’know, we all smoked, we all spent our whole life in pubs, y’know, really…probably weren’t the...healthiest by any means, of any sort of group.
I mean the other way that I become involved in politics, I think, was that, erm…was that growing up in West Yorkshire, erm, it was the years of, sort of, The Ripper etc. [The Yorkshire Ripper, serial killer Peter Sutcliffe] And I remember at school we used to have, y’know, sort of police officers come and tell us about, y’know, that we shouldn’t go out in short skirts, and we shouldn’t go out, and we shouldn’t do this, and we shouldn’t do the other. And it always seemed to me as if it was the reason to keep, to try and keep women in, and women under control. And I naturally always questioned that in terms of where the blame for these things took, y’know, was located. And, that it was still located with the women even though it was, y’know, the easiest was to stop men raping women would have been to put men in at night, and let women go out [laughs], but that was never the way in which it was said. So, I got involved in things like Reclaim the Night marches and things like that. Erm, from being quite young, and kept being involved in those.
And then, when I was, err, the course that I did involved nursing and involved a degree at Brunel, erm, and was a sandwich course. And, erm, I loved the, I loved the nursing and the work I was doing but I was getting more pulled towards the politics and, erm, I stood for election at Brunel, to go to, sort of, the National Student Conference, and things. And, was successful and went along and then started to meet lots of other people, and started to meet, sort of, really strong women who were out and proud, and things, and realised that that was what I wanted to be. And so very er….y’know, that was sort of mid-eighties, I suppose, very quickly, sort of, started to establish myself as a lesbian, erm, and…started having relationships with other women. Lived in, uhm, lived with other groups of women, most particularly, lived with six other women in a house for seven of us, in Seven Sisters. And most of us there were, were lesbians. And we were sort of quite a, I suppose, because there was seven of us all in one house, we became a bit of a…a, uhm….ooh, sort of a uhm, y’know, a focus for quite a lot of women’s activity and things like that. Whether it was things like fighting the Alton Bill, which was about abortion, prior to Section 28, or to the Section 28 campaign.
By the time that Section 28 came about I was the labour student convenor of NUS London, which was a full-time role, based in the University of London Union. And…at that time, uhm, it was Clause 27, it was Clau…we had various names for the, for what was being done. We also lived in Haringey, of course, so that was the area where…the locus of complaints were, erm, ‘cos the book was being used, and was found in the Wood Green Library in Haringey. And I can’t even remember its name, and I’ve got the book at home [laughs].
RK: Is it…
RM: Thingie lived with do-dah
RK: Martin? [laughs]
RM: yeah, yeah, yeah
RK: Jenny lives with…yeah, no I can’t remember it, but I know the book [Jenny lives with Eric and Martin]
RM: It’s the yellow book with blue pictures, blue framed, two pictures of her and the 2 men
RM: It’s very boring really.
RM: And, uhm, the most obvious it gets is that, y’know, there’s a picture of the two of them in bed one morning, when she goes into the room. But it caused a complete and utter uproar, uhm.
One of the things I’d done since I got to London was going to Prides, and those days Prides were very small, so they were held in Jubilee Gardens, which is a little bit of grass at the side of the GLC, what’s now London Aquarium, and where the London Eye is. And literally, we would all fit in that space, and it felt like there was lots of space there. And you’d be, y’know, I remember going into Pride with whistles, and….uhm, y’know, very obviously, sort of, seeing other people, other women in their Doc Martens or, whatever, and dungarees, which seemed to be the outfit. Always worried me ‘cos I never looked right in Doc Martens and dungarees, but erm, going into Pride. But it felt great to be doing it, but it was quite a brave, political act, I think, because, y’know, we were all very much, erm, identifiable, erm, and therefore, y’know, you had to be prepared to be, uhm, insulted and assaulted. Certainly insulted by the police, erm….I’m going off, off, off target again, but.
Err, because I was at NUS London, and convenor of NUS London, I had some kind of resources, that were able to put into the Section 28 campaign, as we realised how dire it was. Y’know, it came out, in terms of the, the wording, uhm, just before Christmas in 1987 to ‘88, yeah, ‘87. And, so we arranged a march for January, and I went down to sign the papers to say that I’d be responsible for the, of the good behaviour of everybody. Err, as I had done with student marches for various things as well. But it was quite amazing, that, having, sort of arranged for there to be this demonstration in January, January the 9th I think it was, erm, we were thinking that there was very few people would know about it. The student unions would still be on holiday etc, etc, so there wouldn’t be great numbers, and then people just started phoning up and saying they were arriving. At that point Section 28 was, the two main places it was being fought from, were my office and the house that we lived in. Erm….
I remember Rachel, who I was with for ten years, who’s still my, sort of, best friend, uhm, phoning me, well phoning the house in, in, that I lived in, to say that she’d been arrested along with a group of Leeds students, and they’d, uhm, taken some paint and the Burley Bridge in Leeds, uhm, British Rail bridge, had written, “Lesbians and Gay Men say n...” And it never got any further. It stayed for years, actually. And lots of people wondering what they were saying ‘n-yi’ to, erm, but they didn’t get as far as spray painting the “no to Section 28”. Erm, but I always remember that, sort of, Rachel phoned, I took that phone call and then very shortly after that we were together, and sort of like, yeah, our lives changed dramatically [laughs]. Erm, cos that was, Rachel was my first, erm, I’d sort of say long-term and definite sort of girlfriend, and yes you took your girlfriend back to your mum an dad, and erm. I went back to Rachel’s mum and dad, and Rachel’s brother tried to glass me, erm, he was very aggressive and didn’t like the fact that his sister was a lesbian. Erm, but he, uhm, he would do things like sit down to eat with us and then stand up and throw the plates over the floor and say he wouldn’t eat with lesbians. Or that there were ants and there were different insects all over his food and there wasn’t at all, it was just that he couldn’t bear the thought of eating with us. Ironically he’s now quite a nice chap, he’s grown up and he’s, he’s become quite, erm, somebody who appreciates diversity etc. But, he was bloody horrible, erm, when we were together.
Erm…the people who, all the other stuff, erm, Section 28 went through either the office or home. So, for example, the protest in the House of Lords, erm the BBC protests, erm, I didn’t take part in either but was involved in both, in terms of, being part of the back-up, knowing it was going to happen, talking to the papers and to the press afterwards.
We had the big, big, big, big march in London, in the May of ’88, and again, the numbers of people who were expected just kept rising. I signed the papers and the police were wanting to cancel the whole event because we hadn’t got sufficient portable toilets erm, along the route, and at the end, where the speeches and events and music would be. Erm, I think that was Brockwell Park? Erm, if I remember rightly. And so literally, sort of the day before…the march, and with the police threatening to cancel it, I managed to make a loan from NUS London to the Section 28 campaign, uhm, but also went round to Boy George’s and got money from him, which literally, we were given in sort of pound notes to take to the portable toilet company, err, whoever they were, to be able to order, sort of, 50-100 of these toilets. Uhm, he wanted his money back and the NUS London money, it was probably illegal to spend it in the way that I had, so I desperately needed that back. So I just remember the whole of that day, uhm, I think I was supposed to be organising the stage performers, but I just spent the whole of the day with buckets, trying to get people to donate, so that we could pay back [laughs], the, er, organisations that had made it happen.
In those days it felt very much like, I know it sounds very cheesy, but it felt like quite a small family, and that, y’know, it was quite easy to do things like find out where Boy George was, and get in touch with him and ask him for money, and stuff. Err, there was still a very few celebrities who were out, uhm, I mean the people who were associated with Section 28, in terms of, uhm, Sir Ian McKellen and things, didn’t come out until towards the very, very end of that campaign. Erm, and to be honest, at the time, were…were very much concerned, seemed to us to be very much more concerned with the, uhm…issues such as whether theatre plays would be able to be put on. Y’know, whether, whether we’d be able to look at Oscar Wilde’s theatres in schools, whereas we were much more concerned about lesbian mothers who were still losing custody in great numbers, and things like that. So, initially, sort of Section 28 campaign and Stonewall probably had quite a rocky relationship, but that’s not to say, y’know, I’ve been involved in Stonewall for years off and on, and they’ve done some very good work. But it did start off being quite a, uhm, I’d say a middle to upper-middle-class organisation, and its concerns weren’t necessarily the same as, uhm, certainly for things like the mine workers, and things like that. Erm, it had a very different focus.
Err…during all this time as well, erm, I suppose the backdrop to a lot of what I’m saying was that, erm…an ever increasing number of the gay men that I knew…were becoming ill and also just the, y’know, sort of community as we knew it, as I said, people from Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners erm, died. Mark Ashton died of HIV/AIDS, and uhm, I think I’ve still got, at home, one of the original Mark Ashton Trust t-shirts. Uhm, got involved in various different HIV/AIDS organisations, uhm…in London. Went to the Department of Health and sort of started working with them, in terms of student information, and the NUS lesbian and gay campaign. Very much was involved in things like The Names Project which looked to, uhm, use the quilt as a method of memorialising, erm, the people that we’d lost. That felt very important to me because, uhm, several of the men that I knew who’d died, I went to their funerals and did not recognise at all, the person who was being described. Because they were so far away from the people that I knew, in terms of that their family wouldn’t accept they were gay, didn’t obviously acknowledge their HIV/AIDS status. Or they were, y’know, they did but it was treated as such a, y’know, something like being a leper…erm. I remember very much with other gay men friends, erm, some of who are still around and still friends of mine, erm, doing things like waiting with people for tests. Y’know, not literally because that was, y’know, it took 3 weeks or whatever. But being, not really, y’know, once, that’s once the test had become available. Erm…but er, yeah, er…somebody who was another, by that point I’d been elected onto the National Executive of the National Union of Students and I was National Secretary of that, one of, erm…the executive members, Sam, killed himself in our office. He had HIV and just couldn’t face the, the future. He hung himself.
Erm…it was very…it sort of felt very dramatic all the time, very sort of…as if you were sort of on the edge and, y’know, you were, sort of things were erm... But also as if you could, you made a difference, y’know you felt like you really made a difference. Or I felt like I really made a difference. And my whole life seemed to be, sort of, around…sort of issues around sexuality, HIV/AIDS. I’d still maintained the, sort of, psychiatric erm, although I’d had, I’d had a…what’s the word for a gap? [Laughs] A secondment, err, a sabbatical
RM: Erm, to undertake the NUS stuff. Erm, still very, y’know, very much aware of…the mental health issues around both HIV, and coming out of Section 28, and things like that.
Erm, I mean nowadays we quite often see the quotes from people that, y’know, sort of almost make me laugh now. Erm, I mean I’ve got a letter at home from the MP from where we lived in Tottenham, erm, and it was the, erm Bernie Grant was the MP there for many years but it must have just been just before that. And erm this Conservative who says, and we’d written and said that erm, something about, sort of, lesbians not having very high numbers of HIV or not knowing about the levels of risk and things like that. And he suggested that the best thing to do would be to put us on an island somewhere in the middle of the sea, and starve us. And that he would suggest that the seven of us who lived in his constituency were the first to go. Erm, y’know and you could never imagine an MP today writing such a, such a thing. But, y’know, that was the, sort of, background and I remember a number of people who were teachers at the time who really came, y’know sort of like were back in their closets that they’d opened up or whatever. Because they, or actually, I remember quite a few people who left teaching, or some of made, left frontline teaching, just because that was easier than uhm, than having to, sort of, face issues about their own sexuality, with the politics of the world, as it were…
I think both Section 28 and, I mean looking through some photographs, as I did in preparation for this discussion, erm, I think both of them, both Section 28 and the HIV/AIDS crisis were things that I felt it was really important that we didn’t forget. So, uhm, those photographs there of “repeal Section 28” events that we used to do, sort of annually, and of HIV events that we’d do annually. I came up to Leeds then to live with Rachel and so, left London and that’s before I then went to Birmingham, so I’m moving around between the three cities completely…
RK: [overlaps] That’s fine
RM: without thinking…phew!
RK: D’you wanna break?