Barry Broadbent: Full Interview
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Interviewed by Priya Sidharh
8th May 2019
PS: It is Wednesday 8th May 2019 and on behalf of West Yorkshire Queer Stories, my name is Priya and I am volunteering to conduct an interview to collect a story today. I will hand it over to you to introduce yourself.
BB: Yes, Priya is interviewing Barry Broadbent, a 77 year old gay guy born in Leeds. I thought that for the purposes of today’s interview it would be more constructive if I spoke about my early days, as we will have a lot of other people talk about more modern times.
I was born in 1941, in the darkest depths of the Second World War, when Britain stood alone against the forces of fascism, and communism, for Hitler had invaded eastwards and occupied Poland, with the connivance of Russia, which invaded westwards, and occupied Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and what is now called Belarus.
Shortly before I was born, Hitler had marched westwards and invaded Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and finally France. The whole of liberal democracy in Western Europe was crushed by fascism. Spain, Portugal and Italy already had their own branches of fascism.
Britain stood alone with the strength of the empire behind it, for the United States sat on its bum on the other side of the Atlantic and offered us help, provided we paid for it.
I was born in a back to back terrace house in Leeds; a house which hadn’t got water, no bathroom, and an outside toilet. My father was away in the army, so it was left to my mother and the other women in the family, because all men of that age were away on one form of service or another. So I was brought up largely by women for a large number of years and I found it very odd when my father suddenly reappeared on the scene: ‘Who is this strange man, coming into my house?’
I was the oldest child and indeed, at that time, the only child.
I have some very funny early memories of life, that are not particularly relevant to this story, and by the time my father came back the family had moved into a semi-detached house with a bathroom and indeed a bedroom, specifically, for me, which was simply not appreciated because little children are happy if they’re loved, whatever the circumstances, but it must have made a great change for my mother and my father.
I realised that I was different from other little boys at a very young age. In fact, my sexuality had never been in doubt to myself, but how to deal with it was – posed problems. It was quickly told – not told – made apparent that my feelings were wrong and were to be suppressed, and I duly went along with that, as far as society was concerned.
I had a large number of cousins, male and female. It was the male cousins who would say I should do this, or I shouldn’t do that, and I should be more interested in toy hammers and nails and less so in dollies and tea services. I am sure that these thoughts will be echoed in many people of that generation of my disposition.
So, I grew up, went to school; state school, state grammar school, and eventually I went to university. I was the first person in my family to… get to university, which was not the jolly time (and by then it was the early 60s), it was not the jolly time that lots of people would have thought, because whilst the 60s are synonymous with sexual openness, the north of England was perhaps ten years behind liberal London.
So it was not as liberated. It was still illegal to practice homosexuality and so you tended to keep it quiet even amongst students, your student friends. You saw this because there were some of course extremely camp students hanging about who kept themselves to themselves because they were ostracised by the rest of society.
So basically to get on at school, university and subsequently in work situations, you had to be able to – be good at, covering up the fact that you were gay. My position was particularly helped because I found that I was quite attractive to the opposite sex, and so, and I have always have been friendly, and always had good friendships and friendly relationships with a number of women, so I was able to, I suppose, deflect any thoughts that I might be gay, by the large number of women that I had hanging around me. That’s perhaps how things still work.
My sexual development started very early. Knowing it was wrong and not to be talked about, I didn’t talk about it. Though I quickly found that there were certain places where young, teenage and early-20 year-olds could meet for sexual contact. Mostly it was not of a very happy sort, although it offered sexual relief.
Because it was illegal, you had to be extremely discreet. Telephone numbers were never exchanged. If the police caught somebody the first thing they did was confiscate their telephone book and follow up the telephone numbers in that book and that’s how they got the ‘rings’ of ‘perverts’ arrested.
So actually forming a friendship was extremely difficult. You had to be extremely sure of somebody before you would let him… become emotionally close. The other thing that that situation did, or appeared to do, it meant that any form of sexual contact, between two 50 year-old men, two 20 year-old men, a 20 year-old man with a ten-year-old boy, was treated exactly the same: it was illegal. So it blurred the edges of what we now, currently, are very iffy about; in other words: child sexual abuse. Indeed, I have lived through a period where child sexual abuse was an adult man having any form of sexual contact with a child under 21 years of age, then under 18 years of age, and now under 16 years of age. So it’s a moveable feast throughout my period of life and it has become more… more stigmatised as that period has gone on. I am in no way a paedophile myself; I just offer this as an observation for people’s perception over time of these things.
I left university and got a job in the building industry, which was not the most gay-friendly industry in the world then and probably now as well. In fact, there was one famous occasion where an architect who I knew was gay, and who knew that I was, said to me, ‘Well, Barry. You must be the only lady plumber in Leeds’. And that says something in this modern age, doesn’t it?
BB: Because there are several lady plumbers around at this time, but in those days, there really weren’t. I’m sure there weren’t, certainly in Leeds. The other theme to this type of talk is that Leeds has always been rather a backward water as far as homosexual, and gay things were considered.
However, when I was 17, it was talk amongst us boys at school that there were gay bars (or ‘sweet shops’, where the ‘sweeties’ went), and so I knew that there were gay bars. I knew where they were, and, and when I was 17 I plucked up the courage to actually go into one (illegally, of course, because I was underage for drinking).
So I went in and I ordered my half a pint of beer, so I could get out quickly without wasting money. That half pint of beer cost eight old pence which is about four pence now. And of course I went in too early and there was maybe a couple of guys sitting on stools talking to the barman. One of the guys had a dog sitting at his feet and I was sort of half-hidden behind a pillar so as not to be seen. But I did it, and I thought ‘Well, this isn’t much fun’. And that was a place called The Mitre, a pub long-since shut down.
And when I went to university in Liverpool –
PS: Were there other people that went into the pub alone or did it seem as though people were in groups?
BB: No, at that time, the time that I went there was only the two other men talking and the barman. The barman actually came over and spoke to me, [unclear] and we had an intelligent, non-gay conversation. So it was probably the wrong day of the week, or too early in the evening.
PS: What was a non-gay conversation? Was it nothing to do with sex?
BB: Well, simply, two people talking, about what rotten weather we’re having, what brings you into town, have you worked here long, and that sort of thing. He did serve me beer even though I probably looked underage and I did go back to that pub with a guy that I knew, maybe a couple of years later. It was much later on in the evening and busy; it was what you might recognise as a gay bar, but in fact in those days most men wore suits and jackets and ties and cavalry tweed trousers and, if you really wanted to advertise the fact that you were gay, you wore suede shoes. Now, a man with suede shoes was definitely a sign that there was something...
So, that was the sort of background that I grew up with and came to explore my sexuality in those days. Cravats were also worn and that was thought to be another sign that you might be...
PS: So do you remember getting your first pair of suede shoes?
BB: No, well, I didn’t want to advertise the fact. Although I do remember getting suede shoes, but that was quite recent, because of the fashion. So, no, I didn’t want to advertise the fact that I was gay; I didn’t want it to be known at work. So I led a very under-the-counter sort of life.
I was good-looking enough to be picked up easily enough by somebody who might recognise that I was gay. So, it wasn’t that I went without sex, but I kept it as quiet as can be, both there and in terms of at home, where I never came out. I never throughout the whole of my life came out to my parents. Except that they were both intelligent people and they both knew that I was gay. They preferred not to discuss it. They would have raised the issue, and I introduced them to... I have had three partners over fifty years, and they knew each one and accepted them as sons, so they must have known I was gay, but it was never discussed or spoken about.
In fact it was only… maybe in this last 20 years, only in this century, that one of my cousins said, ‘You know, Barry, we’ve all known that you’re gay, but you don’t like talking about it, especially back in the old days when it was illegal and you could incriminate yourself’.
You see, it was never illegal to be homosexual, it was just illegal to practise it. So, letting it be known that you were homosexual could very easily lead to all sorts of problems, so you kept your head down.
Many people’s lives were ruined by that, because having sex is one of the most natural instincts, particularly in teenage and 20 year-olds, and having not to have it, or forego it, or to hide it… You know, you would meet someone, casually and you might have a drink and with them and talk, a lovely person, have sex – first-rate sex, and neither of you would dare, probably didn’t even give your own name, and you wouldn’t dare give a telephone number. You might arrange to meet again and if they didn’t turn up, for whatever reason, then that’s it, you might never see them again.
I always felt fortunate in that I met, whilst I was still at university, a guy who was here in Leeds, it must’ve been in the university holidays and we were able to form a good, strong friendship and he became my first partner. And our relationship lasted for something like 16 years, and he sadly developed cancer and died at the age of 43. That of course, could have happened to anybody, but would be particularly difficult in the pool of eligible gay men [laughs], which, firstly was as broad (or as narrow) then as it is now, but it was made worse by the fact that people would come out and not dare talk about it.
Then a few years later I met, six years later, I met my present partner, who was much younger than myself and actually falls into this category that we were talking about – that I was talking about, because he was under 21. So having any form of sex with him would have been illegal at the time. But there was no corrupting of him, in my mind [laughs], he was well and truly corrupted. He knew what he wanted, and at the time I was what he wanted, and we are still together, so a 40 year relationship
PS: How old were you?
BB: When I lost my first partner?
PS: No, sorry, when you started this relationship.
BB: I was 37, and he was 18. There was 19 years difference. And I’d lost my first partner when I was 34 and had a brief relationship that didn’t work out very well for some of those years in between.
PS: What was that like? Having a difficult relationship when you weren’t particularly open about discussing...
BB: Yes. Yes, it was. He was a friend who I knew whilst my first partner was alive. He was particularly – and it was a wide range of things, and he was particularly kind and helpful whilst my first partner was having treatment for and dying of cancer. There was a period of over a year from when he was diagnosed until his eventual death.
So in a way, as he’d been very supportive and helpful it was then very natural then when you are bereaved… we socialised quite closely and that developed into something which possibly wasn’t the right thing at the time. Although for me it was the very supportive thing to do. And I think basically, when I say it wasn’t a very successful relationship, he had wanted far more out of it than I was able to offer, and he was more interested in all sorts of other things, than sexual, and there was also a drug element to that which ended up with him finally leaving me for somebody else because I wouldn’t have drugs in the house basically.
But I am speaking from a very happy place at the moment, and it has been for a good half of my life.
So I think perhaps we’d better terminate the interview now, because we could talk about all sorts of other things.