Wendy Lewis: Full Interview
Interviewed by Rachel Larman
31st July 2018
RL: Rachel Larman for West Yorkshire Queer Stories the 31st of July 2018.
WL: Wendy Lewis. 27th of the second 1968. I live in Huddersfield and I identify as she.
RL: Okay. So, Wendy can you tell me about your family and your upbringing?
WL: My upbringing was very strict. Erm, I remember we was er... we was a while on, on our own with my mum cause my father died when he was really young, my birth father...erm of heart problems. And my mum then remarried, and she married a military guy. Erm, and life changed [laughs] dramatically. We became little soldiers. And every morning you had to stand by your bed and have your bed made, your drawers open so everything was showing, and you had a routine. It was... you know, quite strict [laughs] and if you did something wrong you got punished. Severely.
Erm... I'm... at the time I was the middle child, so I had an older brother... and [coughs] my younger brother erm... and my older brother was away at Linton Residential School, which is a school erm, in Grassington or in Linton in Grassington. And he'd been sent there after the death of my father because he had nerve problems, erm which they thought the fresh air would do him great. And... he never came out to be honest. My mum tried on several occasions to get him out, but they left him there. So, he'd - we only saw him, erm every other weekend... which were quite difficult then for him to fit back into the family life when he became old - you know, older and he left school.
So, we had a new stepfather: military. My brother was at... this school and the bond didn't happen... erm and my stepfather erm... opened a building company; yeah he had a building company, and everybody had to learn a trade. Plumbing, electricity... and my brother, my older brother [laughs] was very feminine and couldn't do it. Erm, and’ looking back’ you don't think anything at the time but looking back he was gay. And he wouldn't do manual things cause of his fingernails and he'd like to dress up [chuckles] and it caused a lot of problems because my stepfather was a man man and he couldn't understand, why... this young man didn't want to learn building or plastering or any, any - you know ... and my younger brother was a bit the same but he was not gay [laughs]. But he couldn't understand why men didn't want to learn a trade.
So it caused a hell of a lot of problems. And this was... a bit of a rough time in childhood because as well... back in the 70s it was very rare, you know, with the mixed race.... erm so we ended up with two white parents [chuckles] and ourselves being of mixed race erm... which caused problems in itself in the 70s.
So, it was quite tough.
RL: What sort of problems?
WL: The racial... the racial element that you know people would comment and so you were always fighting and hurryin’ home and, you know, my mum always defended us, bless her, you know... and my father if you went out and you got attacked [chuckles] he took us to boxing clubs.... and we learned how to box... and I became a black dan at the age of 15 [laughs]... to look after myself.
But the two brothers didn't... erm they were nonviolent, and I had to take care of them [laughs]. Erm… so then when my brother came home from the residential school when he, when he left school... erm living in the house with my father who... I wouldn't say was homophobic... I think it was the time that, you know, men had to be men... and I don't think it was talked about as much then. Erm cause nothing like that were really talked about in their house... erm... and then when he started to express himself and get older and he started wearing... not glam clothes but...how do you say it without being?... my dad used to say, ‘look at state of him! What the hell is he wearing?’ You know high heels and nail varnish and his hair all different colours and long and it just wasn't... and he used to do his knitting and... and my father used to say to me, ‘what the hell's wrong with him?’... you know, so it caused conflict, there was a lot of conflict between my mum and my stepfather.
And it was purely not because he was - like I say he wasn't homophobic I don't think. I think it was he just didn't understand what was going on, you know. And my brother was a bit of a... he pushed it in his face a little bit as well. So, then it came to the breaking point where he left and went to live with my aunt. Now as a, as a teenager growing up, I didn't understand really what were going on because I had my own issues.
You've been brought up with military and you've got to look after - by this time me mum had had two more children. So, because I was the oldest girl and the younger girls, I had to bring them up sort of thing cause me mum worked, they both worked full time.
So, you were then sort of the parent bringing them up and I was struggling... with... I knew there was something not right... but I didn't know what it was... and it made me very angry... erm... and I just thought it was just how we were now, you know, it was a norm... and a bit of resentment in there to be honest with my mum... you know because ‘you married this guy’... and ‘you changed our lives’... and yeah, looking back now... I don't have any resentment because he was doing the right thing... maybe not the right way and not… but he was trying to look after, look after us in a nice way dya know what I mean? And making us build the future... you know learn a trade. ‘Learn something. Look after yourself. Don't let people run over you.’ But it was how he did it... ‘You will do it!’ ‘There's no such word [laughs] as try!’ No, what was it? ‘There's no, no such word as can't’. ‘Pull it out your pocket and pull out try’. And as long as you tried you were all right. You know I could face-stone by the time I was 15 [laughs] and I could do plumbing, and electricians and I can drywall, ceilings and damp proof. So, I'm quite handy. And plus, I can look after myself as well.
My brother on the other hand, as I say, left home because of fractured relationships... and a few years later erm... it was in the 80s when the HIV broke... I suspected he was gay. It wasn't ever said... but because we hadn't sort of... been opened up to the gay scene, or whatever erm... you just read stuff and er, and people, you know, people they go ‘oh I think your brother's gay’ duhderder...
And in ‘88... he committed suicide.
And... erm... to this day, don't know why. But it was... looking back it was when the HIV thing had broke; he'd suffered and we only found out afterward cause I got his diary... erm several partners... erm... and he was bisexual, he wasn't... and he'd had lots of different partners and so was it something to do with that? Was it just depression? I don't know. I don't know, but I took it quite bad. By this time, I'd started, I'd started to... to drink... cause it was that time and it was we had, we have an old-fashioned family, we don't talk about things like that. It was just, that's it. You have to accept it. And it was hard to talk about it because my mum... was blaming my stepfather for a little bit. And they were trying to work it out between them and then I had my issues because I'd already realised there was something not right, but if I go down this road look what's happened to you.
So, I tried to bury it and I found drink and I found drugs... and I partied, because along with everything else that happened... my father had... guilt... I think, and he knew there was a problem with me coming up... so they just kept throwing money at me.
So, they'd buy me a new car.
I had, I think, eight new cars in the space of six months. My first car was a BMW, my second car was a Mercedes, I had a Porsche and I just… one of the cars, I took to the quarry and run it off... because I wanted to. Because, you know, I was dying inside. It wasn't about - people say ‘oh it's because you were spoiled’. I wasn't spoiled. It was a cry for help, but they missed it. And the more... bad I was, the more they kept throwing money at me and it wasn't about the money or about acting out, it was about... how... do I become... that I'd somehow become: if I... be myself I'm gonna end up dead. So, I might as well end up dead enjoying myself [laughs].
WL: So that went on for a few years and I ended up in a bit of a state - I had a good job but um... I met somebody then along the way... erm who realized what it was and helped me through and helped me get off the drink, helped me get off the drugs... and turn my life around a little bit.
And then I wanted to try an’ - I wanted to try and tell them but not. So, I had two lives going on. The family life where nothing - don't ask me anything [coughs] and my life with my then partner... and it was quite difficult. And then I met a group of people. Somebody rang me one day and said: ‘do you want to come along to this erm... this group that started up and they're looking for people to do a play or do writing or… and you're quite good at writing why don't you come along? ‘Cause I don't want to go my own!’ And when I got there, it was at the Arts Centre in Little Germany.
RL: In Bradford?
WL: In Bradford. And it was a group of people that had come together, really nice people. And then I realised a lot of them was lesbians and I was like, to my friend: ‘Oh! Oh lesbians?! Are they all lesbians?’ [laughs]. ‘Cause going back then I was only young [laughs]. I was like, ‘aah! This is cool!’
WL: ‘This is cool! I want to be like these people’, d’ya know what I mean. I shouldn't say ‘these people’ should I, that's a bit… ‘I want, this is what I want in life’, d’ya know what I mean?
RL: So, when was this?
WL: This was '95, erm was it '95? '93, '95… I was about 21, 22... Yeah, so you know I started dressing and you know, going to the clubs and it was a nice time... But I still, wasn't truly myself. Because... you just look at other people and think, ‘yeah well I've got to be like that’... because you don't know nothing, you know, and I was so scared of being myself and I had this expectation on me that, you know, I was going to do so well and so I went along to this thing and I ended up... doing my own therapy really.
It started off – they wanted a play, and nobody had come up with one and there was ideas and, and for the next two nights, I sat up and I wrote everything I was feeling... my life... and it came out as a play. And this, this group of people had got Lottery funding and they'd got a music director and, erm, a choreographer to do the play... and… only thing it was for me was [laughs] I’d emptied my closet onto paper.
WL: And then I had these people - the people put in music [laughs] and it was really surreal to watch. They thought it was just a play. It was therapy for me because I'd outpoured what I was going through at that moment... and then to watch [laughs] people doing your life was like a surreal moment... and um yeah, it did really well the play and it's called Jelly Babies [both laugh] and it went to the Alhambra Studio for two nights which sold out and... then I thought to myself: ‘right, I'm in this.’ My parents had then started to suspect something's not right; you know, ‘because these ladies that you're hanging around with, are they a bit on the dodgy side love?’
WL: ‘What do you mean are they dodgy?’ ‘I think they're...The- I- ‘Do you have something to say?’ ‘No. No, I don't’.
Then I took myself off to Europe. Where I met a nice, nice chap and... I had a really good time. But then I got homesick and I got, I got stuck... [chuckles] and my mum didn't send me any money because she was sick of cleaning up the mess after me. So, I was stuck in Greece for a while [laughs] with no money and this chap that I’d met... were lovely, but I'd had enough, and I wanted to come home... and my dad wired me the money. So, I got back home... to a very displeased mother that he'd [both chuckle] given me the money!
And... went back to work; got a nice job with the NHS. Held down this job and then started to feel really bad and I found out I was pregnant. But I'd been told years before I couldn't have any children cause I have problems. So, [gasps] what do you do then? Oh my God… I'm going to be a single mother. Bringing up a child. Oh yeah, I can do this!
So that was the next couple of years. So then, you put stuff on hold a bit because you become mummy mode. Cause everything’s around this little person. But everything else is still there. And I still had my friend... like from before, so we got back together. And so, it was, again the two lives where I had the mumsy bit and I had the personal bit... and never sort of mixed. Erm that was quite difficult for a long time.
And I remember driving in the car, my, my daughter was about 9 and I thought d’ya know what... I'm gonna have to say something to her’. And I say - I remember being in the car and I turned to her and I say ‘love, I've got to tell you something’ - bearing in mind, my child was nine, but she was going on 30. She was quite a smart kid. I said, ‘love, I've got to tell you something’. And she goes, ‘oh don't think I don't know. You're gay’. And I nearly crashed the car! [laughter] And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘don't think I don't know, mother’.She says, ‘and I know what auntie Elaine is’, and I were like ‘oh, oh’. She says, ‘and I were wondering when you was going to tell me’ [laughs].
And I was like, that was such a relief. And she... [coughs] after that, she became my rock because she was like, ‘you will be yourself. Nan and Grandad will have to deal with it’, you know... and life after that were quite sweet.
Until I had a heart attack [chuckles]... which you know people go ‘[gasp]’ but it was my own fault. The lifestyle that I'd had... had took its toll... and erm... yeah... then I nearly died [laughs] but, then you want to live. Because I'd just woke up... I'd just started to live. ‘This is’, you know, ‘this is possible now. I can be myself’...yet, God's just shat on me [laughs] and nearly killed me.
And I've got a bad heart now and they only give me erm a couple of months to live erm and I was really poorly... Um and getting over that was a bit.
And I was just getting over it, going back to university to finish my degree and I had a massive stroke. And overall, I had three within the space of 12 months... and then I kept on saying to me you know, ‘get stuff in order, you know you're not going to make it’. So, I had that rough patch again.
RL: So, when was that?
WL: That was erm, 2003.
WL: Erm, I became really ill. And started then putting on weight with the steroids and just becoming... I ended up then being in the system, you know. Because I couldn't work because I was too ill and I had a child, that was fantastic. I have to say... she made me grow. She made me - because everything was about her. Cause now I've been… I'm… I can be myself with my child. She's so understanding and she's helping me. She was looking after me then by this time she was my carer... which is a lot responsibility to put on a kid and she was, and still to this day she's, fantastic.
And she was like d’ya know what? I can't bear it any more. I'm just gonna tell Nan and Grandad this is how it is. You know... you've got to deal with it. That's it’. And she did [laughs]. Because she's - she's, you've got to meet her - she's quite forceful.
And erm, then I ended up at the Brunswick um volunteering. I met Yvonne in between.
RL: Is that in Huddersfield?
WL: Yeah. Um I'd split with Elaine because Elaine had started to control me a little bit with... um because she knew my secret... it was.... and eventually I broke from her. And then I met Yvonne and Yvonne was absolutely lovely. She, she... loved all of me, warts and all... bad side, good side. Um, but Yvonne and I had crossed paths a few times and I find out she hated me when we first - she wanted to kill me because I was a, you know, when I had the cars and I was a bit of an arrogant... and I was good looking back in the day you know what I mean? [chuckles] had the swagger. But I irritated Yvonne. But when I said to her the other week, I said: ‘it wasn't hate, you loved me at first sight, and you were destined to come to me’ [chuckles] which proper winds her up [laughs].
So yeah, I met Yvonne, and um I moved from Bradford over to Huddersfield. Then I was fortunate to... where after I was at the Brunswick, I saw this job advertised while we was on holiday and I said d’ya know what, I'd like to do that’. You know, ‘If you want to do it, love, go ahead and do it’.
RL: What was the job title?
WL: It was a Project Support Worker for the Equity Centre and ‘I want summat new, I want summat challenging’ and something where I can find out a little bit more about people's lives and the LGBT... and again there was things before, I applied for the job because I was on a holiday and I applied online... oh I got [unclear] from excitement. I haven't been on scene or...I'd sort of been in it and out of it and where I could... but not fully... erm because of this double life thing that I had going on.
So, I applied for the job here and fortunately I had got through and I was over the moon. And then boof: Fear! Fear came in... because I felt a bit like a fraud... if you know what I mean because there was... I was meeting people that had been through so much... and, you know, were out there lesbians. They'd been fighting all their life and I'd been a bit of a shiverin’... person that you know tried hiding it and whatnot and I felt a bit embarrassed about that. But then when I got to know people, with working in the centre cause the majority of my job was gettin’ the community centre back up and running and setting up new groups... and then when I started to talk to people, I was like ‘you know what... you've gone through similar journeys to me [chuckles] and I understand people with the drugs and the alcohol and the’ - you know because we end up doing things to hide things.
People with kiddies, people in marriages... it's all part of the journey. The journey has ended [laughs] it's really strange because from hating what I was, I absolutely love what I am now and only on Saturday, I was made the LGBT Ambassador of Bradford.
Now. I look at it sometimes and I think, like the other night I was laid in bed and erm, I was thinking if my brother had just waited [pauses] you know we could have done this together. But... bit sad really... If he'd have hung on until I got myself straight, I could have… but you have that guilt; you still carry that… I still carry that guilt... that maybe I should have done something or... and that's why in this job, when people come to me I don't care how... how... erm silly it seems to somebody else, I will make sure I have got these services in place for people and that's what drives me. Because my own - if I hadn't have had my own journey of, you know, going through all these stages [coughs] and what you call living life [laughs] and I have [chuckles] to the fullest and to the bottom - from the top to the bottom - I wouldn't be able to do what I do today. And now I’m the Community Development Worker and here at Equity and... I hope we'll be going a few more years and I hope we get the services spot-on for people because they need them.