Geoff Widdop: Full Interview

Duration 27:16


Geoff Widdop
Interviewed by Rachel Larman
14th December 2015

RL: Rachel Larman, doing an interview with Geoff Widdop on the 14th December for the Queer Stories project.

GW: Well, when you first realise that you are different to, to your peers it is quite difficult. I realised at quite an early age that I was different, probably as young as 10 or 12 that I didn’t really… chase the girls like all my other mates did, and actually thought the boys were better looking. So I would tend to hang around them more, and be attracted more to them. Back when I was a lad it was much more difficult because – nowadays gay people have a much easier background to live in, if you like. It’s – it wasn’t easy then, being gay, or thinking you were gay, you were classed as not normal, you were a freak, and people just didn’t know how to deal with you really, and it was an exciting time as well because there was lots of… activism going on and being part of that was exciting and rewarding because you were shaping the future for people to come, really, and I really enjoyed being part of that. And I can remember seeing things in gay publications and thinking ‘wow, that’s fantastic’ even as young as sort of 14 and buying copies of Gay Times and stashing it under my bed, hiding it away from my parents, so just reading about what life was like, and actually you weren’t – you weren’t a freak, you weren’t, y’know, a strange person – you were part of a culture, really, that was going on, and you were normal, so yeah, it’s…

When I got to about 15, I actually used to go cottaging, which was going into public toilets and, see things going on there, and that excited me, and so I knew then that I wasn’t heterosexual, that men excited me, and sex with men, so yeah it was about 15. Obviously, when I got older, sort of late teens, living on a council estate in Wakefield, it wouldn’t be – you couldn’t be a gay person – I didn’t know anybody else who was gay so I thought I’d best get myself a girlfriend and try and cure myself really, not that a cure can be found, obviously. But, I did get engaged to… a lovely person – she was very tomboyish, and I was quite attracted to that – looking back it’s probably why we did get on, but yeah we got engaged – with a bit of pressure from my parents. And to avoid any sort of finger of doubt being pointed at me about my sexuality, I thought this would be a good way to, to have that suspicion moved away from me. Obviously it doesn’t work. I know lots of married men have kept it in the closet, knowing that they’re gay, and kept the marriage going, but for me it just, it wasn’t working, and I knew that I couldn’t sustain this relationship, so I had to get out. And although it was very painful to end the relationship, I knew it was best for both of us, before we ruined both our lives, and so I ended that and – we enjoyed a good friendship after that, for many years.

I, for work wise, when I left school I always wanted to join the Royal Navy, and I did have actually call up papers to join the Royal Navy in April of ’82, 1982, and I was quite scared about it because obviously being gay in the armed forces wasn’t allowed then as it is now, and I wasn’t sure how I would cope in that kind of environment, but as it happened, I went underground, I went to work as a coal miner, which is an all-male environment, funnily enough. And I worked underground for 17 years, and – it was very difficult, hiding it, and – because going out with your mates from work and young single lads, obviously wanting to find themselves a woman to settle down with or whatever. I wasn’t interested in that, I was just happy to go out with them drinking. And then when I did finish my engagement I went into a bit of um, I became a bit of a recluse and didn’t want to go out because I felt I knew what my sexuality was but didn’t want to broadcast it, obviously, working underground, but didn’t know how to take it forward. And, my mates at work thought that was strange, that a young lad, 19, didn’t want to go out, having just finished with a girlfriend, and there was life for living. I just didn’t want to go out, and they put two and two and actually got four, and one young lad said, ‘you’re gay, aren’t you?’ And – not being very good at lying – I just blushed and it caused a hell of a lot of problems for me, so much so that they actually threatened to throw me down the pit shaft.

And because working in an all-male environment like that, you have to know that you can rely on your mates because there’s lots of safety issues, and being gay they considered not to be one of trust. So they didn’t like it. So I went on sick and, arranged for a transfer to a different pit, and the bloke I was seeing at the time actually worked in the, in the coal industry as well but in the offices in the wages, and was older than me – ten years older than me, and actually said, ‘you can’t be like this, you’ve got to create a double life for yourself and lead it to the full, so you cannot deviate from that’. And so, what I did, I created a whole separate life, so I had a girlfriend, even though I didn’t – she was a lesbian friend who, we, by mutual consent agreed that if we needed a partner we could rely on each other, and so for events for her I would go as the boyfriend, and likewise if I needed her we would go to my event, but she worked for a solicitor’s and I used to say, ‘oh our lass is too posh for all this, she won’t come out with you lot’, so I could get away from not going to too many events with people down the pit because I’d say we moved in different circles, which was very true but wasn’t letting them know why and what circles we were moving in. so, it was very difficult, and I had some really good exciting times underground, it was – I don’t know, in some ways, it being in such a masculine environment, I found it interesting. The job wasn’t challenging, but I did enjoy going to work, and maybe it was the sexual aspect of it, working with 300 blokes, but yeah, I really enjoyed my 17 years underground.

During my time working underground I moved to my final pit, which was in North Yorkshire, and… being a – I don’t know how it happened – but I actually had sex with, over the period of time working there, with three married men. One of these men actually came back to my house, regularly, and would say that they were working overtime and come back to the house. And I’m not sure what their thoughts about me being gay – it was never really discussed, it was just, I don’t know, a means to an end really, but neither party discussed whether they thought I was gay or they were gay, it was just an occurrence. Obviously, they enjoyed it, because it happened on more than one occasion with these three people – obviously not together, they were separate incidences, but yeah – interesting times [laughs].

I can remember when my parents found out that I was actually gay. I’d finished with Joanna, and I was actually seeing a nurse, a male nurse, from Wakefield. And it was quite an intense loving relationship. We didn’t go out for very long, but he used to write me a letter every day – this is obviously talking pre-internet and emails and mobile phones even – and I used to get a letter every day, and he would write a poem, it was very nice. It became little bit overbearing actually, but it was very sweet of him to write that. And I think it’s these letters that caused suspicion in my mum. She found all – a bunch of these letters under my bed, and a copy of Gay Times, and the letters, obviously I couldn’t explain away, but the Gay Times I said I was saving it for a friend, and she said she thought it was disgusting and sick and she was going to tell my dad, and she did tell my dad, and my dad was absolutely mental, he went mental about it.

I remember he came home from the working men’s club one Sunday afternoon and, this is when drink driving wasn’t frowned upon either, so you can see how things have changed for everybody over the years – he came home, a little bit worse for wear, having his Sunday dinner, and I remember him waving his knife at me – his dinner knife – calling me all the names under the sun, and that I was a dirty bastard, and at that point I decided that it was time to leave home, that I wasn’t going to be lectured while he sat down, drunkenly eating his dinner and me being made to stand in front of him like a naughty schoolchild. I knew at that time it was time to leave home and strike it out on my own and make a life for myself. And my dad actually came round, over the years, and became very accepting of being gay – so much so that we even went to, with my partner at the time, we went to the gay bars down Canal Street in Manchester, and took him to Clone Zone that had all sex toys on display and, laughing and joking about them all in the pub. My mum – my mum’s still around, and, although she’s accepting of it, I don’t think she was as accepting as my dad became, and so although it was very horrible to live with initially, my dad and I had a much better relationship about it and, yeah it was good – I miss my dad now, and I wish he was around still so he could share my life now, but yeah, it’s a shame.

So, I started the Yorkshire Bears in 2011. It was based on an idea from bears’ groups in the sort of late ‘80s, ‘90s, and there were two bears’ groups in the UK – Bear Hug and BCUK – Bears Club UK – one in the north, one based in Sheffield and one based in London. And occasionally these two groups would meet up and have social outings together. Again, this is pre any social apps and Facebook, so any organisation of such things was quite involved to get them all up and running. And they were really good social events. And in ’94 my partner and I were in London visiting and in a pub there was a competition, Mr Bear UK. And we were in the pub and my partner said, ‘go on enter!’. So I said, ‘don’t be daft’, and anyway, I was coerced into entering – and I won it. So I was Mr Bear UK in ’94. The two bears’ groups – BCUK and Bear Hug – folded, possibly through the rise of HIV and people dying and the stigma and people being scared of HIV at that time, and I lost many, many friends in London – I lost count of the times we were going to hospices to see people, up and down the country. So I think that was possibly why they faded out, and I thought, when I started the Yorkshire Bears, there was a gap in the gay bar club market for, for people like ourselves, for bears. And basically, I think bears are what used to be clones back in the ‘80s and we got fat. So I think most bears are clones of the ‘80s who survived the ‘80s and, liking our food, we found our own little niche again within the gay world. It’s very big in America, and to me, it sort of encompasses blue collar workers, slightly more masculine if you like.

So yeah, I thought, there’s a place in Yorkshire for the Yorkshire Bears, so I started it, and we had our first event – I lived in York at the time, and we managed to coerce a club to give us a night, for free, and we had about 80 people come to our first event, which was a fantastic night out. And we’ve gone from strength to strength really, and worldwide now Yorkshire Bears are known, and we have nearly 2,000 members. And yeah, we’re called the Yorkshire Bears, and we still regularly – at my birthday party, which was a sort of a bears pirate party, fancy dress party, we had about 130 people attend, which for Leeds is a very good night out. So yeah, we really enjoy it. It’s hard work, and there’s a small core of admins who organise the events, and my partner does the website. We have an online shop that we sell merchandise, and all that money goes to put on better events for the group. And we also do fundraising calendars, we’re on our second one now, and this year we’re raising money for – it’s always for MESMAC, sexual health charity based in Yorkshire. Last year was for prostate cancer, which affects gay men, and this year we’ve gone to support Candlelighters, a national children’s cancer charity, so the money’s split 50/50 between MESMAC and Candlelighters, and next year we’re doing it for leukaemia, in memory of one of our members who sadly died in October this year at a bears event up in Scotland, Bear Scots, who sadly passed away, so yeah we’re doing it in memory of him.

And we do all sorts of events, it’s not just going to the pubs, although there is a big element of that – bears being bears, we like our food, we like our drink, so there’s a lot of elements of going to pubs, but we deviate from that as well, we’ve been on to the National Coal Mining Museum, obviously it’s an interest of mine, being a coal miner, but I wanted gay people to see what it was actually like underground, and they wouldn’t normally get that insight into it, so that was a fantastic day out and everybody loved that. And even the tour guide, when they took us round, asked what, asking what the Yorkshire Bears were, and not knowing what to say, I thought, ‘right I’m gonna bite the bullet here and say we’re a gay social group’, and the old chap who was showing us round, a former coal miner, said, ‘oh, backs against the walls lads!’ and that horrified quite a few people in the group, but by the end of the tour everybody was laughing and joking with the tour guide, and even this old chap learned a lot from us as gay people, so it was rewarding for both parties really, so we really enjoyed that. We go to Alton Towers, which is quite a sight, seeing fat people trying to get on the rides, namely myself. We go to – we go walking, we go on ale trails around West Yorkshire, taking the train, and next year we’re actually going to Benidorm – although we’re calling it ‘Bearnidorm’. And there’s about 50 of us going for a week to Benidorm for a holiday together, so that’ll be fun. So yeah, we do many things. We go to theatre, we go ice skating, so yeah, it’s not just about drinking, we have a good social life. And for many people it’s a great way of actually getting out with like-minded people, away from the main, run of the mill gay scene up and down the country, and we have people travelling all over, in fact we’ve got someone coming to our Christmas party – we’ve got someone flying in from Australia on Friday night. So the Yorkshire Bears must be doing something right.

I’ve – well I consider myself a bear. And I think, within the bear community there’s many titles that you could call yourself: bear cub, otter, silver daddy, chaser, super-chub. There’s plenty of them that you could pick for yourself, and I think as gay people, not just within the bear community, but throughout the whole gay community, the majority of us need some kind of a title to cling on, some identity, if you like, and I’m not sure why we need that identity, because first and foremost we’re human beings, we’re individuals, but we still hanker after this, these titles to cherish and hold on to. And, when I was younger, yes I would say I’m a gay man, and proud of being a gay man. Nowadays, I’m not so bothered, I don’t know if it’s because I’m now 50 and don’t care so much, but I don’t need to have that identity. First and foremost I’m me, and I live how I choose to live, whether that’s under a title or a banner or not, and I don’t know what other gay people think nowadays – I think life is much more accepting and so we don’t need to hide behind a name or a title, I don’t know, we just, and our straight friends just accept us for us, I suppose.

I think the gay scene nowadays has become – I don’t know really – it’s different from when we were younger. When we were younger it seems much more exciting, and bars were… I don’t know, seemed to look after their clients better; I think it’s, now it’s more business-orientated, and yeah, the prices that business are charged for rent and rates etc, they do need to get as many customers through the doors to make that business successful, but I think it’s lost something. Wherever you go, not just in Leeds, any town, I think there’s a decline of people using gay bars. It could be because of social media and all the apps that are available for both gay and straight people that pubs and clubs are not as required anymore. You can pick up a date off your mobile phone without even leaving your armchair if you like, and so that courting that people used to do, and going out and meeting people has changed, and I think the gay world has changed as well. If you go to any, or most of the gay bars on a Saturday night in Leeds, you’ll find it full of hen parties, and that’s fine, because when you ask the women why they’re in a gay bar they say they feel comfortable, and that’s great, but for gay people – well personally that’s not so great, because I don’t want to go out on a Saturday night and just be heckled and looked at as we’re the, ‘let’s go and entertain ourselves with the gays’. I just want to go for a nice evening out with my mates and not be heckled by hen parties. So, I think a lot of gay people, but definitely gay men, don’t go out now, well of my age, don’t go out now because it’s – once again we’ve become a bit of freakshow to the heterosexuals and so we tend to now go to, to straight bars and be part of the normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill drinking society.