To my shame I have never read any Ali Smith books and, until Desert Island Discs on 8 November, knew little of the Scottish born writer. Having been enchanted today by her interview with Kirsty Young I certainly intend to look out for some of her books – and if her books are any reflection on her personality I am sure to love them. Her reflections on growing up in a working class household in a council house in Inverness during the 1960’s, and coming out as gay were hugely moving. She recalls with obvious sadness her mother asking for assurances that rumours she was gay were untrue – and not surprisingly Ali was forced to deny her sexuality, agreeing as her mother hoped, that the rumours were indeed untrue. Ali goes on to describe the heartbreak of losing her mother at the age of 61 when she was only 27 and her own subsequent illness with chronic fatigue syndrome which she felt was a response to intense bereavement. Ali also describes the huge sense of liberation, too, after the death of her mother – freer to become both a writer and to be honest about being a lesbian. I imagine that this sense of liberation, tinged with sadness and poignancy, will resonate with many of us who grew up ashamed to admit who we were, and to go on to do what made us truly fulfilled both emotionally and professionally – and to live honestly, openly and with integrity. When my own father died unexpectedly at the age of 53 I recall my own mother saying, in reference to my sexuality, ‘At least he never knew’. I genuinely believe she thought it was a comforting thing to say. If I am honest, I also did feel that same sense of liberation, as well as the huge loss, which Ali speaks of.
For many of us growing up in the 60’s and 70’s there was still a huge stigma around being gay. We mustn’t forget that it was only in 1967 that male homosexuality in England and Wales was partially decriminalised – and in Scotland it was not until 1980. It was only partial decriminalisation because both men had to have attained the age of 21 to engage in homosexual acts. Women were never included in the legislation because of the Victorian belief that two women could not have sex and that lesbians did not exist.
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. As a charity we intend to celebrate the occasion, recognising how far we have come, but also being mindful that homophobia and transphobia are still a part of many people’s daily experience – and recognising that following the vote for Brexit reported incidents of homophobic and transphobic Hate Crime have risen.
A number of events celebrating the anniversary are being organised in conjunction with other LGBT organisations and communities in the city to coincide with LGBT History Month in February 2017. An award we have received from the Big Lottery Fund to celebrate the momentous occasion also includes funding for young people to produce a film about the experiences of older people who grew up at a time when male homosexual acts were illegal. We are hoping that young people will gain a knowledge of their history and hear about the changes in society through the voices of people who lived in fear of imprisonment or received harsh psychiatric treatments because of their sexual orientation. We are appealing for anyone with experiences of growing up at a time when same sex acts were illegal, or who come from countries where homosexuality is still a crime, to come forward in order that young people can talk to them and document their experiences.
In the meantime I would definitely recommend listening to Ali Smith on Desert Island Discs, if you have not done so already. An impressive woman and a great gay role model from what I’ve heard so far and according to Wikipedia ‘openly Gay’ – so she must be truly liberated!