Thatcher, AIDS and hopelessness: growing up gay in the 1980s and 90s

In a very personal piece, Lee Williscroft-Ferris discusses growing up gay in the 80s and 90s.


I was born in 1979, May to be precise. Ten days earlier, Margaret Thatcher had swept to power, ushering in one of the most depressive – and oppressive – periods in our country’s history. For a whole variety of reasons, I am scarred by my formative years. Having known nothing but Thatcherite conservatism until the age of 18, this, combined with a Catholic education and upbringing, made for an extremely sad and lonely young boy.

Two specific moments are foremost in my mind when I reminisce on the process of realising and coming to terms with my sexuality. Rewind to 1990; by the age of 11, I knew I was into boys, but had no language with which to formulate my feelings, let alone articulate them to anyone else. I was, to all intents and purposes, completely alone, with nothing but the images in my head of an increasingly gaunt Freddie Mercury with which to attempt to navigate my way through a seemingly hopeless journey. The AIDS panic of the mid to late 1980s had dissipated to a degree but the simple truth was that, in the pre-Internet age, when TV, radio and print media were the sources of information, however tenuous, my future seemed bleak. Indeed, I have all too vivid memories of crying hysterically in my bedroom, convinced that my destiny was rejection and lovelessness, culminating in a slow, agonising death. That’s what that advert told me. Being gay amounted to a death sentence, and I could not cope with it.

I was, to all intents and purposes, completely alone, with nothing but the images in my head of an increasingly gaunt Freddie Mercury with which to attempt to navigate my way through a seemingly hopeless journey.

Fast forward four years and to the image of a teenage boy on his knees in church, desperately praying for divine intervention. To this day, I can feel my clasped hands aching, such was the fervour of my invocations. Silent cries of ‘Please make this go away’ echo down the 22 years that have since passed like spectres of a shadowy, sunless epoch in my life. Ultimately, I would come to believe that short of celestial intercession, I would be forced to make a choice; to conceal my doomed true self or risk winding up in hell by living as an openly gay man and therefore suffering a protracted, painful demise.

Of course, the latter experience is not specific to the 1980s or 90s. There are undoubtedly millions of young LGBTQ+ people growing up all over the world in the shadow of organised religion. What does set this era apart, however, is its socio-cultural backdrop. Section 28, introduced in 1988, made school an exclusively heteronormative environment, with no avenue of advice or support, lest they fell foul of the ban on the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. Combine this with an abject lack of ‘out and proud’ public figures and you found yourself frantically seeking shelter from a perfect storm of voices screaming at you that there was no ‘pride’ to be found in being gay.

Silent cries of ‘Please make this go away’ echo down the 22 years that have since passed like spectres of a shadowy, sunless epoch in my life.

1999 heralded the arrival of what I refer to as the ‘Queer As Folk effect’. Retrospect makes it easy to dissect the groundbreaking Channel 4 series and highlight its obvious flaws. Yet for the first time, a mainstream UK channel was broadcasting a drama entirely centred on the lives of gay and lesbian people. It felt like a watershed. Certainly, for those young people growing up gay at the time, any cultural reference to issues such as gay parenting, drug use and discrimination, can only have seemed like a stride forward. At the age of 20 and with the most character-building period in my journey to self-acceptance behind me, the dawn of gay representation in mainstream media came a little too late to be of benefit to me personally. In some ways, I envy those fortunate enough to have been born just 8 or 9 years after me.

1999 heralded the arrival of what I refer to as the ‘Queer As Folk effect’.

I don’t sit around feeling sorry for myself as a result of my experiences of growing up gay in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, there were other factors in my childhood, entirely unrelated to my sexuality, that exerted negative forces on that period of my life. It does, however, go some way to explaining the adult I have become; politically active, committed to global human rights and dignity, adamant that the ‘job’ is not done until we are all free. If I could say just one thing to the boy crying himself into a stupor in the loneliness of his bedroom, convinced of the hopelessness of life, it would be this; it does and will get better. Life is shitty in so many wildly different ways but one day, you will not be alone; you will choose the people you want around you and you will not dissemble about those that you don’t.

I make no apologies for continually fighting for the kind of world where that confused, lonely, frightened little boy is reassured of his inherent human worth and of his unique gifts to the world.

Now, let’s rock out to some Queen….

Follow Lee on Twitter (@calamospondylus)

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