Lindsay River talks about issues for older lesbians

Lindsay River on her 60th birthday.

We spoke to 65-year-old Lindsay River about her involvement with the Gay Rights Movement, the specific issues that the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community face in later life, and her thoughts on Pride.

Tell me when you first decided to get involved in the Gay Rights Movement?

It was 1972, and I’d just finally got involved with a girlfriend for the first time, though I’d known I was gay since 1965, 7 years earlier.

For me, joining the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was an obvious thing to do. I was already a left-wing activist, and so now with new confidence, I looked for the Gay Liberation Front, which I'd heard about.

What was life like for lesbians back then?

Life generally was extremely intimidating and lonely.

For women, although it wasn’t illegal to be gay, if people found out, you were in danger of losing your job or custody of your child. You wouldn’t tell a doctor about it, in case they sent you to a psychiatrist.

You hardly ever heard of lesbians being talked about in the media. When I was first coming out to myself in 1965, there was a magazine article about lesbians, in a colour supplement. It showed a woman sitting on another woman’s lap in an armchair. It was very shocking to see that, then. It was so unspoken.

People thought of lesbians as threats to heterosexual women, and as emotionally unstable. We weren’t just seen as women who happened to be attracted to women rather than men. It was like you had an unmentionable sexual perversion. It was incredibly hard.

What did you want to achieve?

We were working to liberate ourselves from the internalised homophobia of society. We did do a lot of talking about how psychology and the mental health system treated us.

I wanted to be in the middle of the action. I was excited by the personal and social implications of this movement coming together to change the conditions we’d lived under as isolated gay people. I was looking to change society to make things better for other isolated gay people.

Lindsay River 'kissing nym' at a women's rights demonstration in 1973.

Lindsay kissing another woman in front of police officers at a women's rights demonstration in 1973

What projects and demonstrations have you been involved in over the years?

We went and demonstrated against the Festival of Light, which was organised by Mary Whitehouse, and was very anti-gay.

I was involved in a ‘Gay in’ event in Hyde Park in 1972. It was a time when people had ‘love ins’, so we organised a picnic to celebrate being gay. We sat on grass near Marble Arch, and kissed each other.

Together with some other lesbians I started a group in South London called Lesbian Liberation, which was only for lesbians; we wanted to create a lesbian-only group, because there wasn’t enough attention given to lesbian issues in GLF.

I didn’t do so much of the classic ‘gay rights demonstration’. I worked in other ways at the grass roots. I was very involved with women’s housing issues. At the time we wanted to live together but we couldn’t afford to rent, and weren’t eligible as single women to get places from Housing Associations, so there was a whole movement of lesbians squatting houses.

Do you think things have improved for the LGBT community?

I do. Even though it’s sometimes tokenistic, I think the fact that sexual orientation is mentioned in equality legislation is fantastically important, as some kinds of discrimination can now be fought legally.

Another thing I think is very good is the way the attitude in parts of the police service has changed, even though some homophobia still exists. The bombing of The Admiral Duncan pub had a major effect on police: they began to take homophobic violence more seriously after that. It was tragic that 3 people had to die and many be injured before that happened.

Do you think we’re there yet, or is there still progress to be made?

There is good legislation, but it needs to be better implemented. And the Tories are threatening it now, saying it’s red tape.

There are still many people who are homophobic, with really bad bullying in schools, homophobic violence, and threats from some bigoted Christians who are very anti-gay.

There’s still loads to do.

What specific issues do members of the LBGT community face in later life, that other older people don’t?

There are workers in services who either have no knowledge of the LGBT community or have prejudice against them, and this issue is very ill-addressed. I was Director of an organisation called Polari, which conducted some research into mental health services. We found many managers felt helpless to do anything to prevent homophobic attitudes amongst their own staff. It's quite shocking really.

The older LGBT community are more likely to be single because our relationships have had little societal support, which makes them harder to maintain. We’re less likely to have children, and less likely to have family support. We also may have had illnesses and mental health challenges which relates to the life-long discrimination that we face.

Are things improving?

I think they are in some places, and I applaud the work that opens link in new window Opening Doors are doing. However, it’s very patchy, you might live somewhere where there’s nothing for you. It’s a bit of a postcode lottery.

What does Pride mean to you?

Although disabled access needs to be massively improved, opens link in new window Pride means a tremendous amount to me as it makes us visible and it’s a celebration. And it shows that the LGBT community are part of UK life and are positive, beautiful and very diverse.

I think it’s wonderful we have Pride.

opens link in new window Visit the Age of Diversity website, an online resource for older LGBT people throughout the UK

opens link in new window Visit the Opening Doors London website

opens link in new window Visit the Pride London website to find out about this year's London parade

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Age discrimination: Just equal treatment

Age discrimination is wrong and blights the lives of many of us in later life. We have launched the just equal treatment campaign to challenge age discrimination and make sure that we all have fair access to health services, insurance and employment.

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