Michael Brown talks about the Gay Rights Movement

Michael Brown, standing next to a photo of Alan Turing.

Sadly, Michael Brown died in July 2013 aged 80.

In addition to regularly attending Age UK Camden’s Opening Doors London social groups, Michael continued to campaign for LGBT rights as an Ambassador for the project, and tirelessly spoke out against injustices that were directed at the LGBT community.

He is greatly missed by members and staff of the project.

Read Michael's full obituary on the Guardian website

What follows is an interview with Michael from the summer of 2012:

An interview with Michael Brown - summer 2012

In the run up to Pride 2012, we spoke to 79-year-old Michael Brown about his involvement with the Gay Rights Movement since 1954, the specific issues that the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community face in later life, and his thoughts on Pride.

When did you first get involved in the Gay Rights Movement?

In 1954, I started writing letters to the broadsheet newspapers, most of which didn’t get published; I had to use a false name as back then it was illegal to be homosexual. There wasn’t a Gay Rights Movement in those days, and people didn’t even use the word gay to mean homosexual.

My background is orthodox Jewish, and I’d been brought up to feel responsible for social injustice and to try to put it right. I was extremely angry that we were being treated so badly.

What was life like for gay men back then?

It was a world where there was no place of shelter. The first danger was from the police, as there were various crimes you could be convicted for; and the second was from blackmailers, as if it was found out you were gay, you could lose your job and possibly also your accommodation (which couldn’t be used for ‘immoral purposes’).

The third issue was the risk of violence and assault. Back then, people thought being gay was like a disease that could be passed on, and it was believed there were various cures. For example, there was aversion therapy when you would either be given electric shocks or drugs to make you vomit violently to make you associate gay porn with unpleasant feelings. When opens link in new window Alan Turing was convicted, he was given the choice of prison or taking female hormones (which it was believed would reduce his sex drive); he chose female hormones, but ended up killing himself in 1954.

So people were scared, and had to hide the fact they were gay. There was a gay scene, but it was small, and only really existed in the big cities like London and Manchester. People met in parks to have sex on the spot to avoid blackmail and the threat of robbery. But the police would monitor these places, and when they arrested someone, they’d get their diaries to find out who they socialised with.

What did you want to achieve?

One of the problems was I didn’t know what my ultimate goal was. For that I needed concepts that didn’t come along until the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) at the end of the 1960s. But I knew I didn’t want to be arrested, I didn’t want to lose my job, and I wanted to be able to meet similar people in a pub or club legally. I didn’t care to be insulted and to have to laugh along.

I knew they had more freedom in Amsterdam, so I wanted us to be like the Netherlands.

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

I was involved in organising the very first gay dance. It was Kensington Town Hall Ball in 1970. The police were waiting for orgies to start, but nothing happened, and we got away with it. It created a precedent, a whole scene sprang up – discos and pop music for gays.

I went on the very first gay rights march in London in 1971, the year before the first Gay Pride march in the UK. There were 150-200 of us and about double the number of police. We marched and sang from Marble Arch to Trafalgar Square. It was extremely exciting as it had never been done before.

Then in the 1980s, I set up the All-Parliamentary AIDS committee. A politician would hire a committee room, and I would take along a doctor to talk about AIDS (I was a dentist myself), and I would send invitations to MPs and peers. By word-of-mouth, the audiences got bigger, and ultimately, the committee was taken over by MPs.

Now gay history is my main thing. And I’m an ambassador for Age UK’s opens link in new window Opening Doors project working with older members of the LGBT community.

Do you think things have improved for the LGBT community?

In general, there’s a great improvement. People feel much free-er and now, if I have a relationship I can be open about it.

However, there is something we have lost. There was a sort of camaraderie when we were all illegal. There is professional campaigning, but you don’t get that nice warm feeling that we’re all in it together.

But if you weigh one up against the other, it’s definitely better now.

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

110,000 older gay men have criminal convictions from the time when homosexuality was illegal, and they’re nearly all in the closet, because they still feel fear and shame from that period. Many are married and they have a lot to lose if anyone knew about them. They’re also fearful of how they’ll be treated in housing, health services, and hospitals.

Are things improving?

The housing question is extremely difficult, because a number of old gay men have been assaulted and threatened in care homes, and they’re scared. In Adelaide, Australia, they have LGBT housing, but there’s isn’t any in the UK currently. But the situation is improving because of Age UK’s opens link in new window Opening Doors project.

This year will be 40 years since the first Gay Pride parade in London in 1972. What does Pride mean to you?

I turn 80 this year, and next year will mark 60 years of me campaigning for gay rights. I believe I’m the longest-running gay rights campaigner in the world.

I’ve been on most of the opens link in new window Pride marches since it started, and I’ve even been on ones where there’s been violence. For a lot of us old activists, Pride doesn’t mean so much any more. It’s no longer about campaigning - it’s a parade not a march. So it’s a social day, and I mainly go now to see old friends, and to chat to other activists, younger ones, and to ask them what they’re doing.

It’s quite nice to be able to hold hands and things, as in some parts of London it’s still not safe to do that. And it’s quite nice to see Boris coming along. It’s good publicity.

This year I’m going to be interviewed by Stephen Fry who’s doing some programmes for the BBC. I am excited to meet him as he’s quite a character.

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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