At 17-years-old, I had no idea if I’d ever encountered another gay person. I probably had, but I lived during times when being out and gay could put your life in danger.
I had my suspicions about who I thought was gay, such as the bus driver who lived on the next street. Even though his bus wasn’t going in the direction I wanted, I’d ride around on it so I could see him and hoped he’d notice me.
There was one way I thought would guarantee me meeting gay people, but it meant breaking the law – a law I thought was stupid. What was wrong with a 17-year-old lad answering an advert in Gay News?
South Wales area – a genuine, nice guy in his early 40s, looking to meet other guys who haven’t come out yet. Maybe we could help each other? Write to Richard at Box 223D, Gay News, London…
Richard remained on my mind for a few weeks after reading the advert. Like me, he hadn’t ‘come out’ as gay. But unlike me, he was over the age of consent, 21, when sleeping with someone of the same sex was not illegal.
The constant bragging about which girls he had slept with from Michael, my best friend, eventually persuaded me to put pen to paper and respond to Richard’s advert. While Michael could sleep with as many girls as he wanted, I thought it unfair that it was illegal for me to meet and sleep with other guys.
I can’t remember what I said in my letter to Richard, but I lied about my age. I had to; otherwise, he may not respond. Or he could have reported me to the police. Fortunately, his advert did not mention sending a photo, so I didn’t have to prove I was 21.
It took me a week to post my reply. Every time I approached the postbox at the bottom of the street, police sirens would sound in my head.
The thought of Richard having my home address and turning up unannounced also terrified me. But the more Michael bragged about who he had slept with and questioned why I was still a virgin, the more courage I got. Finally, I posted the letter after convincing myself that I’d run away to London if Richard turned up. I’d be safe with so many other gay people living there.
A month later, not only had I not had a reply from Richard, but I’d also placed an advert in the lonelyhearts column of Gay News.
21-year-old gay guy looking to make new friends and meet his first boyfriend. Currently living in South Wales, but looking to live and work in London. Age/looks unimportant, but please send a photo. Write to Rob at Box D867, Gay News, London…
Two weeks after my advert appeared, I came home from work to find my mother holding an envelope.
“It’s for you. Whose handwriting is this? I don’t recognise it,” she examined.
Terrified that she was about to tear the letter open, I snatched it off her and ran upstairs, shouting that I’d got a new pen-pal. Fortunately, my mother knew that I had pen-pals and liked to write letters, although she had failed to notice that the stamp on the envelope was British, not foreign.
I was trembling at the thought that my mother could have forced me to come out of the closet had she opened the letter. I’d convinced myself that if the family found out I was gay, I’d be homeless.
Studying the envelope closely, I was too scared to open it and placed it in the same place I’d hid my copies of Gay News – under the carpet under my bed.
Two weeks later, as I climbed into the passenger seat of a car, I was greeted with the words ‘Hi, I’m Richard. I’m a little nervous, but it’s finally good to meet you, Hugh.”
I was meeting who I thought was the first gay person in my life.
But the following day, I would be threatened again with coming out of the closet.
“Who’s car did I see you getting into yesterday?” asked Michael.
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For many days, my heart had pounded, and I found myself in danger of being found out.
My mother couldn’t understand why I’d been getting up so early every morning, especially on a Saturday.
I can’t sleep, I told her.
Whereas what I’d been waiting for so early every morning was the postman.
But that Saturday morning was a saviour for me because the postman sometimes arrived after I’d gone to work.
As the mail fell through the letterbox, it was only the large, brown envelope I snatched and took upstairs to my bedroom.
My hands shook as I quietly opened the envelope, thinking that any sound I made would wake up the entire household. As I took out the contents, the newspaper’s title, ‘Gay News’, in large bold letters, pierced my eyes.
Barely able to open the pages, because my hands were still shaking, my eyes darted all over the pages taking in a ‘life’ I knew I belonged to, but of which I’d had little experience. It was unlike any newspaper I’d ever read. It was like entering a new yet, familiar world.
Some 45-minutes later, I’d read just over three-quarters. While my fingers and hands showed evidence of newspaper print, I picked up the large brown envelope and gazed at the postmark – London.
Immediately thinking that London was the place where all gay people lived, I started making plans in my head of a trip. I’d never been, yet I somehow knew London would be the destination where I would work and live one day.
Turning my attention to the newspaper again, I scanned one of the back pages I’d not read. These were the kinds of adverts I remember reading.
For sale – Leather jacket and Muir cap, hardly worn, VG condition – £35 ONO (or nearest offer). Contact Jack at Box 625S, Gay News, London…
For rent – Lovely cosy room, in a large house with three other guys. NW10 area, only a few minutes to underground and good bus service. £15 a week, plus contributions towards bills. Contact Mike at Box 489A, Gay News, London…
Wanted – models for top-earning film studios. Must be good looking and over 21. Send full details of yourself and a photo to Box907W, Gay News, London…
Many adverts like those above covered the page, but others took my interest more.
Lonely, 33, good-looking, short hair, moustache, 5ft 9′, good sense of humour, looking for a younger boyfriend to go out with and have fun with. 21-30 only, no older guys, sorry. Will only reply to letters that include a photograph. Contact Clive at Box D212, Gay News, London…
28, just out of a relationship, short, blond hair, cleanshaven, fit, told good looking, non-smoker, Earl’s Court, London, area, looking for a new boyfriend. Age (21 – 80) and looks unimportant. Please include a photo with your reply. Contact Adam at Box D213, Gay News, London…
Bear, 55, looking for a younger (21+) cub to cuddle and have fun with. Must have facial hair and a hairy chest. Bristol area, but willing to travel for the right cub. Your photo gets mine. Contact Steve at Box D214, Gay News, London…
It wouldn’t be long before I discovered what a bear and cub were in the gay world. It also would not be long before I found that not everything in lonely hearts adverts was what I thought it was.
There were many adverts, and even though I was only 17, I started thinking seriously about placing one. It would be risky, but all I wanted to do was make some gay friends.
I noticed another advert before folding the paper and placing it back in the envelope.
South Wales area – genuine, nice guy in his early 40s, looking to meet other guys who haven’t come out yet. Maybe we could help each other? Write to Richard at Box 223D, Gay News, London…
Lifting a corner of carpet under my bed and placing the large, brown envelope and its contents under it, Richard remained on my mind for the rest of the weekend.
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As a gay man, you may be surprised to hear that one of the biggest hurdles I faced was going into a gay bar for the first time.
At 17-years-old, I was in awe of my straight mates. They’d been wandering into bars and nightclubs for the last year with the only threat of getting asked for age identification.
At 17-years-old, my straight mates were not only getting drunk most Friday and Saturday nights but were boasting about sleeping around with members of the opposite sex without any worry. Whether they’d slept with many of those they mentioned was open to debate.
At 17-years-old, it was against the law for me to sleep with a person of the same sex. If I boasted about it, I could get myself into trouble. The law stated that, for my safety, sex remained on hold until I reached 21.
Of course, I overlooked that particular part of the law. Like any red-blooded male at 17, my hormones made my brain think of little else but wanting to (putting it mildly) get laid.
By the time I reached my 19th birthday, I already had what I had considered a boyfriend. He was over the age of 21 and thought I was too.
On one particular, wet Saturday evening, I found myself sitting in my boyfriend’s car. Holding hands with him, we listened to the patter of the rain on the roof as we watched the raindrops splatter on the windscreen. For weeks, we’d both built up the courage to go to a gay bar for the first time.
The bar was out of town and miles from where we lived. However, neither of us wanted to get out of the car and walk up the steps to the bar. Instead, we both sat there trying our best to peer through the spattering of rain, trying to make out the figures going into the bar.
“It’s nice and warm in here,” I said.
“Yeah, too wet to go outside,” responded my boyfriend.
For the next half an hour, we made an excuse after an excuse as to why we should stay in the car. Even though curiosity ran through our minds of what was on the other side of the doors to the gay bar, our bodies remained fixed to seats while we continued peering at figures entering and exiting the bar.
“What if we bump into somebody in there who recognises us?” asked my boyfriend. “If there’s somebody in there from work, I could end up getting beaten up or sacked.”
Not only did those words cut me in half, but I began to worry that if the police raided the bar, my boyfriend and I would be in serious trouble because of my age.
Although at 19-years-old, it wasn’t against the law for me to go into a bar, I questioned if it was against the law for me to hold hands with another man in a public place.
Terrified of the consequences of entering a world where people would have welcomed and accepted us for who we were, we drove off and went home. Hiding who we were and how we lived our lives seemed a much safer option.
It would be months later when I talked about that night again.
“If somebody you worked with had been in that bar, wouldn’t they have been as terrified as we were at being spotted?” I asked.
“I never thought of that,” came the reply. “But it’s still a risk, isn’t it?”
Six years later, as I made my way on a coach to a new life, I left behind a boyfriend who had been secretly sleeping with another man he worked with.
Have you ever been terrified to do something or go somewhere for the first time? Please share the details in the comments sectionor, even better, contact me about submitting your story as a guest post.
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Have you ever had one of those life experiences that renders you utterly speechless? Read on and let me know if anything I’m about to tell you leaves you as astonished as it did when it happened to me.
Picture it – Earl’s Court, London, 1988, the height of the summer, and me working as a part-time barman in one of the coolest gay bars in the city.
In the bar, the biggest catch in town. And it seemed he had his eyes on me. He’d been showing some interest in me for weeks, or so I thought.
Sometimes, when I caught him looking at me, I’d blush so much that my face resembled a sun-dried tomato. At the same time, my heart would skip a few beats while the butterflies in my stomach felt like they were rioting.
Neville, my best friend, made a bet with me that if ‘catch’ (as we’d nicknamed him) asked me out on a date, he’d do all my washing for the rest of the year. How could I decline a bet like that?
At six-foot-tall, mid-thirties, with a stocky build, short dark hair, moustache, piercing brown eyes, and always wearing the tightest of Levi 501 jeans, it wasn’t my washing that needed a cold wash. It was me!
He was what I called a ‘man’s man’, and nobody would have ever guessed that he was gay had they seen him walking down the street or standing on the terraces at Stamford Bridge.
Nobody knew much about him. Not even his name.
He always stood on his own, and nobody ever approached him. He ordered one drink that lasted the whole evening and always left the bar on his own.
I didn’t want to make the first move. I hated rejection, but the prospect of having my washing done for the rest of the year was tempting.
The other barmen had noticed that ‘Catch’ was giving me a little too much attention. Make the first move, they told me, but I couldn’t.
Then, in the early hours of an unusually warm and humid Sunday morning, having just finished my shift, I left the bar and started to make the short trip home.
“Hi” came a deep voice from behind me. “I’ve been watching you for weeks and wondered if you fancied coming back to my place for a coffee?”
As I span around, the butterflies in my stomach rioted again as my eyes were met by ‘Catch’ smiling at me. For some reason, it took what seemed like ages for me to accept his invitation.
Jumping into a taxi with him, I felt as if I was floating on cloud nine. We sat silent like two lovebirds, just looking into each others eyes.
As soon we reached his apartment, I’d hardly given ‘Catch’ time to close the front door before grabbing him and forcing him to do some tongue dancing with me.
What happened after the tongue dancing didn’t seem to last long, but neither of us seemed to care very much. There was still time for rounds two, three and four.
I had the feeling that he was the one and that we’d be doing lots more of what had just happened, only at a much slower pace.
“Would you like a beer, Peachy?” were his first words to me since we got to his apartment. Peachy? Was he talking to me? Well, that’s another story, but the cold beers helped cool us down while we continued to look into each others eyes.
After rounds two and three, we were both exhausted, and he asked if I wanted to stay the rest of the night.
As much as I wanted to stay, I had to get home because I couldn’t wait to see Neville and tell him what had happened.
While quickly freshening myself up, ‘Catch’ made us some coffee.
Grabbing my clothes and walking to the kitchen (because I didn’t want to miss another second of being with him), I realised I still didn’t know ‘Catch’s’ real name. Should I ask, or should I wait until he asked me for mine? After all, he couldn’t know me as ‘Peachy’ when we went on our first proper date.
Having convinced myself that it wasn’t me doing the chasing in this relationship, I decided to wait until he introduced himself to me.
While the coffee went cold, our tongues had another long dance.
“Would you like to make this a regular thing?” ‘Catch’ asked me, as he came up for some air.
I had a fleeting vision of Neville doing my washing, so didn’t take long to respond.
“What? You bet!”
“Good, I was hoping you’d say that.”
After a little more tongue dancing, it was time for us to part and ‘Catch’ escorted me to the front door.
However, suddenly stoping, ‘Catch’ told me to wait, and off he wandered (while muttering something about having forgotten something). I watched as the man of my dreams disappeared back into the bedroom. Surly not round five, I thought.
With my heart playing the drums in my chest, I was positive I could feel those first dewdrops of love welling up inside of me. He was probably writing down his phone number for me.
Then it all started to go wrong. Very wrong!
I couldn’t take my eyes off ‘Catch’ as he walked towards me. “Here you go,” he said, thrusting a wad of ten-pound notes into my hand. “You forgot to ask for your fee. I’ve deducted a little for the beer and coffee you had.”
Shocked, my jaw hit the floor, and for the first time in my life, I was speechless; completely speechless! And, before you ask, no, not because he’d made a deduction for beer and coffee.
‘Catch’ had mistaken me for a rent-boy.
Still openmouthed and unable to speak, I walked out, turned around and, as ‘Catch’ closed the front door, heard him say he’d recommend me to anyone looking for the same kind of fun.
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“They all have moustaches, wear 501s and are called Clones.”
Those were my words to my best friend, Neville, upon my first visit to Earl’s Court, London, back in the mid-1980s.
I was like a kid in a sweet shop. Just about every man in the place had a moustache, and I was big into facial hair.
Back then, there were five gay bars in Earl’s Court. It was the centre of the universe for any gay man visiting London.
It was easy to get to Earl’s Court, via public transport, and I always felt safe there. It was as if the district had a safety bubble around it.
No surprise then that I moved into a two-bedroom flat in Earl’s Court shortly after arriving to live in London in 1986.
The most famous gay bar in Earl’s Court was called ‘The Coleherne.’ These days, it’s a trendy restaurant come wine bar which I believe serves some smashing food.
I spent lots of time in ‘The Coleherne.’ At the time, pubs had to close their doors between 3 and 5:30pm (2 and 7pm on a Sunday). ‘The Coleherne’ was always packed out during the final hour of drinking time.
It had a jukebox in the corner that played all the latest hits as well as many ‘Hi-NRG’ (Pronounced High Energy) tunes which was a new type of music adopted by many gay men.
Neville was into the same types of men who drunk in “The Coleherne’ as me. So you’d often find us in there.
There was a strict rule about going into ‘The Coleherne.’ Those wearing leather, such as a bikers’ jacket, waistcoat, or chaps, had their own side-door entrance.
Everybody else had to use the other door on the main street. If you went through what Neville and I called ‘the leather door’ you’d end up on the leather side of the bar.
The leather guys would glare at you if your attire included no leather, and they would continue to glare at you until you made your way to the non-leather side of the bar.
Scary stuff for first-time visitors or anybody who entered the pub by mistake.
What made Neville and me laugh was that some of the leather guys often arrived carrying a motorcycle helmet under their arm. You may ask, ‘what’s so funny about that?’
Well, they’d place the motorcycle helmet on the top shelf above the bar, order their drink, and then stand around looking as butch as possible.
Then, at closing time, Neville and I would watch as they made their way to the bus-stop, with motorcycle helmets under their arms. For some, carrying a motorcycle helmet seemed to be the must-have, new fashion accessory when dressed in leather.
Although ‘The Coleherne’ was probably the most shabby of all the five gay bars in Earl’s Court, it was always busy.
Just down the road, at one end of the street, was ‘The Boltons.’ This was a strict ‘no-no’ bar for Neville and I because it was known for its rent boys.
At the other end of the street was ‘Bromptons’ bar. This was the place Neville and me nicknamed ‘Clone City’ because just about every man who entered had facial hair.
‘Bromptons’ opened at 10pm and closed at 2am. On a Sunday, it opened earlier but closed at midnight. It was a 30-second walk from where I lived, so it was very convenient.
Friendlier than ‘The Coleherne,’ for those who’d never visited before, ‘Bromptons’ had a small dance floor and a kiosk that sold all the latest Hi-NRG 12-inch vinyl singles.
In those days, gay men only purchased 12-inch vinyl singles, unlike most of the rest of the population that bought the 7-inch vinyl version.
There was the odd splattering of leather amongst the crowd, but most were dressed in check shirts, 501 Jeans and Doc-Marten boots.
Just about everyone ordered and drunk bottles of lager, rather than pints. If you arrived early, you could compare your check shirts and see if any of them clashed severely with the chequered carpet and wallpaper of the bar.
Arriving early also meant free entry into the bar. After 11pm there was a small entry fee charged, so many would flock in at 22:55.
The Barmen at ‘Bromptons’ were often hand-picked by the owner. “Have good looking bar staff, and you’ll pack the place out every night,” he once told me. And he was right!
The place was a magnet for clones who seemed to need little sleep despite having full-time jobs, many of which required an early morning start.
The other two bars at the opposite end of Earl’s Court were located next door to each other.
One was a bar called ‘Harpoon Louis,’ which hosted cabaret most nights.
The likes of Lily Savage (aka Paul O’Grady) started out here, and it was always a great place to go for a laugh.
‘Cruising’, as Gay men called it (better known as looking for a partner for the night), did go on. In contrast, in the other bars, cruising was very serious, and you dare not laugh when trying to pick up your date for the night. In ‘Harpoon Louis,’ it didn’t seem to matter as much.
‘Copacabana’ was next door to Harpoon Louis and was the main gay nightclub of the area. It was convenient to fall into when coming out of ‘Harpoon Louis.’
‘Copacabana’ (also known as ‘Copa’s’) was the biggest of all the bars in Earl’s Court and had a large dance floor. It was the place to hear the latest Hi-NRG tunes, dance, drink and check out the men.
Some famous faces often frequented the place, but being ‘gay men,’ the clientele often dare not approach them.
During the 1980s, gay men adopted a ‘hanky’ code. You’d place a particular coloured handkerchief in either the left or right back pocket of your 501 jeans. This told other gay men what kind of sexual fun you were into.
Rather than the ‘hanky’ code, Neville and I adopted the ‘teddy bear’ code. This involved the placing of a small teddy bear in the back pocket. This told others if you enjoyed giving or receiving cuddles.
Today, Earl’s Court is no longer the centre of the universe for gay men. Its crown was lost to Soho and Vauxhall during the late 1990s, although the gay scene in London now seems to be more spread out.
Had we arrived for the first time today, Neville and I would not have liked Earls Court as much. However, it holds lots of happy memories not just for us, but for many from the LGBT crowd.
Sadly, Neville passed away in the mid-1990s. However, the fun and laughter we shared together during the days and nights of Earl’s Court in the 1980s can still be heard in its bars and streets.
This post was originally written and published as a guest post in April 2016 on TanGental. It has been updated for this version.
Click here to read another post from my Pride Month series which tells the story of a first date that went horribly wrong.
One of the biggest regrets of my life is that I never sat down with my mother and told her that I’m gay. I chose, instead, the easy option of writing to her and telling her that I was a homosexual.
Facing Mum for the first time, after writing that letter, I was very nervous as I travelled to where she lived. I hesitated several times before walking up to the front door, ringing the doorbell, and announcing my arrival.
What a shock I got when she came towards me with open arms and, as she gave me one of her wonderful hugs, hearing her whisper the words “I always knew you were gay, I don’t know why it took you so long to tell me.”
Not all my family were like mum, though. Some told me they were having difficulty in accepting what I was because it wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to men in the area we came from. Hurtful words, but I already knew that the best thing I could do was to keep away from those who were upset by the life I was given, and allow them to live their lives as they wanted.
Over the years, I regained contact with some of those family members and, thankfully, have the changing face of society to thank for bringing us back together.
The fact that, in the past, there had been a few other men in the family who had never married, never seemed to raise any suspicions that the family had gay people as a part of it. It may have been talked about, but never while I was in the room.
I don’t know if any of those men ever ‘came out.’ Probably not, but it must have been difficult for those that were gay at the time they lived. This only made me more determined to live my life how I wanted and not the way others wanted me to live it.
Moving to work and live in London, in 1986, was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. Although the city acted as a wall which seemed to protect gay people, I was still finding it difficult to ‘come out.’
It was a strange situation because the first two jobs I took in London were in industries where other openly gay people were employees.
When I took my next job, which would last 23-years, it took me six years to come out, and that was only when I heard the words “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” Of course, nobody cared that I was gay, yet for all those years I had been terrified what some of my work colleagues would think about me had I ‘come out’ of the closet.
Fast forward to today, and being gay is something much of society accepts. Or is it?
When we moved to our current home in South Wales, both my partner and I were a little hesitant that people would accept us. There are fewer people here than where we had lived for over 30 years. We were coming back to that place I’d been told that ‘being gay didn’t happen.’ We couldn’t have been more wrong!
People have been so welcoming, and we’re a part of the community as anyone else. Strange, though, that every now and again when I meet somebody for the first time and am asked who the other guy is that walks our dogs, I find myself hesitating before saying “he’s John, my partner.”