“When people talk about their lives, people lie sometimes, forget a little, exaggerate, become confused, get things wrong. Yet they are revealing truths.… The guiding principle could be that all autobiographical memory is true: it is up to the interpreter to discover in what sense, where, and for what purpose.” 1

Between 2004 and 2011, I interviewed forty-seven older lesbians and gay men about their lives and experiences from the 1940s to the 1990s. They told me stories relating to personal, social and political history from the twentieth century. Historical documentation of many of the areas that this book covers is limited and as the people with memories of these times and events are now ageing, this relatively neglected area of history is at risk of going unrecorded.

Extracts from the interviews describe the contributors’ experiences of living in a society where the majority of people’s sexual orientation differed from their own. They recall a period in which lesbians and gay men were significantly more restrained both legally and socially than they are today. Not only have their voices been largely unheard but also, over their lifetimes, they may have had few opportunities to express their experiences in a non-threatening environment.

Twenty-four of the contributors in this book initially gave me their stories for a play called Gateway to Heaven that I wrote entirely from their memories. After Age Concern (now Age UK) saw the play, they commissioned a film version which is still being shown around the country at LGBT film festivals and at events during LGBT History Month. A couple of years later, the London Metropolitan Police saw it and, together with Age Concern Opening Doors, commissioned me to write a similar piece, based entirely on memories of older LGBT people about their relationships with the police over their lifetimes. The Hate Crime Bill of 2009 had just been introduced and the Met were interested in examining why there was such a low level of reporting of homophobic hate crime from older people in London. For that project, I interviewed a further twenty people and produced a film called Queens’ Evidence.

Additionally, there are some interview extracts here from a 2011 theatre project I was involved in called Staying Out Late, which, through improvised scenes and a scripted performance, looked at older LGBT people’s hopes and fears about care in later life, specifically with regard to their sexuality. These three projects are the main bodies of work that have provided me with the material that appears in this book. I have found the collecting and editing of these memories exciting, moving and important and I hope that you will too.

Clare Summerskill, London, 20122

1 Personal Narrative Group (Eds). ‘Truths’, Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. 261. Print.
2 Summerskill, Clare. Gateway to Heaven – Fifty Years of Lesbian and Gay Oral History. London: Tollington Press, 2012.

Comments on the Book

“It’s been the longest journey, with many bumps and twists and turns in the road, and some painful catastrophes along the way. But the movement for LGBT rights over the past fifty years has been a triumph of hope and determination over adversity – and the success has been due not only to organisers and campaigners, vital as they have been, but to thousands of ordinary people affirming who and what they are, and want to be. This book provides a beautiful medley recording the many different voices in our history, and the bittersweet music of the human struggle for recognition and social justice.”

Jeffrey Weeks, author of The World We Have Won

Chapters in the Book

1. Growing Up Gay First awareness. School days. Teenage years
2. Once I Had a Secret Love First relationships. Looking for others. Moving to towns.
3. Being Illegal: Gay Men and the Law in the 1950s and ’60s Montagu Case. Wolfenden Report. 1967 Sexual Offences Act.
4. Coming Out and Going Out: London Nightlife Early lesbian and gay pubs and clubs. The Gateways. Pubs and clubs in the Sixties and Seventies.
5. The Shame of It All Feelings of shame. Family reactions. Religion.
6. Coming Together: The Birth of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement Early lesbian and gay pubs and clubs. The Gateways. Pubs and clubs in the Sixties and Seventies
7. Sapphic Lifelines: Lesbian Groups and the Women’s Movement Minorities Research Group. Arena Three. Sappho. Kenric. Spare Rib. Women’s Liberation Movement. Reclaim the Night. Women Against Violence Against Women. Greenham Common. Lesbian custody cases. Older Lesbian Network.
8. Lesbians and Gay Men in Marriages and Coming Out Late Bisexuality. Leading a double life.
9. Queens’ Evidence: Lesbians and Gay Men and the Police Cottaging. Police entrapment and harassment. Pride marches and feminist demonstrations.
10. Rank Outsiders: Life in the Armed Services and the Police National Service. Same-sex relationships in the Forces. Witch hunts and dismissals. Encounters with servicemen. Working as a police officer.
11. Classroom Closet: The Teaching Profession Prejudice and risk of dismissal. Organising within trade unions. Coming out.
12. HIV/AIDS: A Turning Point First cases of AIDS. Prejudice and propaganda. Loss.
13. We Lived to Tell the Tale: Reflections Looking back. Changing attitudes.


Gateway to Heaven – Fifty Years of Lesbian and Gay History

Published by Tollington Press     Price £10.99
Tollington Press publishes new writing by women with unique stories to tell. From poetry to memoir and from drama to short stories, Tollington brings you voices you might not hear elsewhere.