What was it like to be queer in the ’90s?

February 14, 2021

Fucking shit. The end.

Only joking…..kind of. Let me start by saying I was born mid-way through 1983 so I grew up in the ’90s, entering the decade aged 6 and leaving it as an awkward 16-year-old. It would be another 15 years before I came out.

I grew up in a very homophobic place. A village called Raunds in Northamptonshire. At the time, they called it a town, but with a population of about 6000 people, it was a far cry from the proper town I had moved from in 1991. Swindon, my birthplace, was positively progressive in comparison. A much larger community, with over 190,000 residents it bought with it all the things I love about towns, mainly the different types of people.

Raunds was not diverse. It was full of the same people with the same experiences and the same mindset. It was White British, working/upper working class, very insular. You weren’t a local until you’d lived there for 30 years and even then, you kind of weren’t. I’d say they were transphobic too but honestly, it just wasn’t a thing. I know that sounds crazy but at that time and in that place, trans people didn’t exist.

It was also a very racist place. I was new to my primary school and I had long black hair, brown eyes and olive skin so some of the boys decided they’d call me the P-word. It seemed bizarre to me, not only because I was White but mainly because I’d come from a school where my best friend was of Indian descent. I didn’t know, let alone use that language.

In Raunds, racist and homophobic slurs were commonplace and I participated without a second thought. It was all around me. It was embedded in the DNA of the place. I knew it was wrong to hate anyone because they were queer or Black or Brown, but the language seemed detached from its meaning. I guess because there weren’t any Black or Brown people and there certainly weren’t any gay people, so it wasn’t hurting anyone. Obviously, that’s complete bullshit but as children in the 90’s, we weren’t allowed to question anything like that.

Section 28

I was educated during Section 28. Now, this is something I’ve ONLY JUST learnt about which speaks volumes for the inherent homophobia which still exists. Section 28 was a law that existed from 1988 – 2003. To put that into context, I started school in 1988 and left university in 2004. So, almost my entire education was framed by this law. It prohibited councils and schools from “the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Thank you, Tories. It is WILD to me that it was even a thing but wilder that it framed my education in such a profound way.

I’ve written before about being homophobic growing up. I absolutely was. I feel bad for it, of course, but I also feel angry about it. I was robbed of knowing myself and it wasn’t my fault. There were no queer people on TV, radio or in magazines. This was before the internet and social media and support services. I had zero access to the queer community. I don’t even remember any LGBTQ groups at university.

Section 28 and the homophobia I grew up around definitely impacted me. There is still shame connected with my sexuality. It’s very hard to dispel a narrative that is taught by everyone around you for all of your formative years and beyond.

Hidden Queerness

It’s not just the overt homophobia that has an impact, but the hidden queerness. There must have been people in Raunds, in the ’90s who were queer. The Office of National Statistics says that about 2% of the UK population have identified as LGBTQ. I’m not sure that’s accurate but let’s pretend it’s true. That would mean that 120 people in Raunds would have been queer. Some of them might have been quietly out but most of them were hidden. They might have been the married mum unable to leave her husband for fear of losing her children and her job. They might be the grandad who always knew they were female but never knew there was anything they could have done about it. They might have been people like me who had no idea they were queer because it just wasn’t an option.

The tragic thing is that I was one of the lucky ones. There are those who will have taken their queerness to their grave and even after death, are unable to be celebrated for being queer.

‘It’s a Sin’ showed us a family burning everything that related to their dead, gay son. All the family photos, everything he owed, every piece of evidence that he existed. I wish I could say that was just for dramatic effect. It’s wasn’t. That happened. Families even now will hide or deny a relative’s queerness from that era. I’d be willing to bet my great auntie was queer but the family chat was always that she was just an eccentric spinster. I don’t know if anyone in the family knew if she was queer or not. If they did, they weren’t open about it. Unveiling hidden queerness is important for the next generation of queer people. When we look back, it’s mainly erased and that’s not fair.

So, with that in mind and it being LGBTQ history month, I’m starting to document what it was like for me as well as delving into some of the history that isn’t hidden.

Where to Start

If you’d like to take some baby steps into LGBTQ history, (and like me, prefer to see and hear, rather than read), I recommend starting with:

TV:

It’s A Sin
Queer as Folk

Pose

FILM:

Disclosure
Paris is Burning
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

PODCAST:

Making Gay History

YOUTUBE:

Philosophy Tube

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