BLOG: Stories from the archive: how oral histories can shed light on LGBTQIA+ people’s experiences of home and housing (part two)
Published: 22 Mar, 2024

Presenting stories from the OurStory Scotland Archive

OurStory Scotland is an LGBTQIA+ community-led, voluntary and charitable organisation that exists to collect, archive, present and celebrate the life stories and experiences of fellow LGBTQ+ people living in Scotland.

Since its inception in 2001, the archive has grown to over 100 life-story and thematic audio oral-history recordings and more than 200 handwritten episodes charting the lives of LGBTQIA+ people.

In part two of a two-part blog series, Nicky Imrie of OurStory Scotland presents various stories from the OurStory Scotland archive, which recount LGBTQIA+ people’s experiences with home and housing.

The stories that you are about to hear and read recount LGBTQIA+ people’s experiences of home and housing that were recorded and gathered across Scotland between 2005 and 2021 but all recall earlier times. These stories are extracts from life stories and short episodes. The storytellers’ real names are used. These stories retell experiences that took place in family homes, shared flats and neighbourhoods. They describe private and public spaces and the blurring of the two; public, private and imagined lives; coming to terms and overcoming; coming out and coming in; struggles and triumphs; oppression and liberation; isolation and community; division and solidarity; sorrow and joy; and much more besides. The stories are arranged into two sections: family homes and shared flats and neighbourhoods. Family homes and shared flats is further subdivided into time periods through the course of human life.

Please note, you may find the content and the telling of some of these stories upsetting.

Family homes and shared flats

Childhood: Steven

Steven describes in 2021 scenes from his childhood in a Glasgow tenement in the late 1950s and early 1960s and his experience of feelings and being perceived, ultimately violently, as different.

I was the gay one, the sensitive one, the one who wanted to go next door. We had neighbours where we lived in Glasgow and she let me play with dolls, because they had daughters, and she was alright. Mrs Dunn[?]. And um, you know, and they had dolls, and I was able to play with the dolls. ’cause my father, uh, my father was, uh, was a very frightening person in our family. He particularly picked on me and he was quite violent. I remember one time later in my childhood where, uh, um, it always happened at the dinner table. I don’t know what it was about me that set him off, but I would set him off and he would rage. And at this particular point, eh, I don’t have a memory of it being present, but more distanced from it, you know, eh, disconnected, I think, I can’t remember name of the, I dislocated – the memory I have of it is over my father’s left shoulder, and he’s shouting and kicking and I’m in the corner and he’s kicking me. So, I was very afraid of my father, very afraid of my father.

Steven, 2021, Recording 1, 02:55–04:17.

Young people living with their parents: Eileen and Claire

In an episode narrated in 2006, Eileen recollects difficult experiences in 1989 and 1997.

I was at university in Aberdeen and went home to Edinburgh for the Easter holidays. I received a letter from my girlfriend and my mum ‘found’ it. The fact that it was in an envelope in another envelope in a drawer under my bed seemed no barrier to this. She threatened to take me out of Uni and make me go back to live there with her because I’d obviously been ‘led astray into this bad habit’ (sic). However, this didn’t happen and I returned to Aberdeen.

Many years later when I officially came out to both of my parents, I was horrified to realise that my mother had never said anything about it to my father, because they both said that they’d ‘kind of suspected’. My dad also expanded on my mum’s ‘we just ask that you don’t embarrass us in any way’ comment by saying, ‘I think what your mum means is, don’t come round here openly dressed as a man’!

In another episode narrated in 2006, Claire recounts recent difficulties she experienced with her mum and how they were overcome.

I came out to my mother in the summer of 2005. She is very religious and obviously didn’t take it well. Arguments started and every time it ended with her throwing the fact that I was gay in my face. The arguments got worse and she kicked me out. I moved from one friend’s house to another for three months then eventually got a flat with some mates. My mum started talking to me and coming to see me. She even helped me to find a job. Unfortunately, things fell through with the so called ‘mates’ I had. The flat we had ended up a mess, then I got glandular fever. I had to move back to my mum’s house. Eventually we started having civilised conversations. It’s now 2006 and we have never been closer. She’s my rock and I’m hers. I couldn’t live without her.

Younger adults and places of liberation: James and Aurora

James tells in 2017 of his friends’ flat which was a centre of gay life in early 1970s Edinburgh.

Well, a drama student, I used to chat to that year, that I knew, uh, lived near where I was living. And, um, he was living in a flat with other students, with six students in the flat.  And so, he invited me round – ‘you come round and meet my friends and everything’ – so I went round for coffee and at that point, that’s where I met Ian Dunn. And Ian Dunn was one of the students there, but Ian Dunn was about nine, ten years older than us. He was a postgraduate. And um, so, as I said, there were another five in that flat. And that was like home from home. You could round to that flat any day, time, nighttime, there was always somebody there. You used to climb the stair in HPT, climb it and climb it seemed forever – anyone who’s seen Shallow Grave will know what I am talking about – students always lived at the top of the tenement buildings. And you got up there and there was this cord like a pull bell – you would get it in a church, you would pull the bells in a church, the rope. I don’t know the technical name for it – and you pulled this bell and you expected a huge bell to … and all there was at the other side was this tiny, little bell that went ‘ting-a-ling’ [laughs]. And there. Normally, the door wasn’t even locked, but if it was locked, that’s you there. So, we used to go there. And all other people used to throng there, gay people, because Ian Dunn had set up SMG, Scottish Minorities Group. And, so there was a flow of people going in and out. And I joined the Scottish Minorities Group. The reason why they were called ‘Minorities Group’, to call it a gay group, they thought, if we call it ‘Minorities’, it would add a bit more weight behind it, than just being gay and doors would be closed to you. And there were two or three in there who organised everything for Scottish, uh, Edinburgh SMG. It had started off in Glasgow with Ian but he had come to Edinburgh. And so he was like the eternal student. My memories of Ian are, well, I really liked Ian. You’d go in to that flat and  there was a huge hallway, and as you went into the sitting room, to the left was Ian Dunn’s room. And very rarely was the door closed; the door was always open, and Ian was always sitting there at his desk typing away or writing something. He was always working. He would come in and join us for a coffee, but then he would go back to his desk and he’d be there. And uh, we had fun times. There was a piano there; they would play the piano, all very innocent, and we’d all gather round the piano and sing songs at two o’clock in the morning. And then a bouquet of flowers would be bought and taken to the lady downstairs to apologise for the noise. It was a nice … It felt like … You had a new family. They were like family to you. And, as I say, lots of people came in and out. …

James, 2017, Recording 1, 21:09–24:55

Later in the interview, James concludes…

Hope Park Terrace. I always remember that so well and when people ask me about coming out and everything, I always say, ‘Hope Park Terrace’ and there’s the word, there’s the link: ‘hope’. So, that was, like, I would say, my salvation. I owe such a lot to those six in that flat. (James, 2017, Recording 1, 34:54–35:24.)

Aurora narrated, in her 2006 episode, a life-changing experience thanks to a flatmate in Aberdeen.

I was engaged to a man in Berlin but I wanted to go abroad for professional development as a psychologist. So, I came to Aberdeen. My flatmate was gay and she took me to the Indigo Bar and I was kissed by a woman. It was a good intense feeling. The next day I went through the streets and looked at the world in a different way. I allowed myself to look at women and find them attractive. I started to retrieve memories that I had forgotten. I started to be friends with the woman who had kissed me. After one year she said she had fallen in love with me. And we came together. Why did I discover this about myself in Aberdeen, while there are so many more opportunities in Berlin!

Flatsharing as an adult and inter-community challenges: Sarah

Sarah recounts in 2018 her experience in her early 30s of a short-term flat share in Glasgow in 1999. Sarah had moved to Scotland from Aotearoa-New Zealand in 1997 and after two years in Edinburgh moved to Glasgow. Both cities lived up to their stereotypes of un/friendliness and Sarah has remained in Glasgow ever since.

I moved in with, as I mentioned before, in Glasgow I needed somewhere to live, I’d got a job at Glasgow School of Art, I needed somewhere to live. A woman that I’d shared a house with in Edinburgh had moved to Glasgow and she said ‘well, you can come and stay in my shared flat. I asked my flatmates who own the house, and if that’s ok, just while you get on your feet.’ Cos these women were lesbian separatists.  My friend from Edinburgh wasn’t a separatist, but was 100% through and through lesbian, so she’d obviously been an acceptable flatmate. So, they kindly put to one side my ‘disgusting’ [used sarcastically] bisexuality and let me move in, as a, just, I can’t remember, for a short period, like a six-month lease, while I looked for more permanent digs.

Sarah, 2018, Recording 2, 03:00–03:43

Later in the interview, she continues,:

I stayed in that flat for a while and they actually invited me to move in permanently at the end of it, because they found – I was breaking down barriers you know –  they had found that I was a really good flatmate, they liked me, I did sufficient cooking and cleaning and was reliable and quiet and all that, didn’t bring a man home. However, I’d just started the relationship with the guy I’d met at BiCon [conference for bisexual people] and I was aware that this was going to be a problem. So, I said, ‘Look, thank you so much. It’s been great staying here, but I’ve just started a relationship with a man and I really want to live somewhere where I can bring him home. So, then I moved into a different place.

Responding to interviewer, Jaime’s, question “[h]ow did they respond to that?”, Sarah concludes this part of the discussion with “[o]h, they were fine. They were cool with it. They had been doing that stuff for a long time. There was no emotional charge to it. This was their philosophy in life that they lived”. (Sarah, 2018, Recording 2, 07:28–08:20.)

Coming to terms and coming out as an adult living in a heterosexual relationship: Margaret and Francis

Margaret, interviewed in 2005, shares the tension and struggle of coming to terms in secret with her sexuality as a wife and mother in the 1980s.

I remember the very first time I bought my first gay book. I must have done some reading. It was Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown and I happened to see it in the supermarket of all places.

The tension of buying this book and smuggling it home and reading it when nobody was there. …Equally so when the videos started coming out. … I had two teenage children going about, there nothing was really private, but I remember one time they were going away with their dad, both of them, so that was my weekend to get Desert Hearts, and the curtains were drawn and I was in the living room watching this and all the time my heart was thumping that someone would come and catch me. You know, how sad it is. You’re leading two lives: one, your practical life and the other’s in your mind, cos you’re not doing anything about it.

Margaret, 2005, Recording 1, 17:03–17:22 and 18:02–18:55

Francis tells, in a remote interview recorded during the 2021 Covid-19 lockdown, of his courageous and necessary decision to come out as trans to his partner, with whom he had been living with as an ostensibly heterosexual couple, in the uniquely challenging circumstances of the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020.

I did come out to my partner first and I think in a lot of ways that was prompted by the lockdown and the pandemic forcing you to sit with yourself and sit with your own thoughts for long periods of time and kinda face up to truths. Alongside all the other things that have been going on in 2020 that make you think about gender …

I initially came out to my partner. It’s very strange, because you have no space to get away from that when you’ve just come out to your partner. I actually messaged him while I was in a different room because I needed a little bit of space to do it. It’s quite hard to do something like that face to face. I’m on the spectrum as well; I’m Autistic, so it helps to have that space but then you’re locked in with them while they’re kind of coming to terms with what that means. And he was, identified as straight before I came out, he followed up by coming out as bisexual so, thankfully, that all worked out nicely. But again, there was no space to do this, there was no space to get away from each other and think about things for a little while before you came back with kinda any response so I think that was very strange in a way.

Francis, 2021, 01:06–01:33 and 01:46–2:43

Aging and care: Donald and Denise

Donald and Denise were interviewed in 2020 by OurStory Scotland member, and now chair, Dom Miller-Graham, for episode 5 of the Pink Saltire podcast 50 Years of Rainbow Activism in Scotland, supported by OurStory Scotland. Both interviewees reflect upon about the prospect of residential care for older LGBTQIA+ people, having to go back into the closet and their own futures. Donald, another founder and stalwart member of OurStory Scotland, also shares the story of his friend, Monte’s, experience of personal care in his own home.

Donald

LGBT people in care homes are very much not thought of. And that goes from just from conversation, ideas, exchange of life, they’re just completely ignored, you know. What we should really have is completely a gay guest house, for male and females. You could do it by one floor and another floor, if you wanted segregation, or just leave it open. So, in the back of your mind you’re thinking, especially if you’re single; if you’re single you think about it every day, you get up, don’t you, I mean, you know, go an’ touch wood, thank God, I’m half way healthy. We had some experience of some older people in our organisation [OurStory Scotland], and he was a very unhappy old man, died a very unhappy old man, a lot of his private possessions were given away, you know. Practically, I can understand that because he had a huge amount of stuff in his flat; it just wasnae practical. But he, I think, was given little choice in the matter. They just heaved stuff out, you know, books, pamphlets, and he was very much attached to his books and things like that. I don’t think he really got the choice to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay’.  Older LGBT people, it’s a shame, because a lot of them, I mean, Monte was monitored and he had help come in, usually women, to get himself dressed and washed of a morning. And he said to me one day when I was over visiting him, he said ‘why can’t I have a male nurse come now and again? At least as a change. They never think I might be a bit embarrassed at two women washing me.’ And it’s true, it’s a thought, you know.

Donald, 50 Years of Rainbow Activism in Scotland, episode 5, 07:28–09:33

Denise

I’m holding my head in my hands. I hadn’t thought of it. It’s a nightmare. Please set up your own care and community services with immediate effect. We need to start, um, funding, funding now. It may be part of why I’m not so bothered is because Ali’s [partner] younger than me. I can’t imagine going back into a life … OK. I want the whole of my life to be learning and growing. I would be devastated to spend the last ten or twenty years of my life in an environment, how unenriching, and I would last a day. To be honest, if you wanted to kill me, that would be it, because the re-traumatisation of not being recognised as I am and met with that kind of care – it was hard enough when I didn’t know I was re-traumatised – to go back in with awareness and do it, would be unacceptable. And if there’s anybody who’s in that position, please would you speak to Dom or me or somebody, because we got to get you into a safe place. Why should we end up the last twenty years, ten, twenty years of our lives not growing but shrinking?

Denise, 50 Years of Rainbow Activism in Scotland, episode 5, 12:58–14:46.

Donald and Denise’s sentiments emphasise wider concerns within the LGBTQIA+ community in Scotland and in the West in general and in the housing sector. These concerns have been addressed in Scotland in recent years by  film-maker, Glenda Rome, who in 2018 worked with LGBT Age community group at LGBT Health and Wellbeing and the Luminate festival, to produce the short film Return to the Closet? and in 2023 by the LGBT Health and Wellbeing Age Action Group who produced the report, Fit For Purpose. Inclusive Housing and Social Care for Older LGBT+ People. In England, Professor Andrew King, University of Surrey, and Tonic Housing in London are pioneers in this field and, in the US, Brenda Savage and Mandi N. Barringer have contributed significant research on ‘the (minority) stress of hiding: the effects of LGBT identities and social support on aging adults’ concern about housing’.

Neighbourhood: Aileen and Laura

Aileen describes in 2011 the impact of her identity as lesbian mum on her teenage daughter outwith their home and the importance for her of sharing LGBTQIA+ life stories.

What my daughter had to experience at school, in the street, in the small town that we live in … we no longer live in this tiny, wee, deprived area. We live in a nice, middle-class, south-west Scottish town. And my daughter used to have things thrown at her in school, when she was 14, 15, 16, walking the corridors in the school, because, you know, your mum’s a dyke. She was pursued in the street by kids. She had a really, really tough time through adolescence. I went to the school. The school were just completely ill-equipped, completely heterosexist, completely incapable, literally incapable, of making an informed and sensitive response to any of that stuff. So, for me, part of the reason why these stories so important now, is the idea of, my kid was growing up, what could I give her or show her, as a fourteen-year old who is being spat at in the street, what could I give her or show her, that would let her see other people living lives that were not only … she on so many levels within the home had no issue, had no problem with mum being with [partner] at that point, but my god she had to pay a huge price and she did develop anger as a result of that. There was nothing that I could find that was ok to give this 14, 15, 16-year-old kid. there was nothing I could find. and part of the reason I’m trying to do a wee stories project just now is to get life stories of women who describe and define themselves as ‘other than’ whatever it is, other than straight, … is because I want to write something that is really accessible and really ordinary and isnae Judith Butler, which is unintelligible to most women, to most humans.

Aileen, 2011, Recording 2, 10:00–12:19.

Laura describes viscerally in her 2006 episode her experience of perceived and actual dangers and difficulties for a trans woman leaving her home as herself for the first time, and then, ultimately joy, liberation and the chance to imagine her future.

I had told all my friends a few months before that I was a transsexual, but the thought of going out as me was terrifying – too scared of what people would say or do due to years of childhood physical and emotional abuse from my parents for not being masculine enough for them.

I was panicking as I left my flat for the first time as a female. Opening the door to go out sent a pain in my chest and I could barely breathe, but as I walked down the road to a friend’s house, I started to feel free and liberated. I remember smiling for the first time in years and nobody I passed said anything. My friend was brilliant – telling me how good I looked and how happy I seemed.

After a glass of wine, we went out for chips. This was totally scary as it was a bright summer evening in one of the roughest parts of Edinburgh and I had to stand in an enclosed space with people queuing to be served. My heart seemed to be racing but nobody commented on my appearance. The one thing that terrified me was when someone struck up a conversation with me and I remember being too shy to speak.

On my way home in a taxi later, the driver dropped me off beyond where a group of young men were hanging around. It was another of those small things in life that you are treated to as a female but was all new to me.

I didn’t sleep that night because I realised that I could be me, and for the first time in my life I felt optimistic that I was free and had a future to look forward to.

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