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Footsteps and Witnesses: Ripples in a Pool of Visibility

“These characters are too ‘tidy’ in other ways… there are no transvestites, paedophiles, bisexuals. It is not surprising that a ‘sense of pride emerges”.

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Me modelling Madonna’s moves and Celine Dion’s teeth

in 1992.

Barry Church-Woods

Early yesterday morning I received an email from an old work-chum.  It announced that Bob Cant, the editor of the book Footsteps and Witnesses would be speaking at the National Library of Scotland at the start of February to mark the 20th anniversary of this trail blazing publication.

The publication in question is a verbatim record of 23 different gay and lesbian people living in Scotland in 1992.  The book was published in 1993.  It got me thinking about what I was doing at the time and that process brought me back to my letter to my 16 year old self (inspired by the Joseph Galliano collection Dear Me).  Here it is.

Dear Barry

I’m writing to you from 20 years in the future, the day after NASA announced the discovery of a new planet that looks likely to be able to sustain some form of life. It’s in the goldilocks galaxy and has a surface temperature of 22C, is twice the size of earth and has a sun about 25% cooler than ours.

As a 16 year old, you are prone to exaggeration and your need for approval will see you concoct some wonderfully naive lies. Fortunately for you, you are telling them to people who will have little impact on your life within the next few months and it’s something you will grow out of very soon.

The weird thing is, the first statement about the new planet is true. And in 2011, we’re using the word amazeballs a lot to refence stuff like this. Start saying it now, you’ll be seen as a trendsetter.

There’s really no point in being able to communicate with your 16 year old self unless you at least attempt a few interventions or words of encouragement, so here they are. Sorry if it sounds preachy.

First off, you are a bummer. I know you are already fairly liberal and carefree about this stuff, but I do also know that at 16 you are pretty terrified of what your future is going to be like. You don’t have to worry too much. Society is about to shift in a few years. It will be gradual and there will always be bigots and homophobes around you. The good news is; you won’t feel the need to invite them to your wedding. To your husband. Who is half Swedish and half Kiwi. Picture that in your head. Now picture the opposite. That’s what he looks like.

It takes a while to get there and I’m not going to lecture you about all the frogs you will need to fuck before you find him, but you should know right now, that what you are doing with that skater is not love. It’s barely even sex. He’s actually just wanking inside you and he will never ever treat you well in public. Ditch him and move on. There are a lot of great people to meet that aren’t ashamed of who they are and they will all contribute to you becoming a fairly well adjusted, compassionate and giving person.

Spend more time with your sisters. They will always love you and make you a better version of yourself.
Enjoy having hair and a flat stomach.
Smoke less grass.

Professionally, I don’t know what to tell you. You’ll study acting and be very good at auditions. You’ll get a lot of work but will rarely be booked again. It’s really not your forte and actually, deep down you already know that you are not cut out for the monotony of doing the same thing day after day. The reality is, you’ll have some wonderful experiences and end up working with people that you currently idolise. You are a much better producer than artist but don’t give up on being creative. Sometimes you’ll surprise yourself.

Try not to get caught up in the glamour of it all. It will make you drop your guard and you’ll end up in some fairly dangerous situations that will haunt you to this day.

Oh, and when you are faced with the choice of doing a play with Richard Demarco or a wee part in a film called Mrs Brown, choose the film.

Now that’s over, I know this is what my 16 year old self really wants to know…

At 53, Madonna is still pretty cool although she did steal some African children and become Jewish for a while. The media persecute her for not being daring enough now or being too old or too female or both. She’s had some work done and sometimes looks like Zelda from the Terrahawkes, though mostly she’s still pretty good at what she does.

And finally, and most importantly of all. You are loved for who you are and YOU WILL ESCAPE LIVINGSTON.

When I first wrote the letter last year I remember being full of hope and optimism.  I’m married to the love of my life, have a great job, home and social circle.  I remember sitting back and thinking “Was it really so bad?” I’m sure I had a tough time, but didn’t everyone?  Wasn’t that just part of being a teenager?  Maybe I was overreacting and the times I grew up in were a lot more liberal and understanding.  Maybe the real problem was me and paranoia about being different.  Maybe those Jim Davidson jokes were funny.

Then I started researching the book.  And found a review by David Evans in Scottish Affairs.  It stated:

“These characters are too ‘tidy’ in other ways… there are no transvestites, paedophiles, bisexuals. It is not surprising that a ‘sense of pride emerges”.

Yes. In 1993, it was still ok for some academics to compare homosexuality to paedophilia and not be called out on it. It was a flippant phrase in a somewhat poorly structured review, but it was there.  Right in front of me in black and white.  Could this really be acceptable at any time?

It got me thinking just how far we’ve come in the past 20 years.  The 16 year old me would never have dreamed of being able to walk down the street holding hands with my husband, kissing him goodbye as he goes to work.  On a daily basis, the 16 year old me was still spat at and called a faggot or bender whenever I went to the shops.  The 16 year old me still had to deal with a wanker of a PE teacher that thought it was acceptable to use ‘mincing fairy’ as a motivational phrase.  I’m not saying that the majority of people thought like this, but noone can deny that these attitudes were prevalent in 1993 Scots society.

So this book.  A collection of stories told by real people.  Real people who allowed the editor to use their real names and hometowns.  Real people who spoke about things that we consider fairly mainstream today, was a great little piece of history for the Scottish gay community.  The bravery of the subjects will never be compared to that of Rosa Parks or Emmeline Pankhurst,  it doesn’t even dent the surface of the progress made by Harvey Milk or the Stonewall Riots, but this was Scotland, and about as far removed from San Francisco and New York as the moon and here it definitely formed some of the first ripples in a pool of visibility that allowed people to come out.  To live their lives the way they wanted.  And for that, I am extremely grateful.  Grateful for the progress we’ve made over the past 20 years.  And grateful for all the sex I got to have with FULLY GROWN MEN because of it.

Bob Cant will talk about Footsteps and witnesses at the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge, Edinburgh on 4 February at 6pm.  Tickets are free. Book online or phone 0131 623 3734.

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