Journalist Richard Wyatt is a former presenter on HTV, director of bathnewseum.com – an online newspaper on Bath history and heritage, a member of the Mayor of Bath’s Corp of Honorary Guides and a house husband
First things first. I have never actually ‘come out’ in the sense of publicly admitting I am a gay man. So let’s get that over with – courtesy of The Bath Magazine. I am proud to say I am gay and that I have been with my partner Darren Willison for 26 years and that we were able – more recently – to be joined together in a Civil Partnership and later in marriage. Two legally binding unions that no one would have thought possible for people like us 50 years ago.
Yes, let’s not get too carried away by this half century, landmark-event in the history of gay liberation. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 didn’t legalise homosexuality – it only exempted gay sex from criminal prosecution if it took place between two consenting males aged 21 and over, and in private. There were still plenty of prosecutions for under-age sex, public sex acts and cruising. It was almost another 30 years before the age of consent was lowered to 18. Then finally, in 2001 to 16 – making it the same as the age of consent for straight people.
So we’ve come a long way in a short time. You can be gay or lesbian and join the Armed Forces. Gay couples can adopt and – most importantly of all – it is illegal to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Society is more accepting but homophobia has not gone away. I’ll return to that in a moment.
In 1967 I was nearly 18 and completing my journalistic apprenticeship at the Weston-super-Mare Mercury. Within a couple of years I was the ‘Young Richard’ viewers of regional ITV saw on their box co-presenting HTV news every weekday evening. TVs were box-shaped in those days and, would you believe it, families also used to gather around them too.
This young man was most definitely ‘in the closet’ in a stress and smoke-filled news room full of competitive and testosterone-fuelled journos cutting their career teeth on the likes of floods, fires, multiple crashes, crime and politics.
Occasionally, I would be working in what was always regarded as an ultra-macho world myself. Flying with the RAF in famine-torn Ethiopia, reporting from Sarajevo or doing ship-to-ship transfers with the Royal Navy in the middle of the Mediterranean. I was just one of the lads, toasting male bonding in the mess, trying not to show any hint of enjoyment among these uniformed, often attractive men.
For most of the time, I was the cheeky chappy better known for the human interest stories. Riding a Charolais bull one day and a penny farthing the next – but with enough of a ‘butch’ image to survive being hit by a low flying aircraft, dangling from a hang glider and even being run over by a hovercraft.
The word ‘personality’ creeps into life. Weekends, especially during the summer, were filled with opening fetes and flower shows. I went along and waved to the viewers and signed autographs on the mass-produced smiley photo cards HTV West kindly provided. A wholesome, family-orientated publicity campaign.
Out of pity to my first partner I took him with me one day. The fete committee were obviously expecting a ‘Mrs Wyatt’ so Paul had to accept a bouquet and a ride with me on a flower-covered cart through the village. Awkward. I went alone after that.
“The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 didn’t legalise homosexuality – it only exempted gay sex from criminal prosecution if it took place between two consenting males aged 21 and over, and in private…”
I used to think the Bristol press was after me. Every newspaper mention added the prefix ‘bachelor’ – a subtle way I thought of indicating my sexual preference – especially when that had nothing to do with the story.
Looking back I think I was born ahead of my time. I got a telling off once from my Yorkshire-born, straight-talking boss for wearing a striped blazer. I had thought there was nothing wrong with interviewing a man who had invented a waterproof bath-time book in a foam-filled bath. He was wearing trunks after all. The boss was not amused.
His other eyebrow was raised by some of the personalities passing through my interviewing hands. Hinge and Bracket, Danny La Rue, Larry Grayson, Kenneth Williams and a very young Julian Clary from Swindon with Fanny the Wonder Dog.
How jealous I was of their openness. How things might have been different if I was a media product of today. We’ve come a long way from Are You Being Served? and sexual stereotyping.
My young years were spent in mainly back-street gay bars or basement nightclubs. How exciting and emancipated I felt when the door closed behind me. A special world full of special people.
The gay-only world is dying. In one respect it’s a good thing as society makes more room for us to be what we are. The kids of today have online means of finding like-minded people.
The dreadful Section 28 legislation, brought in to prevent the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, was finally repealed after pressure from many groups including the charity Stonewall, which has gone on to help secure more legislation to attain equal rights.
The charity has just given an award to Bath and North East Somerset Council for being the most successful in the UK in preventing homophobic bullying in schools. My partner Darren runs an LGBT group at his Bath school. It’s an educational body encouraging children to bring out the best of themselves. They have strong role models within public life too.
Two women just kissed on Dr Who. There is no such thing any more as loving the ‘wrong’ person. But homophobic bullying and actual assaults are still out there. Gay rights are fragile. Elsewhere in the world discrimination also continues or actually grows. Gay people are being thrown off roofs. There are still around ten countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.
My message to the young of today is make sure you know the history of gay rights to appreciate the freedoms you enjoy but do not become complacent. You can help others accept their sexuality and stand up for the rights of those who are still oppressed.