Homosexual Problems by Bryony Bates
'Have you a homosexual problem?
Ring Bolton 62783 or Manchester 8325253.'
I saw these words at least ten times, neatly typewritten with a courteous message to whom it may concern asking that this ad be placed in the Classified section. I also saw several letters of refusal, and at least one attempt to charge more than the going rate.
It is strange what you can learn about someone from the scraps they leave behind. These letters, written in the 1960s, are from the papers of Allan Horsfall, late Manchester gay activist, found in Archives+ at the Central Library. I learned, I think, that Mr Horsfall was humane, determined, and firmly believed in making a reasonable request. When he was not met with a reasonable response – the Manchester Evening News refusing to carry his advert, for example, while running lurid stories of homosexual blackmail – it seems he was bemused, and perhaps a little annoyed, and he wrote another letter.
I don't mean he was dispassionate. He devoted his life to a cause he believed in: what more can be said. And among apologies for absences because of flu, and reimbursements for the train to Hull, a letter starting 'I seem to remember that you told me, somewhere, sometime – through a wonderful alcoholic haze...' His sense of humour too, speculating about the motives of a judge who sent a seventeen year old boy to Borstal for a minor offence with the hope of curbing his homosexuality: 'Just what, I wonder, did that man, and those who thought like him, imagine went on in our Borstals.'
I found this fun, the quaint phrasing and the rows of typed x's to blot out mistakes. But in the lead up to Pride, when we will all be parading through the streets of Manchester together, here, and queer, and glittery, and pissed, I read over and over letters to Allan from all kinds of people, from social workers and friends and maybe some of the people who had seen those adverts in the local paper: There's a young man I'd like to put in touch with you – he would like to read some of your pamphlets, You remember that young man I told you about, he's too shy to go to the pubs or the clubs on his own, could you help, a series of letters back and forth to a psychiatrist, I understand you completely but if the young man wishes to try to cure himself I can't stop him, he has had a few successful sexual encounters but he hasn't been able to find a relationship, the security of a relationship as he'd hoped, and he lives with his mother, she is not sympathetic.
Being gay used to be very lonely. It still is, still can be for many people all over the world and right here. Though it is so much easier for us to find each other. The first time I heard someone who grew up in the 1950s say that they had thought they were literally literally the only person in the world who felt this way I was shocked. How couldn't you know? But then, how could you know when there was no one like you, anywhere in sight. Not in your town, not in films or on television, nowhere. Allan knew that this was wrong. There are gay people everywhere and he knew that as well as a change in the law – endless letters to MPs about the Sexual Offences Act – gay people needed to know each other. To know, beyond something furtive in the street, that there is someone like you. So he wrote on behalf of his North Western Homosexual Law Reform Committee to place those ads in the Classified section.
From a letter which I think was signed Harry from 10th February 1968: 'I hope the work your committee is doing will progress and be appreciated for it is something which is a constantly recurring event for some unfortunate boy or girl. That's why I feel that this work is so important.' And from John Holland, nineteen years old in 1968: 'I now have all I want – a husband and a future.'
The work is so important.
I am very excited to have this opportunity to work with Archives+. A lot of my writing is based on taking what other people have written or said – especially casual, everyday encounters – and turning it into my own, so having access to such a large collection of material is fantastic.
I entered the Young Enigma Awards after attending a writing workshop at the library which used materials from the archives. I hope I can get other people similarly inspired – it worked for me.