To mark LGBT Awareness Month our Helpline Manager, Jenn Hall, shares her story and reflects on her experiences as a gay woman.
“My name is Jennifer Hall and I am a lesbian”. There was a running joke with my old teammates at work that this is typically how I introduce myself. I am 37 years old this month and it wasn’t until December 2008 that I felt safe enough and ready to ‘come out’ to the world. This process changed my life and although my experience was not a positive one to begin with, it was the beginning of me living my best life and honouring my true self. It hasn’t been an easy journey and every so often the outright discrimination and homophobia, both veiled and blatant, smack you in the face and can take your breath away.
I am the Helpline Manager for Alzheimer Scotland. One of the real privileges of my role is the opportunity to listen to people share their histories and life stories. Often, I hear recollections of people’s stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. I never underestimate the importance of our life stories. They give us a sense of connection, belonging, identity, and sometimes comfort and security.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. My partner and I settled in a few weeks back to
watch ‘It’s a Sin’, the new Channel 4 series written and produced by Russell T. Davies that centres around a group of young LGBT people in London back in the 1980s, the decade I was born. The gift that Davies has given us is the most incredible piece of television viewing that beautifully and brutally captures the experience of my community, events that happened in my lifetime which I find both heart-breaking and astonishing. It tells the story of the HIV/AIDS pandemic with the first cases being reported in the early 1980s. In a time where gay liberation was gathering momentum the AIDS crisis began to cause fear, alarm and devastation within our community as gay men predominantly began to fall ill and die of infections that should not have been killing them. Little was known about the mystery virus that appeared to be affecting the gay community and what Davies illustrates in his series is the stigma, toxic attitudes and perceptions which festered that ultimately cost lives.
I was an emotional wreck after watching this. The beauty and the heartbreak that Davies illustrates in the most powerful way has had me reflecting a lot on our LGBT history as a community and has reinforced the importance of remembering this.
I come from an incredibly loving and supportive family, and I am aware of how lucky this makes me. However, growing up gay in the 1980/90s, in the industrial west of Scotland, was not an option for me. I didn’t even have a name for what I was or understand the feelings I was having, which were feelings of attraction towards other females. But somehow, and from somewhere I knew that I had to keep this part of me hidden. It felt wrong, I already really struggled to fit in with my peers at school and didn’t have a great relationship with my teachers, particularly in secondary school where encouragement and the ability to thrive seemed impossible if you did not endear yourself to them. I found comfort in being different. I had other hobbies and interests. Music was my first love and it gave me a medium to express myself. With this I started to feel a sense of connection and acceptance.
Reflecting on ‘It’s a Sin’ and trying to understand why it moved me so much, I believe it is because I saw myself in some of the characters represented. This is my community, our history, my life and to see the outright exclusion, disgust, and discrimination towards us by society absolutely broke my heart. I am already aware of our LGBT history. As soon as I understood that I was part of a community whose roots were born from fighting for equality, social justice and gay liberation just so we can claim our fundamental human rights – I made it my business to be informed.
I understand now why I found it so difficult to be out and appreciate that love is love regardless. I was part of a generation that experienced the consequences of Section 28. The prejudice and discrimination towards LGBT people were palpable. There was no gay role model for me growing up. I never saw myself represented in the teachers or peers around about me. If ever the topic of being gay was broached in school the conversation was shut down and dismissed. LGBT people who did appear in the media on the odd occasion were often the subject of ridicule, othering, shame or abuse. It wasn’t until I had moved out of home, and was working in social care, that my colleague Leigh casually dropped into conversation one day that she lived with her long-term partner who was also a woman. I remember this fascinating me and giving me butterflies in my stomach. I think it was excitement because it was the first time in my life that I realised this was ok and was possible.
“If you are not personally free to be yourself in that most important of all human activities… the expression of love… then life itself loses its meaning.” ~Harvey Milk
It sounds like such a small thing, but it was significant for me. When that door opens into this world where people accept and love you regardless, it makes anything seem possible. I lived so long with the fear that I would lose so much if I was honest about being gay. The best thing I ever did was to come out the closet. It’s enriched every aspect of my life and strengthened the relationships I have with my family, both logical and biological.
The experience of ‘coming out’ is not one singular event. It’s the start of a long journey through life where you spend time, correcting people for making heteronormative assumptions. When you start a new job, meet new people, access services etc. Sometimes it can feel uncomfortable and on occasion you can feel vulnerable and worry about what others may think. This is something particularly relevant in my work as LGBT people with dementia and their carers are an invisible population within the mainstream health and social care systems. I often wonder if this is to do with a heteronormative assessment process, and perceived and actual barriers to being out at a time when a person is feeling extremely vulnerable. I have heard first-hand older LGBT people describe this fear of being forced back in the closet come a time when they need to access support. An example that sticks with me was a gay couple who were so scared of how they would be treated that they felt compelled to ‘de-gay’ their home before social work came to visit, pretending to be just companions instead of lovers for 45 years.
Looking back, I know now that the one thing that would have made the biggest difference in my life at that time would have been to see myself in other people. To have had an LGBT role model, not necessarily a celebrity. Just an ordinary person who happened to be gay, was afforded respect by others and had their love recognised and valued. Just to know that you are not alone or inferior and that your love and who you choose to give it to is valid could have made a difference. I think that’s why I often start with ‘Hi I’m Jenn and I’m a lesbian’. I am so proud of who I am, the life I am living, my amazing & beautiful partner and our wonderful family. I am so thankful for all the LGBT people who have walked this road, fought and died for my right and comfort to stand here now. I continue to be filled with this sense of pride and responsibility to our community, to continue fighting for our rights to be seen and heard as equal to our heterosexual counterparts. That’s why we need to keep telling our stories, remembering our history and challenging homophobia.
Dementia doesn’t discriminate, neither does Alzheimer Scotland. If you are a person living with or caring for someone with dementia and want to talk to someone who understands. Please call our 24 hour Freephone Dementia Helpline on 0808 808 3000 or email [email protected]