The importance of intergenerational dialogue in the queer community

·6-min read
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Sarah Coleman - Getty Images

True LGBTQIA+ community not only spans borders and nations, but also generations. But our current society is obsessed with youth and newness, making people almost disposable once they reach a certain age – at least where the mainstream media is concerned. Little value is assigned to the knowledge held by our elders, because individuals who aren’t seen to be contributing effectively to capitalist society are pushed to the margins and ignored. They’re made invisible.

As queer people who have historically been erased – and continue to fight to be seen as our true selves – we should make sure that the stories of the individuals who paved the way are not forgotten. New is not always better and while youthful passion can drive movements and inspire global action, we must also remember to pause, to reflect, and to learn. Learn through connection; through conversation; through collaboration. The LGBTQIA+ community lost countless members throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s – individuals who could well have been mentors for following generations. Now, we must grasp onto all the threads of experience and knowledge that drift by, almost out of reach, before they, too, dissolve around us.

It’s currently Global Intergenerational Week, which aims to connect people of all ages – in particular, bringing together younger and older folks. For those of us within the LGBTQIA+ community, this time raises some meaningful points of enquiry: mainly, how can individuals work together across generations and towards collective queer liberation. To work towards answering some of these questions, as a community organiser and journalist myself, I spoke with campaigner, activist and author Stuart Feather. Stuart has been advocating publicly for the LGBTQIA+ community since 1970 and was an original organising member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), playing a central role in queer activism in London over the last five decades.

Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin: I’d love to start by talking about your route into LGBTQIA+ community organising. I feel like so many people want to get involved, but don’t know how. What did the start of this journey look like for you?

Stuart Feather: I came out in 1957, when I was outed on the publication day of the Wolfenden Report [a study which looked to reconsider whether male homosexuality should still be a crime in the UK]. I was working at a factory at the time and my boyfriend and I had decided to meet up in the park at lunch with a lot of newspapers to see what the press was saying about the report. We were spotted by two older engineering apprentices I worked with who were passing by on their bikes and when I came back on the factory floor, everyone was jeering and shouting at me, threatening me. I was taken off the machine that I was operating very efficiently, which allowed me to earn extra money, and placed on a machine that had hardly any call for work. So, I was immediately financially punished [for being gay].

When the Gay Liberation Front started, I just went along to – what I think was – the third meeting. My [LGBTQIA+] friends weren’t interested, but it really appealed to me. I discovered all these people I’d never seen the like of before in any gay bars. I was an instant convert to the cause.

Prishita: What are your thoughts on how organising and activism is approached nowadays? With the rise of social media activism, the face of LGBTQIA+ advocacy has changed since the 70s.

Stuart: [Community action] is kind of fewer and farther between now, isn't it? I’ve met so many people who are very into promoting themselves as experts on this or that. But it’s taken – I don't know how long – to go back to the [ethos of the] 1980s and get a central LGBTQIA+ London community space together again. It has only happened this year. I was actually involved in the beginning with Andrew Lumsden [another original GLF member], but, for me, it was difficult because they were so clued up technologically with their phones and computers. I’m okay on the computer, but phones are always difficult for me – I was having to scribble notes while everybody else was tapping into their phones. And their language was new to me as well.

Prishita: Among younger activists, there's a lack knowledge about our history due to the fact that we lost so many members of the LGBTQIA+ community during the 80s AIDS epidemic. How can we ensure that we’re transferring knowledge between queer generations, and learning and passing on techniques for organising when there are these barriers in place?

Stuart: I think it’s simply doing the activism together that teaches you everything. When we had things to discuss that weren’t possible to explore in a two-hour once-a-week general meeting in the Gay Liberation Front, we used to hire a hall for a whole Saturday. We’d have an agenda of all the things that needed to be debated. For each item that we proposed, we broke down the large meeting into smaller groups, who then discussed the issue with one person reporting back after the time limit was over. You’d move from one group to another with each issue, so everyone was mixing all the time. You were getting to know the others and their opinions. By the end of the day, things were much clearer, and some decisions had been made.

Prishita: This year marks 50 years since Pride in London, in which the GLF played a central role. Where do you hope to see things for our community in 50 years?

Stuart: I hope that we will see a coming together. We’re facing quite a different future now because of climate change – there’s probably going to be a lot of poverty, and it's going to be a more and more unequal society. We might just be forced into the position of having to come together and find common ground. But then, on the other hand, global warming is not really being managed. So, who knows? It might all come down to a question of survival – whether that’s the end of human life or the end of civilisations as we know them.

Prishita: I personally imagine a world where – at the very least – trans people have basic human rights. Ideally, we'll have achieved broader liberation from white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. Do you think there are things we can learn from our history when we’re contributing to the conversations around trans rights?

Stuart: When it comes to trans rights, it’s entirely a question of history. We have to educate the young – and each other – to give a true understanding of liberation. I can't see any other way, because, otherwise, everybody's just going to be reinventing the wheel. Again.

Prishita: Education is, more often than not, one of the most important places to start when it comes to creating a better future. What is one piece of advice that you’d give if you could go back and talk to yourself when you first started organising?

Stuart: I'd say: “Keep an open mind, find people you love, and then work where you’re surrounded by that love. It all comes down to caring in the end.”

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