Speaking to GT (Gay Times) in his last ever interview, the late, long-time gay rights activist Michael Brown, speaks of being one of the longest standing gay activists, highlights generational rifts in the gay community and says he would carry on campaigning.
In 2011 Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) presented him with the Derek Oyston Achievement Award. The CHE conference on Sunday 7 July, will include recollections of Michael from some of those who knew him.
Unknown to many younger members of the gay community, Brown joined the Homosexual Law Reform Society in 1957 and remained involved in it until partial decriminalisation of gay sex ten years later. He then became one of the original members of the Gay Liberation Front.
He lived for a time in Canada and the US, and remained active in the radical gay movement, co-founding the first Jewish gay group in the world, the Jewish Gay and Lesbian Group (JGLG), and later with the onset of the AIDS crisis, the Jewish Aids Trust. He was a long-standing member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.
The full interview with Brown is available to read below.
I helped to start the gay rights movement. I left home at 18 and moved to the West End of London when I started going on what’s now known as the gay scene. There were no organisations or gay media that I knew about so it was hard to know where to go apart from by word or mouth.
I’m Jewish and my family was oppressed over a long period of time. I was bursting with anger over that and then about being homosexual and having no rights. I wanted all that oppression to be lifted so we could all be free to meet men, have sex, and just be open about ones selves. I started protesting as I wanted the laws changes.
In 1954, having followed the lord Montague case I wrote letters to broadsheet newspapers supporting him. (The bisexual lord was found guilty of ‘conspiracy to incite certain male persons to commit serious offences with male person.’ public outcry against the conviction helped the decriminalization of homosexuality).
I signed the letters with false names because there were many risks in being homosexual. I was a dentist and I could have been struck off, arrested, sent to prison for having gay sex, shamed in the press, disowned by my family or fined. And there was risk of violence and assault.
I was arrested for cruising myself, once. I was charged by the police and appeared in court. I paid a lawyer in what today’s value would be £20,000 just to defend me and I got a conditional discharge.
I did volunteer work for the homosexual Law Reform Society which lead to working for many other groups over the years. I’d go to parliamentary debates before the 1967 decriminalisation act. Once I was in the House of Lords when the suggestion was to make the age of consent 21. One of the lords wanted to make it 70 so I threw a book at him from the gallery.
When the law changed, I had a big gay social life. In 1970 I was very active in the gay liberation front and started several gay groups there. I went on the very first gay rights march in 1971, the year before the first UK gay pride march. In the 1980s, I set up the all-Parliamentary Aids Committee. I’ve campaigned throughout my life and now I’m an ambassador for age UK’s opening doors project.
At 80, I’m resident historian at the Vauxhall tavern and give monthly talks on gay history. Audience members come up to me and say nice things like ‘thank you for what you’ve done for us.’
Most gay people my age are still not out. I’m a rarity. But one of the things I miss from the gay movement and scene is the camaraderie. People I know from back then have died and I find it hard to meet suitable people to sleep with or have a relationship with. I’m a bit lonely. I’d like to meet a man for something more emotional than just a friendship.
There are a number of younger men just interested in one because one is old. It’s a kind of fetish. And a lot of younger people think older men are cradle snatchers and are somewhat repulsive.
I’ve been kicked at gay discos, insulted and once told I wasn’t wanted at a pub because I’m too old. I think younger people need to be a bit more kind.
I live on my own and when you get old, you get medical problems and slow down and stay in a lot more. I don’t get visited very much or get many invites. It’s a quiet life but you get used to it.
Campaigning gets more and more difficult because young people don’t expect old people to want positions in organisations. But we do. There isn’t a niche for me so I do niche campaigning where nobody else does.
I think I’m the longest running activist in the world now. I have duties I feel I still have to carry out. I just keep going because that’s my life.