This article first appeared in Attitude issue 259, July 2015.
The self-titled 'oldest gay in the village', George Montague is a remarkable man who has lived through a century in which homosexuality itself came out of the closet. He is now a writer, campaigner and Pride ambassador in his hometown of Brighton.
As the British government announces plans to pardon the thousands of gay men convicted under historic anti-gay laws, we're revisiting last summer's illuminating interview with George, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1974.
I've come to meet George Monatgue at the Victory Services Club in London, near Marble Arch, where he’s staying the night, away from his Brighton home. Despite being famous for taking part in Pride each year on his motorised wheelchair, as soon as he opens his hotel room door, George is keen to point out that he’s up on his feet. “See? I’m not on the chair, I don’t need it! That’s just for going a long way,” he explains, adding, “the top of me is 92, but from the waist down, I’m 19.” He bellows a hearty chuckle, which never really lets up for the next hour, even as he talks me through a painful life of secrecy as a gay man born in 1923.
“It was a terrible thing,” George says, when I ask how it was growing up gay at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. “The newspapers used to report when they caught somebody, doing nothing very often, they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“The police would have a list, which they compiled by arresting the youngest gay guy they could, in a compromising position, browbeating him in the station, and getting the names of everyone he knew to be gay. All the names were on that list. I had someone working for me at one time, and he said ‘George, my brother is a through it.”
Any suspicions about George were trumped by the fact that he was married for over 20 years, and had three children. “I lived totally in the closet until I was 60,” he explains. “There wasn’t a soul in the world that knew I was gay until after my mother died, except my wife.” George’s story is not so much one of a gay man trapped in an unhappy marriage — nor indeed does his wife appear to have been a victim. Rather, it was a marriage of convenience.
“She knew I was gay. I told her. You see, she was assaulted and very nearly raped, and that put her off men, and she had some gay friends and knew she’d be totally safe with them. I got to know her, and I wanted to get married, so I courted her. I said ‘I’m going to change’, which wasn’t a lie, because in those days you knew so little, I thought I could. I did stop and saw no one for five years.”
George had relationships with women in the past. “It was just someone to do it with, that’s what we did,” he explains. When he was posted in southern Rhodesia during the Second World War, he even fathered a child. “That was in 1944,” he says, recalling his surprise at going back to visit an old girlfriend and seeing her holding a baby. “He’d be 71 now, if he’s still alive,” he smiles. When he married his wife, he resolved to have children with her too. “I said to my wife, if we’re lucky enough to have children, we’ll stay together until they’re adults, and when my youngest son was 18, we had a little family meeting. I said ‘Oh guys, sorry to tell you, your dad is gay’, and they just said, ‘Oh dad, we’ve known for years.’”
“Baden Powell was my hero,” he says, speaking of the founder of the Scout Movement, in which he worked for years. “He said ‘don’t ever tell lies’ — but I was living one, completely. However, he also said ‘whatever you do, do your best’, and the other thing that has stuck with me is that you must help other people at all times.”
George spent 30 years as a Senior Commissioner in the Scouts — on top of careers in pattern making, fitness instruction, and running his own business. One of his proudest achievements was setting up a special Scouts division for disabled children. “I thought, if you have a disabled body, but there’s nothing wrong with your brain, why shouldn’t you be in the scouts? And that’s what we did, we formed groups. We ran camps especially for the disabled, and within no time we had 40 children involved. The seventh camp I did, I took them all to Holland. 40 wheelchairs going through Heathrow. You had to have a doctor with you, and all the medication, but we did it. But it exhausted me, and it affected me.”
It was during this particularly stressful time that George had an unfortunate brush with the law, in July 1974. “I was in a gay toilet, with a locked door, and this guy put his cock through the hole in the wall, and I pushed it back and stuffed it with paper. I heard a bit of noise outside, and all of a sudden bang bang bang, and this policeman — with the help of another — had been peering over the top and watched what happened. The young policeman lied. He said I was committing an act of gross indecency.” At the age of 51, and as a respected pillar of the community, George faced the embarrassment of going to court and receiving a fine, though a good relationship with local reporters allowed him to evade publicity. The incident did, however, cost him his career in the Scouts. George is now involved in the campaign to introduce Turing’s Law to pardon over 49,000 men like him who were convicted under gross indecency laws; a manifesto pledge of the Conservatives that was added after a campaign involving Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry and Attitude editor Matthew Todd.
“I don’t want a pardon, because I didn’t do anything. I will reject it. And I’ve already had a letter from the Home Office saying myconviction is to be disregarded. I don’t want that either. That means it’s still there. I want it wiped off, clean slate.” He recites his wishes eloquently. “We want an apology, for the ignorant homophobia of all the predecessors of the present Parliamentarians, during almost all of the 20th century.”
George speaks passionately about gay history, and indeed he has lived through much of it: from decriminalisation to the AIDS epidemic, through the introduction of Section 28 and its repeal, on to civil partnerships and, finally, marriage equality. But for George, it all begins with the seminal case of Lord Montagu, Michael Pitt Rivers and Peter Wildeblood in 1954 — a landmark conviction which saw the young men given 12 to 18 months each in prison, and led to the Wolfenden report which eventually led to decriminalisation.
“The general public knew absolutely nothing about homosexuality,” George explains, “but they thought it was unfair. These two young airmen (Pitt Rivers and Wildeblood) were gay, they were over 21, and there was no sodomy, just a bit of playing about, apparently. But the police and the army had suspicions, so they looked through their lockers, and they found love letters.” This was all that was needed to bring the men to court.
“There’s an old joke. When the trial finished and they both went to prison, the day after, my God, there was suddenly more smoke over London... all the gays were burning their love letters,” he laughs. George knows Lord Monatgu, although he’s no relation. “He said when he was released that there was a whole crowd of people there, and he thought ‘Oh God’, but they all applauded. Not only gay people, but the general public.” George holds back tears as he considers it. “That was the turning point, in all the laws. It took another couple of years before decriminalisation, but that was the turning point.
“We used to see a lot of him, but he’s very frail now, and unlike me, he doesn’t want to let it all out, he wants to live quietly. He doesn’t want to be a professional victim. But when he dies, there will be a lot of discussion around what he went through,” George concludes. George says the greatest shift in attitudes to gay people happened under Tony Blair, and he attributes a big part of that change to the man himself. “Before he was Prime Minister — he was just an MP — he stood up and he said, ‘Homosexuality is not something you decide to be, it is just something you are’. Those were the finest, most wonderful words I’d ever heard in my life,” he says, letting a few tears slip out. “I do cry quite a lot,” he chuckles, with a shrug.
George’s remarkable life is fully documented in his book The Oldest Gay In The Village
, which was published in 2014, and has had widespread praise — even earning him a letter from the Prime Minister, who George lauds for the introduction of same-sex marriage. “David has written to me,” he says proudly. “It’s in his handwriting, just thanking me for what I’m doing.” He began writing his memoirs 25 years ago on an old Amstrad, and hopes that his story can go on to educate and inspire younger generations.
“I want to make it easier for young guys who go to school, when they’re 13 or 14, and find they’re gay, and then get bullied – we’ve got to do something about that, that’s one of my campaigns,” he says firmly. “The other thing is being HIV positive. I freely admit it. I was tempted in Bangkok. And as I said to 3,000 people at a candlelit vigil in Manchester, when you get to a certain age, putting a condom on gives you the droops — I tried,” he laughs, and shrugs at his indiscretion. “And I did a stupid thing, without a condom. Now my advice to you all, always put a condom on.” George became HIV positive over 15 years ago, but praises Dr Michael Brady who began him on treatment almost straight away. Looking at him now, I’m not entirely convinced George is any less healthy at 92 than I am at 25. He could easily pass for a man of 70. What’s the secret? The bad news for many is, George says he’s never drunk much (“I just knew it wasn’t good for you”), but there’s something else.
“I go to the sauna every day — not for what I used to go there for! I think I’m the only one, except for the people in Finland, who know this: I go for fitness. At my age you can’t jog, or walk fast, so your heart is always beating at the same slow speed. In the sauna, my heartbeat goes from 58 to 110, every day, and I’ve been told I’ve got the heart of a 40 year old. As I’ve told people many times, this old queen is looking forward to getting a nice birthday card from a real queen.” When I ask George what stands out for him as a personal highlight, in a lifetime that saw VE Day, man on the moon and the turn of the millennium, he chooses the seven great lovers of his life; the seventh of which is Somchai — his partner since 1997, who manages his affairs, and listens faithfully as George retells his stories. Love is the most important thing. “Isn’t it?” he marvels. “Isn’t it really, when it comes down to it? A relationship, and love. And I will admit to being promiscuous. Gay people and straight people are. But some gay people are too promiscuous, and I think they ought to try and find a relationship. I recommend it.”
Words: Ben Kelly