by Jo Somerset
4 July 1969
My birthday in Birmingham collides with the sixth and final day of the Stonewall riots in New York: fighting on the streets, clashes between the oppressor and the oppressed. It’s the start of a snowball of resistance against harassment, brutality, shame, fear and secrecy. For the first time, trans women, queers, fairies, drag queens, butches and femmes fought back when police raided the Stonewall Bar on Christopher Street. Gay pride was born.
I was 14 and my grandfather died.
Facebook 11 December 2019
Gonna cry. LGBT+ carol service at Manchester Cathedral. If only my grandfather and uncle could see this now. Totally gobsmacked.
I remember you clearly, as an old man, although as time has spiralled, the ‘you’ in my head is only a decade older than I am now. I see you stooping, a smile tweaking your slightly puffy clean-shaven upper lip. Thin hair, bespectacled.
There are ways of describing what you were not. You were not portly, your voice did not boom, you did not have an upright military posture, you were neither overbearing nor retiring, you didn’t frown, grunt, shout or complain. You didn’t guffaw or grin or slap people on the back.
You let me play with the fob watch in your waistcoat pocket, hanging from a chain with a silver fish. In Miss Broadhead’s class, my first knitted garment was for you – an impossibly short green scarf – which you wore tucked into your winter coat. You bought me a book called For Future Doctors, which I couldn’t understand, apart from the title.
Your eight books are piled on my shelf alongside a handwritten journal of your sermons, which I keep meaning to pass on to Christ Church college. One day. Mum had your latest book, Sex and Christian Freedom, by her bedside. Two years later you died.
Delving into your life, I wasn’t surprised that you were an early exponent for women priests. When I say early, I mean, back in the sixties, like unfashionably early. And you could have knocked me down with a queer-basher’s baseball bat when I discovered that one of your ‘spinster’ sisters was a lesbian. If only I’d known, even just a secret whisper (I grew up in the sixties, remember). I thought there was no-one like me.
So, you were keen on women priests, you had a lesbian sister, you wrote about sex during the year of peace’n’love. Respect. Wait till I tell you what I did last night. I went to a carol service at Manchester Cathedral. I know, “Big Deal.” It’s the season when non-Christians suspend disbelief for an hour of lusty singing. And a cathedral is a fitting place, presided over by clergypeople who preach and pray.
Do you like the way I said ‘clergypeople’, Granfer? A curate called Grace, with afro curls, black leggings and long boots, leads the prayers, but not to God or the Lord. Her deity is the merciful One, the redeeming One, the all-powerful One. What do you think of that? Is it going too far? I always battled with God-the-male and turned my back on Christianity because I could not, would not, would never worship something that didn’t represent me. Religious apartheid: someone like me could never be in God’s image. So clergypeople (women in leggings and men in flowing robes) talking about a nongendered deity….how does that strike you?
As we assemble, after sniffing the old stone rising to the rafters and squinting at polished wood panels surrounding the organ pipes which display a joyful “Hosanna!”, I notice a rainbow flag draped over the altar. I don’t need to raise up mine eyes to rejoice, I just look straight ahead. “Wow!”
“You couldn’t be more welcome,” says the next reverend, approaching the lectern with a swish of his ecclesiastical outfit. Black robe, white dog collar and red AIDS ribbon. “There’s nothing better than a queer service where I can be as camp as I like,” he confesses.
One of the lessons is read by Carl Austin-Behan, one-year old baby in his arms, whose track record includes ejection from the RAF on grounds of sexuality, Mr Gay UK 2001 and first out gay Lord Mayor of Manchester (pink-robed) with husband as consort.
The bishop also displays finery, purple embroidered robes and high hat reaching to heaven.
“If you don’t like the way we do things in Manchester,” he tells people, “you’ve come to the wrong cathedral and the wrong bishop.” His shepherd’s crook and closely-trimmed white beard are at once comical and biblical as he addresses his flock, making signs of the cross with two fingers in front of him. He’s blessing us: “Blessing to God, the Holy Spirit and His rainbow people.”
Yessss!! Result! For the first time, God is blessing us, the likes of me, the people who’ve died, lied to stay alive, struggled to survive, fought back for dignity or gone under for the lack of it, women and men and nonbinaries who’ve loved and found love, and also those who’ve been overwhelmed by bitterness and cynicism and can’t love anymore, the hurt ones, the ones who had their fingers burnt, the pretenders in straight marriages, the singles without mates, the youngsters with trembling thoughts and oldsters with trembling hands, the babies and the unborn. We are all, according to the bishop, God’s rainbow people.
My uncle, your son, was also a clergyperson. We weren’t a close family, separated by geography at a time when driving from Birmingham to Kent for a visit to the cousins took all day. Sometimes our car’s radiator boiled dry during the hot, stop-start journey, resulting in a searing column of steam shooting skyward when my dad removed the cap so it could cool down before filling it up again with cold water.
The cousins were southerners, we were Brummies. They were Church of England, we were Quakers. They went to private school, we went to state school. Their name was Hodgson, ours was Somerset. Two separate families who bumbled alongside each other once a year or so.
Christy (we never called him ‘Uncle’) visited me once in Liverpool. His first curacy had been in Anfield a couple of decades previously, down the road from my flat. A 27-year old lesbian feminist making a cup of tea for a rotund reverend who happened to be related to me. We conversed, probably about my new job and housing co-ops in Liverpool, and what he remembered from his first and only stint in the north.
Seven years later, by then a vicar in Birmingham, Christy was the only member of my family to see me – pregnant – interviewed on Channel 4’s Out on Tuesday. Why was my uncle watching the UK’s first openly gay television programme at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night?
So, the cathedral last Saturday night, the lump in my throat as I considered the pomp of exclusion all mixed up with family recognition and the biblical waving of the wand and incantations that transformed us from rejected to wanted. Do you get it, Granfer? It was a big day.
Jo Somerset (she/her) is a Manchester-based nonfiction writer who found a voice through Northern Gay Writers in the UK. ‘Dear Granfer’ is extracted from Born on 4th July, her auto/history work-in-progress. Jo’s poetry and vignettes have appeared in clavmag, anothernorth.org, Dear Damsels, Autumn Voices, Buzzin Bards, The Selkie, and Generations anthology. Other publications include ‘Passion Prioritised’ in the Diva Book of Short Stories (2000) and ‘Pushing the Boundaries of Feminism in a Northern English Town’ (Northern History, March 2018). She recently completed a Creative Writing MA at Salford University, where she won the Leanne Bridgewater Award for Innovation and Experiment. She’s contactable on https://josomersetwriter.wordpress.com or Twitter @josomerset