A spectacular online ball organised by the National Theatre of Scotland is set to celebrate the lives of Scotland’s older LGBTI+ community, 40 years since the nation legalised same-sex relationships between men.
The Coming Back Out Ball takes place on Saturday 26 June, with a line-up of top LGBTI+ artists including actor and comedian Karen Dunbar, singer-songwriter Horse, folk music collective Bogha-frois and the acclaimed performance poet Dean Atta.
The event, organised in collaboration with Luminate and Eden Court Theatre, is the culmination of a two-year programme of social dance clubs for LGBTI+ elders, many of whom feel pressured to go “back into the closet” and conceal their sexuality when accessing residential care or age-related services. And while the Covid-19 pandemic has made in-person meetups impossible, elders and organisers have taken the gatherings online to fight isolation during lockdown, creating an ongoing friendly and safe space.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s Lewis Hetherington says the project aims to recognise and provide a welcoming space for an often unseen section of Scotland’s LGBTI+ community, promoting their visibility and safety and amplifying their untold stories.
“It’s all about celebrating the lives of LGBTI+ elders,” Lewis says. “It’s based on research uncovered by the Australian theatre company All The Queens Men, who are our co-producing partners. They found that older LGBTI+ people were returning to the closet later in life. There are similar patterns in Scotland, and older LGBTI+ people are more likely to have poor mental health, more likely to be estranged from friends and family.”
“The Coming Back Out Ball project is a response to that, but it’s a response that’s affirming and joyful, celebrating remarkable people who have lived incredibly rich lives and fought for the rights that LGBTI+ people have today.”
While England and Wales abolished laws forbidding same-sex relationships in 1967, it took 13 years for Scotland to follow suit. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 came into effect in 1981, abolishing legal penalties for consensual sex between men aged 21 and above. In the decades since, campaigners have fought to enshrine LGBTI+ equality in law. In 2000 the country equalised the age of consent for same-sex and mixed-sex encounters at 16. In 2014, Scottish same-sex couples won the right to marry. But while the country has made remarkable progress, many older LGBTI+ Scots harbour painful memories of prejudice and discrimination.
Lewis says these lingering effects can prove particularly damaging when accessing age care services.
“I think one of the really big problems is the still-prevailing belief in society that everyone is straight, that everyone’s married and has children,” he says.
“People running age care facilities and healthcare providers tend to make assumptions without realising it. Older people using those services who aren’t straight immediately feel uncomfortable and question whether their true selves will be accepted or valued or even permitted. For elders who’ve been persecuted, where their very existence has been illegal or viewed as a mental illness, that concern is hugely amplified.
“There’s a real fear and people retreat. And it’s hard to make those steps out of the closet and let people know who you are. I think there’s a real issue with people coming from a time when not being straight was a real taboo, so some people can be estranged from their families and might not have the kinds of support networks that many older people have.”
The result, Lewis says, can be a feeling of intense isolation. It’s this sense of loneliness that he and his colleagues have addressed with a programme of social dance clubs – regular sessions in Glasgow and Inverness, with pop-up events in other locations including Ayr, Perth, Edinburgh and Dundee where members have been able to dance, share their stories and celebrate their lives together. But while the clubs met with an enthusiastic response from elders, the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to bring them crashing to a halt.
“We thought: ‘Is this it? Will we have to stop?’” Lewis says. “But there was this tremendous will on all sides – especially from the elders – that we’d built this incredible community and we had to keep it going.”
Since the Scottish Government imposed restrictions on public gatherings in March 2020, elders have attended dance sessions on Zoom. And Lewis says the community that has grown around the group has taken on a life of its own, with members introducing new activities.
“One of our elders is a chef,” he says, “so he started leading cookery classes. One of them is a textile artist, so she started sewing sessions. We’ve done origami and creative writing. Once we’d connected with people, got to know them, built that sense of trust and confidence, we tried to shape activities which they would enjoy. While we are desperate to meet up in person again for a good old boogie, it’s been wonderful how people have thrown themselves into the online meetups.”
Kay Percy is a dance club regular from Inverness. She says the sessions have been invaluable to attendees.
“It’s been a real lifeline,” she says.
An active advocate for LGBTI+ causes and in a long-term civil partnership, she hasn’t personally felt pressure to hide her orientation. But others she has met through the club sessions have.
“We did have one chap who was living in an old folks’ home,” she says. “He was disabled and went into a home because they couldn’t get him somewhere of his own through care in the community. He really loved coming along to dance clubs and meeting people, it’s been a lifeline for him to be able to express his sexuality.”
She adds that while the online setting might have put a hold on in-person socialising, the shift to online sessions had also brought an opportunity to meet a wider group of LGBTI+ elders.
“We were split between Inverness and Glasgow,” she says, “but since the dance clubs went online we’ve got to know the Glasgow group. We hope it’s going to continue, because we’ve all made friends with each other. It’s marvellous.”
2021 marks the first year of Scotland’s LGBTI Equality Manifesto, developed by organisations including Stonewall Scotland, the Equality Network, Scottish Trans Alliance and LGBT Youth Scotland. It highlights areas for improvement including help for LGBTI+ refugees and cutting years-long waiting times for gender identity services.
For Kay, this kind of continued progress is all-important, and she welcomes the reforms that have made Scotland a more inclusive place for young LGBTI+ people to grow up. But she stresses that the older generation who fought for acceptance and equality are still here, and still active.
“When people think of LGBT people, or see LGBT characters on telly, it’s all young ones,” she says. “People forget that the generation that kickstarted Stonewall and pride parades are still around. They’re still militant. We came through the time where same-sex relationships were illegal, it wasn’t acceptable, it wasn’t safe, and we had to come out and fight for our rights.”
Lewis Hetherington hopes that the climax to the project, The Coming Back Out Ball on Saturday 26 June will be the fittingly fabulous conclusion to an incredible two years of engagement with this particular Scottish community.
“It’s an unique opportunity for all allies and members of the rainbow community to come together to celebrate the LGBTI+ Elders community. The event will not only showcase the incredible artistic talent of LGBT artists but will shine a light on the stories, the hopes and the dreams of people who are a vibrant and rich part of Scottish society”