Young and gay in 1980s Croydon

By - Wednesday 4th February, 2015

As Valentine’s Day approaches and hearts and flowers proliferate, Alvin Shivmangal recounts discovering an identity less ordinary

In some ways the 1980s seem very recent to me. It’s painful to recognise that the time since your youth is now measured in decades! But in other ways, looking back, they seem like another world…

Coming out can still be difficult for too many young gay men and women. Two decades ago it was even harder and I approached it nervously. My large and loving extended family is originally from Guyana and my relatives can be – even more so back then – traditional in their thinking. Like many young gay people I wanted two things: not to shock or hurt my mother (my father died when I was young), yet to be loved and accepted for who I really am, and to remove the barrier of pretence from my closest personal relationships. I just wasn’t sure I could have both at the same time.

’80s Croydon wasn’t exactly the cutting edge of gay-friendly

When I came out, my eleven year old brother Edward said to me: ‘Alvin, you’re my brother, I’ll always love you’ – a wonderful reaction from someone so young back then. I told my mum in a letter which I left in the kitchen. She said that although it wasn’t what she wanted for me, she would always love me. Like the parents of many gay people then, she was worried being gay meant I would have an unhappy personal life; later on she happily met boyfriends of mine. One of my cousins told me that while he still cared about me, if I was walking down the street with a partner he wouldn’t come and talk to me. He sincerely apologised afterwards and we have a great relationship now. I’m aware this was the influence of the time and my relatives were doing their best to be accepting.

But ’80s Croydon wasn’t exactly the cutting edge of gay-friendly and looking around, I felt completely isolated. From first realising I was gay, when I was eleven, I’d never knowingly met anyone like me. Possibilities were role models on TV – and I’ve never seen myself as Boy George. I felt I must keep under the radar or face abuse.

In my late teens I knew another boy who was also gay and facing serious prejudice from his family. His mother banned him from seeing certain friends and would listen in to his phone calls – so I knew I was lucky not to be facing the struggle that he did. The person who helped me most was Pam, the mother of a friend, who took me under her wing and gave me lots of advice. I think that to have done this twenty-five years ago was remarkable and I’ll always be grateful.

It brought home to me the risk of aggression and rejection

When I was eighteen I went for my (literally) first night out at the Two Brewers, a gay pub in Clapham, with a group of friends, one of whom, Donald, drove us there. It was busy, with crowds of young guys around – an openly gay scene. While we were inside someone threw a brick through Donald’s windscreen. It was a disturbing introduction to being open about my sexuality, and brought home to me the risk of rejection and aggression.

In Croydon I would go to the Bird In Hand pub in Sydenham Road, and the Goose and Carrot (where Island Croydon stands today). I’m glad they were there, but a group of regulars dominated and turning up as a newcomer made me feel self-conscious. I found Palm Beach – a gay club on Friday nights at Streatham ice rink – much more fun, the first place where I really felt able to relax. There were also cruising spots, and of course I knew where they were.

It’s impossible to talk about gay life in the ’80s without mentioning AIDS. I know two local men who died and fear was very real. Gay people felt – and government campaigns such as the celebrated iceberg posters (‘Don’t Die Of Ignorance’) made sure of it  – that our sexuality was dangerous and unwelcome.

Nowadays gay people can openly behave like the couples they are

So it’s hard not to be jealous, if I’m really honest, of young gay people’s far greater freedom now. I know homophobic attacks still happen, but I also see people behaving like the couples they are quite openly. I grew up unable to show affection to a partner in public, and conscious of the need to sound a certain way – and it’s still part of me, making me feel set apart at times. I know I keep myself in check more than I would without those formative experiences.

The Bad Apple bar in Park Street has gay nights – but nowadays I see many who don’t need a gay night or a gay venue to behave in a relaxed and open way. Our culture has changed so much, and these days the Croydon cruising spots I remember are pretty much defunct. The internet partly explains it, but it’s also about greater openness in society and the opportunity for gay people to be ourselves in all sorts of places.

I’m delighted that Croydon now runs an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) month each February, celebrating the history, lives and experiences of those of us who don’t belong to the sexual majority. This is a different and far richer Croydon than the one where I grew up.

Alvin Shivmangal

Alvin Shivmangal

Alvin Shivmangal is a project manager for Croydon Business Improvement District and a self-confessed workaholic. He's a weekend cricketer, playing for Selsdon CC, and an enthusiastic cook, currently compiling a book of the traditional Guyanese recipes handed down in his family.

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