Wales

Life in rural Wales as a gay couple: Then and now

Mike and his partner Peredur acting as witnesses to Reg and George's civil partnership in 2006 Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption Mike (left) and his partner Peredur (right) acting as witnesses to Reg and George's civil partnership in 2006

For Mike Parker, the civil partnership of his elderly friends George Walton and Reg Mickisch is etched in his memory.

It was a bleak, damp day in Powys in February 2006, the ceremony small and simple - with only him and his partner, Peredur Tomos, as witnesses.

The female registrar was checking her lines and making inappropriate remarks; no doubt she was nervous conducting her first same-sex service, it only having been legal a few months.

George, then 89, and Reg, a decade younger, were initially reluctant to go through with the ceremony - damaged by the prevalent homophobia they had experienced as young adults in the 1940s and 50s.

But, after the event, everyone was elated. And when Mike went to buy champagne from the local store, the young cashier - looking like she might cry - said: "Those two old men who come in on market day? They're always so tidy and polite. How beautiful that they can get married now. Give them my love, and say congratulations."

George and Reg had by then been together for five and a half decades.

Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption Reg and George - the first 18 years of their union was considered illegal

Mike and Peredur had met them while living nearby in rural Machynlleth and, despite the age gap, the two couples would frequently meet to swap stories over a cuppa - with "Pred" often helping the older pair out with the gardening or shopping.

As George and Reg aged and fell into ill health, so the friendship deepened.

Yet still Mike was dumfounded when in 2011 - a few months before George and Reg died within weeks of each other - they told him they were leaving him and Peredur their house.

In fact, it was more than a house; it was an old whitewashed home out of a "children's tale" called Rhiw Goch (the red hill) and nestled deep within the countryside.

More than this, however, they had also been left a lifetime's collection of the couple's diaries, photographs, letters and books, all revealing an extraordinary history.

It was these letters and diaries that sparked Mike to write his book, On The Red Hill - not only a documentation of the two couple's lives within the house, but also the social history of being gay in Wales throughout much of the 20th Century.

Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption Mike has lived in Wales for the past 20 years and has attempted to reclaim the queerness of the countryside

Mike said: "When I realised what had actually been left to us, I knew it was an amazing story that needed to be told.

"They were ordinary lives but so remarkable and all their letters and diaries and photos illuminated so much about history and Wales."

For Mike himself, growing up in Worcestershire five decades after Reg and George, life was significantly easier for gay men. Yet still he faced challenges.

"When I first began to realise I was gay in my teenage years, I did everything to fight it," he said.

"I used to literally pray it wasn't true and, like many others, was drawn to extreme religion to try and get rid of the unwelcome feelings."

When that didn't work, Mike moved to London to go to university - though this was as much about "coming out" as for the education.

Back then, he felt the "move to the city" was essential for him to "fully explore and embrace" his queer side.

But after leaving university, becoming a travel writer and exploring Wales, he fell in love with the Welsh landscape and culture, and decided to move there.

Image caption Reg and George left Mike and his partner Peredur the house, Rhiw Goch, which inspired Mike's story

"I wanted to reclaim the countryside as a queer place, a place where I could feel I belonged," he explained.

"Some people thought I was mad, that I would not be welcomed and that I would never find a partner.

"But people here are very accepting and, three years after moving, I met Peredur.

"Of course, there have always been gay people in the countryside - the uncle who lives on his own, or with his 'friend', the two ladies who live next door to each other.

"So we are nothing new; we're simply part of a continuum."

Image copyright George Walton
Image caption Soaking up the rays on Bournemouth beach in the 1950s: George took this photo of his friends enjoying the sun

Despite his own positive experience, however, Mike knows from researching his book that not all stories have ended happily for gay people from Wales.

In the 1920s, for instance, poet Edward Prosser Rhys scandalised the chapels when he gave a nod to same-sex affection in one of his works.

While artist Sir Cedric Morris, originally from Sketty, Swansea, felt he had to leave Wales behind in the early 1900s in order to live his true life.

Others had a torrid time.

Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption Reg and George were forced to hide their relationship

In 1942, in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, two dozen gay men were put on trial for homosexual behaviour.

Mike said: "Many of the men were sent to prison and at least one committed suicide.

"Police tracked them down by reading people's diaries and address books.

"Gay men had to be extremely careful not to use their real name or address or phone number. They lived in fear."

This, unfortunately, was the life George, a former professional photographer, and Reg, a shop window dresser, faced.

Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption Reg and George enjoying their holidays in their younger days

For the first 18 years of their life together, their relationship was against the law.

Homosexuality was only decriminalised in the late sixties, a few years before they moved to rural Wales in 1972.

Mike said: "For most of their lives, they were taught to be a homosexual was a crime.

"That's why the civil ceremony highlighted how far society has come.

"After he had died, I read a letter Reg had kept from his first boyfriend before George. The man had ended up in prison for being gay, and it ruined him.

"It made Reg very scared that the same thing would happen to him. The law essentially made people outcasts."

Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption George and Reg visited Italy together in the 1960s

As for Mike himself, the main homophobia he has experienced in Wales was when he wrote about gay life 20 years ago. He received abuse, he claims, from a councillor who accused him of committing a slur against the nation.

In 1988, he also became heavily politicised when Margaret Thatcher's government introduced the controversial Section 28 amendment.

This stated that local authorities should not "intentionally promote homosexuality" or "promote the teaching… of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

The act - repealed in 2000 - caused attendance at Pride, a festival celebrating the LGBT+ community, to swell.

"Prior to the act, about 6,000 people attended London Pride, but a year later it was more like 60,000," said Mike.

"People realised gay men and women weren't the devil incarnate they were being made out to be, but normal people, people's sons and nephews and sisters."

Image copyright Mike Parker
Image caption Mike Parker wants people to remember struggles for gay people "weren't long ago"

As Pride Cymru 2019 takes place this weekend, it is these past struggles that Mike wishes to remind people of.

"We need to remember that these struggles weren't that long ago, and that they are still happening in many places around the world," he said.

"Just because progress has taken place, it doesn't mean it can't go backwards.

"Pride has to have a politics about it. It's far more than just a party and we must never lose sight of how important it is to protect our diversity."

On The Red Hill by Mike Parker is out now from William Heinemann.

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