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Dr Clifford Williams joined the “extremely homophobic” police force in 1987. He recalls his training, which saw the Sexual Offences Act regarding homosexual activity taught via the mnemonic ‘POOF’s Charter’. For such activity to be lawful it had to be in private (P), practiced by those over 21 (O), and involving only two people (O) who must be fully consenting (F). “That was commonly used throughout training schools.” He also became a copper at a time when the likes of James Anderton headed up Greater Manchester Police – a chief constable known for his citing of HIV and Aids patients as “swirling around in a human cesspool of their own making.”

 

Over his “hard and mentally very exhausting” 25 years on the force, Williams witnessed its “complete transformation vis-à-vis LGBT+”. The first time he was allowed to march in uniform at Pride was Brighton 2007, something he never thought would happen when he signed up 20 years prior. “You couldn’t really be out in the police force in the 80s. If you were, life was made really difficult for you or you were forced out of your job. At that point, they could just fire you – they didn’t even have to give a reason.” One day during training his sergeant asked to see him in his office, and proceeded to ask if he was gay. “Obviously he had an inkling. I said no, because if I had said yes life would have been made hellish for me. In a way though, my answer was true, because by then I was bisexual – I was a gay teenager, but at university I became bisexual.” (He describes himself now as roughly 4.5 on the Kinsey Scale, somewhere between ‘predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual’ and ‘predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual’.)

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London circa 1998

Why did he become a police officer? “I was interested in fair play and justice. Friends of mine said, ‘You don’t want to join the police, they’re all racist.’ They weren’t seen as a good thing to join. But I believed in reform, I thought I could help make it better. The police did provide a nice structure,” he resumes, “I did enjoy that about it, and a certain amount of the comradery. It’s also fascinating because you see things you otherwise wouldn’t. Growing up I was interested in Oliver Twist-type characters, why people get into trouble, broken childhoods and things like that. I think I had quite a lot to offer in terms of victim focus, but I did find dealing with distressing situations for children quite tough. I like to think I’ve left some legacy in terms of the youth offending agenda and the policing partnership agenda; forging partnership links with different organisations and community policing – I’ve always been a big supporter of that. Unfortunately it’s been absolutely decimated by Mrs May, she has really severely damaged the police service – but that’s another story.”

2012 was the right time for his retirement, he says, but he didn’t want to step completely away – thus he now serves as a historian for the force. It’s just one string to his bow. He will give three talks during LGBT History Month this year. Two of which take place in London, and cover the London Gay Teenage Group (LGTG). A gay teen living near Croydon, he first read about the organisation in Time Out magazine – “the place to go for alternative news, rock bands and gigs”. Gay pubs and clubs would also be listed inside. “Apart from Gay News it was probably the only publication that had that.” Further, “You could actually buy it in the newsagents; very few places sold Gay News.” Added to which, he points out, queer teenagers (“including myself”) would have been very shy to purchase a copy of the latter anyway.

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As a sergeant with the home secretary Michael Howard (1996)

 

He wrote to the LGTG, to receive a letter back inviting him to one of their meetings (they met Sundays on Holloway Road). Wanting to finally meet others like him, he went. “I knocked on the door, somebody let me in, and I met all these young men, youths, who were enjoying just being themselves, chatting away. That changed my life. This small group, which had only been set up in 1976, had been facilitated by a very courageous youth worker called Chris Heaume, a gay man who realised quite clearly the need for a safe space for young gay teenagers. He managed to get premises and one or two people together who were interested in kicking it off. It started from small roots, then it grew.”

As well as talking about the LGTG (members of which included Matthew Bourne and Jimmy Somerville) Williams will give another talk later this month in Winchester, ‘Uncovering the Hidden LGBT History of Hampshire’. It was at the Hampshire Record Office that he found a card in the tearoom asking for those who grew up LGBT in the 50s-80s to get in touch with Dawn Tracy, a youth worker with the Y Services LGBT+ Young People’s history project (‘Voices for Heritage’). “I rang her up and said, ‘I’ve got a story to tell – I grew up gay in the late 70s/early 80s.’” Tracy arranged for the young LGBT people carrying out the project to interview him.

He was asked about his school days and his coming out. “They’re learning about the history and how it was for us in the past. At the same time, I’m learning from them; one of the things they asked me was, ‘What do you think of Grindr?’ I was like, ‘What’s Grindr?’ I thought it was something you used for coffee – I’m not into all that modern stuff.” He then started volunteering for Y Services, taking the young LGBT people to various archives and explaining a lot of historic LGBT cases to them. Again insofar as his own learning goes, he’s had pansexuality explained to him. “One girl said, ‘I’m pansexual.’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ She described it and I think I probably am by that definition.”

Brighton Pride 2007. Clifford Williams, a chief inspector at the time, stands far right with his cap held high.

Brighton Pride 2007. Clifford Williams, a chief inspector at the time, stands far right with his cap held high.

The Y Services LGBT groups comprise a wider range of people than the LGTG which was mostly made up of gay boys and a few lesbians (the group would later divide to form another for lesbians so as to create a women-only space). Where he’s now volunteering there are many more young people who are transgender. “I think it’s partly because there’s maybe more provision for lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in schools and colleges and a lot less stigma than there was. Whereas with transgender I think there’s more need for safe spaces and support – Y Services provides that.”

His association with these young people is “a mutual exchange”, he states. “Dawn says, ‘You’re going to be a really useful role model and you’ve got a lot of life experience so they can chat to you about anything.’ I’ve seen all sorts in my lifetime so nothing really surprises me and also I can be of practical assistance.” He thinks back to his time at LGTG, “Chris Heaume was a rock for me when I was really all over the place as a youngster. I now hope to repay some of that in terms of helping some of these young people through the very challenging world that we live in.”

 

Dr Clifford Williams is due to give three talks during LGBT HM

 

The London Gay Teenage Group, circa 1983. Courtesy of Gregg Blachford

The London Gay Teenage Group, circa 1983. Courtesy of Gregg Blachford

A Short History of the London Gay Teenage Group

1 February 6:30-8:30pm, London School of Economics (as part of OUTing the Past: Activist Founders)

9 February 6-9:30pm, National Maritime Museum (as part of OUTing the Past’s queer youth evening)

Uncovering the Hidden LGBT History of Hampshire

25 February 6:30-8:30pm, Hampshire Record Office (run by Y Services LGBT+ Young People’s groups in Hampshire)

 

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