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Friday, 25 April 2014

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Battling to make Cumbria less hostile towards gay people

"I think Cumbria is changing, slowly but surely,” says Pam Eland. “Unless you introduce things, it’s not going to change.”

Pam Eland photo
Pam Eland

One of these things is happening in Carlisle tomorrow, largely thanks to Pam. Cumbria’s first major Gay Pride festival takes place at the Swallow Hilltop hotel on London Road.

The event is a celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) life.

Gay Pride events have long been a feature of most big British cities, and many smaller ones.

Their arrival in Cumbria seems like another step on a road to inclusiveness, along with the success of gay-friendly club Outrageous, which opened in Carlisle city centre nearly two years ago.

Then again, not everyone is in party mood.

Last year in Cumbria there were 275 recorded “hate crimes”, 49 of which concerned sexuality with another nine for transgender issues. This was an increase on the previous year.

Pam Eland knows that Cumbria Pride arrives in a county where some people feel hostility towards those of a different sexual persuasion.

“Bullies will pick on somebody for something,” she declares. “If you’ve got something that’s different to the norm, that’s what they’ll pick on.

“Intolerance is to do with ignorance. When people don’t understand something they have a fear of it.

“What are they fearful of? That’s the question we need to ask. At the end of the day everybody’s the same.”

Pam is a 42-year-old Carlisle woman with a knack for straight talking about gay life.

As well as being chairman of Cumbria Pride’s organising committee, Pam is also a project worker for Pride in North Cumbria (Pinc).

This is a youth group for under-25s who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or who are questioning their sexuality.

“It’s an opportunity for young people to meet other young people and to develop their self-confidence,” says Pam. “They can be who they want to be. Most of it’s about their confidence – not being able to express themselves or not being accepted.

“Or feeling pressured by how society believes people should be like, or what they should have. Or how they should look. Fitting into the norm.

“No one’s quite sure what the norm is. If someone could write it down, people might understand it.”

These sound very much like the concerns of most young people. But those who Pam works with have the added anxiety of how loved ones will react to their sexuality.

“A lot of young people are concerned about coming out. They don’t know if they’re going to be accepted. They don’t know what their friends and family are going to say. Some parents accept it. Some don’t. Sometimes it’s a shock.

“People have good and bad experiences. A lot of people in this group have had bad experiences. Not being accepted. Being outed to people they maybe haven’t felt ready to be outed to.

“The decision has been taken out of their hands, which isn’t anyone else’s right at all.

“A lot of people out someone without even realising. If they’re out to them, they’ll out them to other people. Maybe they don’t want them to.

“Straight people keep their sexuality to themselves. You don’t say ‘This is my mate. She’s heterosexual.’ What’s it got to do with anybody, who anybody else is sleeping with?”

Pam is in a relationship. In keeping with her stance on the right to discretion she declines to say if it’s with a man or a woman. “It’s not relevant. Like I’ve been saying, it’s nobody else’s business.”

But if sexuality is a private matter, why hold Gay Pride events, which are often raucous, flamboyant, and anything but discreet?

“Because of all the battles that have had to be fought to be accepted, to have civil partnerships, to be who they want to be in the workplace, the Stonewall riots [the 1969 demonstrations against police raids at the Stonewall Inn, New York City, which are often cited as the start of the gay rights movement].

“To bring the LGBT community together. To celebrate diversity and sexual orientation. It’s a family event. Everybody’s welcome to come along and support the LGBT community.”

There was criticism from some that Cumbria Pride was being disappointingly coy when initial plans to stage the event in Bitts Park were shelved in favour of the Swallow Hilltop.

Pam stresses that they are not hiding away. The Bitts Park plan was a victim of the economic downturn. Pam estimates that holding the event there would have cost in the region of £60,000.

“A lot of groups and businesses have been very supportive. We wrote to a lot of businesses. Some replied and some didn’t. A lot of our bigger businesses have their own charities.”

Cumbria Pride’s committee had planned to charge for admission but thanks to fundraising and sponsorship the event is now free, although a ticket is required. (Visit www.cumbriapride.org for more information).

Pinc’s funding comes from Cumbria Community Foundation and the Francis C Scott Trust.

“Funding is an issue with all youth groups. Our funding runs out in March. We’ll be putting new bids in. And we’re trying to set up something for older LGBT young people.”

On the subject of age Pam is unsure whether older people, brought up when homosexuality was less visible, tend to be less tolerant.

“People can be ignorant at any age but there’s more information available now. Things are not hidden away. People are more aware of what’s around them. There’s more groups to support people. People do need support.”

Pam has been supporting young people in Carlisle and Allerdale, including a stint at Wigton Youth Station, for about 20 years. Long enough to learn how to handle one of life’s most vulnerable stages. And not too long to forget what it’s like to be there yourself.

“It’s a responsible job. You’ve got to be aware of who you’re talking to and what you’re saying. Sometimes throwaway comments which people make affect other people more than you think.”

She is contracted to work 14 hours a week with Pinc but work and leisure time easily become blurred.

Her work organising Cumbria Pride during the past few months has been in her own time. “It would cost a bloody fortune to pay me the amount of hours I’ve put in!

“You don’t stop in youth work. It’s whenever it’s needed. You don’t clock on and clock off. You’re always thinking of ways to engage young people, how to address issues, looking for job and training opportunities for people.

“It does help to remember what it was like when you were a teenager. But it’s completely changed. You realise how reliant they are on technology. Technology has stopped people communicating face to face.

“It’s easier to be harsh if you’re communicating by text or email. Sometimes they don’t think about what they’re saying.”

But some comments about sexuality are carefully formulated and aimed to cause maximum damage. Sometimes verbal aggression becomes physical.

“I don’t want this to be all about homophobia,” says Pam. “I think there’s quite a lot of tolerance. With the introduction of Outrageous, people are becoming more tolerant.

“Sexuality is more tolerated than it used to be. It’s spoken about more. With the civil partnership laws and the adoption laws, changes that are making everybody more equal, it has to be accepted.”

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