When deciding where you’d like to visit for the weekend, a trip to Milton Keynes may not be high on your list of must-see locations. Milton Keynes may not, and often is not, defined as desirable or anything close to desirable. To many, even after 44 years, it still carries the “New Town” status (or stigma, if you like) and has faced relentless ridicule and much mockery from the smug citizens of England’s centuries-old, cathedral-crowned cities.
We can be such snobs, can’t we?
Poor Milton Keynes, always the new boy at school with whom no-one will lunch, never quite making the grade.
The British, as a nation, place such value and validity on the ancient and the antique and appear to fear the new and unexplored. So prized, in England, is everything with age that towns like Milton Keynes can often be overlooked.
Now, anyone reading this who may have felt belittled, criticised and judged purely for being whom they are, limited by the labels that others chose to give, may for a moment feel some empathy for this misfit town. Should we?
Shouldn’t we look at the facts, look at the reality of what MK (that’s what the cool kids call it!) has to offer?
On Saturday 28 January 2012, the 3rd Annual LGBTQ General Assembly was held in Milton Keynes and I was fortunate to be asked along to deliver a presentation on the Give ‘em Hope Campaign and the initiative’s new baby, the Give ‘em Hope International Arts Festival.
This full-on, don’t stop for breath celebration of active citizenship, was masterfully organised and coordinated by Peter Leeson and sponsored by Q: alliance, Celebr8mk, Pink Punters and Shenley Church End Parish Council.
This intimate and diverse affair, which could and should be a blueprint for similar events, offered delegates a full menu of presentations, keynote speakers, charity and community group stalls, some lively, informative and interactive debate and, for those still hungry for more, there came, later in the day and into the evening, a change of pace with a screening of Jean-Claude Schlim’s, House of Boys, a colourful and raw coming-of-age story set in the emerging gay dance club scene of Amsterdam 1984, and cabaret from 5 piece function band, Candy Slam.
This was the menu for the day:
Presentations on a broad range of topics were delivered throughout the morning and with each speaker allocated just 15 minutes, the pace and content ensured that interest was maintained. Following a warm and witty welcome from the event coordinator, representatives from Q: alliance shared an insight into the incredible work that they do, within the local community.
Q: alliance, as they will tell you, are the LGBT Organisation in Milton Keynes. They provide support, information and representation for LGBTQ people who live, work and play in Milton Keynes. Their mission is broad and just some of their current services include:
- A Weekly Youth Group for 13 – 25s called HQMK
- A Counselling Service
- Equality Training for Schools, Corporates & Charities
- Promotion of LGBTQ Organisations in MK
- Help with the set-up of new LGBTQ Groups
- Signposting to local and national LGBT-specific and LGBT-inclusive organisations
- Online Services through a Yahoo Email Group called Gay MK, Facebook & Twitter
- A Monthly Webletter to keep up-to-date with all things LGBTQ in MK
Q: alliance, it would seem, always strive to do more and, following a successful funding bid, have now also launched a new project which focuses on HIV transmission amongst Men that have Sex with Men (MSM). John Goss, the HIV Project Worker for Q: alliance, leads on this work which aims to reduce the transmission of HIV through outreach, condom distribution and by encouraging regular testing. In addition, the project supports people living with HIV by offering 1-1 and group support.
Milton Keynes Council was represented by Mayor Alan Richards and Cllr Jeremy Beake, both of whom praised the event and assured delegates of their commitment to supporting the LGBTQ (although the Q may have been omitted) “Community”.
An understudy effectively and adeptly stood in for Tony Fenwick to represent LGBT History Month UK (the first born offspring for the School’s Out organisation).
Although, we have no idea how entertaining, fascinating or informative Mr Fenwick might have been, his absence was soon forgotten (no offense Mr Fenwick) by delegates as they revelled in talk of the sports focus for LGBT History Month 2012 and mention of the various celebrity endorsements and supporters; including John Amaechi and Gareth-why is he so desirable?-Thomas.
Further presentations from Neil Carter (NHS), Brook Peer Educators, Jeremy Marks (Courage), Roy Vickery (Quaker Lesbian and Gay Fellowship), The Give ‘em Hope Campaign (specifically, the current International Arts Festival initiative) and representatives from Thames Valley Police Authority brought a diversity of political and philosophical thought to the day.
Arguably, the most outstandingly memorable and moving moments were the testimonials from the London Gay Men’s Choir (LGMC) which were shared by current Chair, Alisdair Low, and powerful beyond political rhetoric were the words of Cosmin Moldovan as he spoke of being gay in Central Europe.
It was unfortunate that Pride Solidarity’s Claire Dimyon MBE was unable to attend, since her vast experience of PRIDE in Eastern Europe may have given Mr Moldovan’s words context. Mr Moldovan did, however, share candidly and with soaring emotional sincerity his painful personal experiences and his liberating love for his partner.
The first Keynote Speaker, Iain Stewart, MP (MK South), made for a bland and unsatisfying main course. The LGBTory left many delegates famished but our hunger was soon satisfied by the second Keynote Speaker, Peter Tatchell, who, although he may disagree, was on top-form. Eloquent and informed, Tatchell offered a balanced, politically unbiased view of “The Unfinished Battle for LGBT Human Rights”. It has been exactly one year since Equal Love Campaigners took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) so this was understandably Tatchell’s primary focus for this speech.
The topic of marriage equality also formed much of the lively and interactive debate during which came some insightful and relevant questioning from transgendered delegates who pointed out the lack of trans representation within the Equal Love Campaign and the current requirement for transitioned individuals to divorce in order for their new gender status to be legally recognised. This is a valid and necessary debate for us to have and it is possibly our most powerful tool in debunking the gender-based bias in current marriage legislation.
A bitter-sweet sorbet was offered up with the impressively vivid portrayal of mid-80’s Amsterdam as a microcosm of gay society: sexual liberation and the emerging AIDS epidemic.
House of Boys
The blurb in our programme told us that, “House of Boys tells the story of Frank, a high school kid who leaves home and falls into the exciting new world of free sex, music and dance. When Frank’s new world is suddenly turned upside down, his struggle for courage in face of the unknown gives him a new and deep understanding of the true meaning of love as his deep new passion is suddenly turned into a struggle for courage, facing a new disease – the “gay cancer” and becomes deep, true love in the expectancy of his friend’s horrible death and beyond…
Schlim has said of this, his directorial debut, that:
The inhabitants of the House of Boys live outside society in their own little fairy tale world. They are misfits, characters outside society, yet all beautiful, strong and good as in any fairy tale. The main character describes himself as a survivor; in a sense, we are all survivors, we all live among the adversity of tragic events. That’s life I guess, that’s what makes us strong… this is the essence of my film.
The broader global message, I think, is one of hope. Tremendous medical milestones have been reached since the dark ages of the disease, as portrayed in the film. In that regard, the message to the younger generations should be: enjoy life, have fun, you’re entitled to have fun.
I dedicate this movie to all HIV positive people and to those who fight against frightening and unacceptable serophobia in our society.
The LGBTQ General Assembly 2012 was exactly as Peter Leeson had promised in his introductory programme note, it was, as far as delegates were concerned, “ a great day, (to) enjoy yourself, meet people, find out what is going on… and support the charities that are offering their time to support you”.
Throughout the day, delegates were free to come and go; to browse stalls and chat with others. This was perhaps the greatest part of my experience and will be my lasting memory of the day. Having gone alone, as others perhaps had, I was immediately put at ease and made to feel welcome by Peter Leeson and felt instantly that this day would bring many rewards.
The multi-generational crowd interacted with positivity and passion and my experience of conversations beyond the conference room, particularly with my two new smoking-buddies, were inspiring and gave me a great deal of hope that Milton Keynes can and does offer sanctuary and support to those who need it most.
There is such incredible work going on to develop and sustain a sense of community, particularly from the Q: alliance team who seem to be tireless advocates and innovators of inclusive initiatives.
The myth of the Gay “community”, to this outsider at least, seems to be much less mythical in Milton Keynes. More than this, it appears to be a LGBTQ (and more) Community and the LGBTQ General Assembly 2012 was a deliciously diverse gathering and exquisite celebration of community cohesion and active citizenship that has left a cherished and lasting impression of a town and its people.
House of Boys (trailer)
Jeremy Marks (Courage)