Russian airstrike kills Ukrainian LGBT+ activist … How would you define ‘obscenity’? … Inside Britain’s first LGBT retirement homes

Elvira Schemur ‘inspired and motivated all volunteers around’, colleagues said. Photograph: Kharkiv Pride / Sphere NGO

A gay rights activist from Kharkiv, Elvira Schemur was killed on 1 March 2022 during the Russian bombardment of the city centre, her colleagues at Kharkiv Pride said. She was killed at the local territorial defence office where she volunteered.

“Elvira was an activist and a patriot: she participated in all possible actions and democratic events of Kharkiv. Together with Elvira, we went through three Kharkiv Prides and three women’s solidarity marches. Elvira was actively engaged in human rights interventions and pride performances,” the colleagues said.

“She inspired and motivated not only our team but all volunteers around. People followed her into her struggle for freedom and equality. And when she smiled, everyone smiled back. Elvira was one of the first Kharkiv Pride volunteers that joined the Kharkiv defence office. She was brave and courageous. A patriot and a hero. And this is how we will remember her and never forget.”

Elvira Schemur (Photo courtesy of Maksym Eristavi/Twitter)

How would you define ‘obscenity’?

First edition cover

The Well of Loneliness is a 1928 lesbian novel by Radclyffe Hall. It follows the life of Stephen Gordon, an English woman from an upper class family whose “sexual inversion” (or lesbianism) is apparent from an early age. She finds love with Mary Llewellyn, whom she meets while serving as an ambulance driver in World War One, but their happiness together is marred by social isolation and rejection, which Hall depicts as having a debilitating effect on ‘inverts’.

Invert was a term used by sexologists, primarily in the late 19th and early 20th century, to refer to homosexuality. Sexual inversion was believed to be an inborn reversal of gender traits: male inverts were, to a greater or lesser degree, inclined to traditionally female pursuits and dress, and vice versa. The novel portrays inversion as a natural, God-given state and makes an explicit plea: “Give us also the right to our existence”.

The book became the target of a campaign by James Douglas, the editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, who considered it a ‘moral poison’, although its only sex scene consists of the words “… and that night, they were not divided”.

James Douglas wrote on 19 August 1928 under the heading “A Book That Must Be Suppressed”: “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel. Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.”

In November 1928, Chief Magistrate Sir Chartres Biron ruled that, although the topic in itself was not necessarily unacceptable and a book that depicted the “moral and physical degradation which indulgence in those vices must necessary involve” might be allowed, no reasonable person could say that a plea for the recognition and toleration of inverts was not obscene. He ordered the book destroyed.

In the US, the book survived legal challenges and publicity over The Well’s legal battles increased the visibility of lesbians in British and American culture. For decades it was the best-known lesbian novel in English, and often the first source of information about lesbianism that young people could find. Some readers have valued it, while others have criticised it for Stephen’s expressions of self-hatred and viewed it as inspiring shame. Its role in promoting images of lesbians as “mannish” has also been controversial.

Although few critics rate The Well of Loneliness highly as a work of literature, its treatment of sexuality and gender continues to inspire study and debate.

The book has been reprinted many times:

Inside Britain’s first LGBT retirement homes – (by Patrick Strudwick / inews)

Lydia Arnold reclines on her squashy, mustard-yellow armchair, tilts her bright pink trainers skyward, and begins to describe the moment she became the first resident of Britain’s first LGBT retirement community. It was just three months ago, in early December 2021.

She ascended the lift in the modern, bulbous, tower block on the banks of the Thames, walked down the corridor – past the unoccupied rooms – and arrived at the threshold of her new apartment.

“On the doorstep was a big white package with a rainbow ribbon,” says the 74-year-old. “I carried it in, and inside was a hamper and a mug.” On the mug was the motto of Tonic Housing, the organisation behind this pioneering housing scheme: “How we live our lives out.” The double meaning – uncloseted, for the final chapter – wasn’t lost on Lydia.

“I was on my own. And I burst into tears,” she says. Relief from the memory resurges. She begins to laugh. “I thought, ‘Wow. Fantastic.’”

It marked the end of a frightening year for Lydia. Her 16-year-old relationship broke down. “And then in May I was diagnosed with lung cancer,” she says. “They removed half my lung.” In the September, the retirement community officially opened, and by December she was in.

“The idea that I was the first was more than exciting,” says Lydia, pushing up her tinted glasses. She has short, white hair and the mischievous demeanour of a valuable dinner party guest. In the weeks after arriving, her appreciation deepened. “I thought, ‘This is really quite special. To feel safe, to feel comfortable. It’s my little cocoon.’”

The exterior of Tonic Housing Photographer: Albert Evans / inews

Before Lydia, no lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender pensioner in the UK had ever stepped into a housing scheme designed to look after them. Those who have moved into mainstream facilities for the elderly have often found themselves surrounded by the very attitudes they spent a lifetime trying to escape.

Over the last 20 years, studies into older LGBT people, conducted by Age UK, Stonewall, and Opening Doors London have captured a concerning picture. Not only are LGBT people much more likely to be single, have HIV, mental health problems, live alone, not have children, and not have support from their family, but also, they may go back in the closet in elderly care homes.

A Stonewall survey, albeit from 2011, found half do not come out to their care staff and two thirds believe care services will not understand them. In 2020, a follow-up by Opening Doors London, Tonic and Stonewall Housing found 12 per cent had experienced bigoted abuse in their current housing and over half (56 per cent) would prefer an LGBT specific provision.

Other countries, including Spain, Germany, and the USA, have tried to address this with different variations of LGBT elderly housing, but Britain has lagged behind – until now.

‘Safe for the rest of my life’

Tonic spans 19 apartments on the uppermost four floors of Bankhouse, a Norman Foster-designed block which already housed 11 lower floors of a mainstream retirement home. It’s a 10-minute walk from Vauxhall tube station. Residents in the LGBT floors can opt for one- or two-bedroom apartments, with on-site care options, and communal areas to mingle with the other LGBT residents – although everyone in the building can mix.

Regular events, such as a cinema club, are already in place, but there’s more planned: art classes, coffee mornings, drag shows, and on the roof, opportunities to grow herbs and vegetables.

The motto, as well as being on mugs, now greets you at the front entrance. Inside, the lobby resembles a swishy cocktail bar, with velvet couches and a pink neon “TONIC” sign against William Morris wallpaper.

Eleven stories up you reach the interlocking communal areas: a white minimalist-style bar enlivened by a somewhat ironic, deliberately self-knowing picture of Judy Garland; a modern living room with colourful cushions; and a cosy reading room.

“All my friends who’ve been round are incredibly envious,” says Lydia, looking across her kitchen-living room, with its wall-mounted spice rack, cherry blossom perched in the window, and sapphic pictures of women in ecstatic poses.

The lobby at Tonic Housing. Photographer: inews

Sun beams in from her balcony. You can see half of London from up here. Below, vast railway lines bring people into Waterloo station from the so-called home counties – a trip that endless young gay people have made to escape. What does Lydia feel when she stands out here?

“A surge of excitement,” she says. “And when I walk out of the building in the morning, and I see the river in front of me, I go for a little wander along the embankment, and I just have this waaaaaahhhhhh! feeling.”

Lydia grew up around here in the 1950s, before gentrification sent house prices into orbit, and before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. It took until the 80s for her to realise who she was.

“I fell in love with a woman and realised why my earlier life had not been very successful,” she says, laughing. At the time, she was working as a probation officer and was happily out at work, but her parents’ reactions were trickier.

“My mother never accepted that it wasn’t her fault that I was a lesbian,” she says. Lydia’s father, John Arnold, was president of the Family Division of the High Court. “He was the first judge to grant custody to a lesbian mother in a divorce case,” she says. “I was extremely proud of him.” But when it came to his own daughter?

“He never acknowledged my sexuality,” she says.

Forty years on, Lydia was newly single, facing her mortality, and contemplating a stark question – where to move for the final time? – when she stumbled upon Tonic Housing. She was still living in Marseille following the breakup with her partner.

“I was looking on the net one day, sort of fantasising. I tapped in ‘lesbian retirement accommodation in London’, and up popped Tonic,” she says.

“I thought, ‘this is perfect, because there is going to come a point when I probably will need some help, and the idea of going into an old people’s home in France, where I was a lesbian, English, and living with all these heterosexual people who didn’t understand where the hell I was coming from?’ I thought, ‘I can’t face that.’”

Lydia Arnold, the first resident of Tonic (Photo: Albert Evans / inews)

Lydia rang up and, “straight away I knew,” she says. “Knowing that if I moved into this place, I was safe for the rest of my life, in an atmosphere where I could be me. Where I didn’t have to pretend to be married or have children. Then I could be as I’ve always been: out and happy.”

She had questions, however. “I did wonder whether they would be more men than women, purely because men have more money than women,” she says. “But actually, that doesn’t necessarily bother me. It’s a community, but we are also independent.”

Currently, there are only a handful of residents who have moved in, and the other four are men, but Tonic is determined to ensure diversity on all fronts. Eventually, this retirement community will also welcome renters needing social housing, but currently part-ownership is the only option.

The need to have money – at least £133,750 for a 25 per cent share of a one-bedroom apartment – prompted some to criticise the scheme, particularly when the Mayor of London announced a £5.7m loan to Tonic Housing to enable the place to open. But Anna Kear, the CEO, wryly suggests that people be cautious about opining on such matters until they “actually understand how social housing works.”

Specifically, she explains, statute dictates “you can’t provide affordable rented housing without being a registered provider.”

This meant, “We had to get a property first, before we could even apply to the regulator. I’ve just spent the last six months doing the application.”

It has been a 20-year marathon to reach this point. The genesis of which was the experience of Geoff Pine, the former chairman of Tonic Housing, whose partner of 30 years, Jamie, suffered from a degenerative heart condition before he died.

“He needed support and they couldn’t find wheelchair-accessible, appropriate care,” says Kear. Instead, they enlisted a carer until eventually Pine discovered what was happening to Jamie because of his sexuality. “The carer had been coming in and praying for his ‘condemned soul’ at the end of the bed.”

The need was clear. The execution has been arduous. After joining in 2018, Kear, who has decades of experience in housing, had to deliver a rather awkward reality check to the board.

“I said, it’s going to cost about £50m to develop a scheme like this. And that’s very, very difficult. I don’t like to say the word impossible, but it’s close to it.” Their faces, she says, fell. “But it was necessary to move forward.”

Investment followed, and the loan from the Mayor of London, which is repaid each time someone part-buys an apartment. All the existing carers in the building were then given specialist LGBT training to ensure no one has an experience like Geoff Pine’s partner.

“It’s a huge responsibility,” says Kear. “Part of the original vision was about being both a provider and an exemplar.” The hope is that many more facilities for older LGBT people follow.

‘A place we can live without fearing any prejudices’

For now, the first few residents continue to settle in. On my second visit, I knock on the door of another apartment and a trim, chatty, Malaysian-British man, Ong Chek Min, invites me in. He’s 73 and one half of the first couple at Tonic.

Min’s 80-year-old partner, Tim, sits in a wheelchair in the living room, with his carer Sam helping him with his lunch. Behind them sweeps a curved white mural of a forest; the bark of which is raised, creating shadows that lead you beyond the wall as if lost in Narnia. They’ve had a terrible two years.

Ong Chek Min on the balcony of his new home (Photo: Albert Evans / inews)

“Tim had a stroke in February 2020,” says Min. By then the couple had been together for 40 years. “I came downstairs, and he was lying on his side. Being a nurse, I knew straight away.” Min administered aspirin to stop any further clotting. “That saved him.” But their lives were never the same again.

“It affected his communication centre,” says Min. “That was the last time I conversed with Tim as he was. I’ve lost him in a way. And I grieve all the time. It’s very hard. I try not to because I know that I have to look forward.” His manner is like many who care for their loved ones: practical, determined, trying to stay positive.

But as we begin to talk about their lovely new place, Min begins to cry. “Tim can’t share this,” he whispers, covering his face as the grief streams out.

They met at the opera, in London’s Covent Garden, in 1980, shortly after Min arrived in Britain to become a nurse. “It was June, he was leaning against a lamppost outside the opera house. We caught each other’s eye, and just clicked.” But it was the interval, so when the bell sounded for the second half they quickly scribbled their phone numbers on each other’s ticket. “I still have that ticket,” he says.

They built a life together, survived the Aids crisis – while losing numerous friends – and witnessed dramatic attitudinal shifts towards homosexuality. But during the pandemic, hate crime rates against LGBT people have soared, while many newspapers and broadcasters have begun attacking LGBT charities for supporting transgender people.

was the only media organisation allowed in since residents arrived.

In 40 years, I ask, have you ever held hands in public?

“No, we never show affection in public,” he says. “I try to avoid any chance of anyone abusing me.”

After retirement, they began to consider the future.

“We discussed how we wanted to end our life,” he says. “We thought it was a good idea if we can find a place that we can live without fearing any prejudices, and amongst people we feel comfortable with.”

But they couldn’t find anywhere. After Tim’s stroke, a friend suggested Tonic. “I was really happy,” says Min. “You don’t have to worry about someone yelling something unpleasant, especially with Tim being ill.” To be the first couple here is a bonus.

“I’m just very honoured,” he says. He hopes that he’ll be able to take Tim to the opera one last time.

Until then, they’ve begun to meet other residents. The previous Saturday they went down to the communal area for an art workshop. “We were sitting there chatting away. It was very, very, nice,” he says, smiling and looking out the window over the London skyline. “It feels like home.”

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