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Growing up gay illegally: Riyadh Khalaf talks his hard-hitting new documentary

By Will Stroude

In the 50th year since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, there’s been plenty of talk about how life has changed for young LGBT people.

But what about those for whom the terrifying reality of anti-gay state persecution shapes their lives to this day?

Perversely, the persecution of gay men by the authorities actually increased after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, as police began to target LGBT+ venues and clamp down on activities like cottaging through entrapment and ‘Pretty Boy’ police – and social attitudes took several more decades to catch up with the law.

Now TV presenter Riyadh Khalaf is helping to shine a light on these stories with a new short documentary, I Am…, which hears the incredible stories of four elderly gay men who lived through this time.

From electric shock aversion therapy and forced marriages to being publicly outed and navigating the dangers of cottaging, the film illuminates to common horrors that gay men endured – and, more  importantly, overcame. We caught up with Riyadh to find out more…

How did you enjoy the experience of interviewing these older gay men?

Interviewing the men was one of the most enriching and eye opening experiences of my career. When we first met the guys, all of them stressed that they “didn’t have anything interesting to say” but once we began digging into their past, we soon realised that couldn’t have been more wrong. At times I had to hold back tears, anger and frustration at what I was hearing. They also brought a warmth and contentment to me in the way they reflected on their youth and spoke to their younger selves.

What was the hardest part of the documentary to film?

The hardest part was listening to how society had made these men feel disgusting, lost, lonely and ultimately depressed. I wanted to turn back the clock and tell those young gay boys that it will all be ok in the end. Looking into the eyes of these men who had years of joy and love stolen from them was heartbreaking. Even today, some of them hold on to the deep psychological scars left behind from decades of discrimination, secrets and abuse.

Of the stories you heard, which one shocked you the most?

Hearing about the way in which the police and state treated homosexual men upset and angered me. It was shocking to hear the lengths they would go to in order to catch, prosecute, humiliate and out gay men. They were a law unto their own and there was no stopping the creative means they used to trick and deceive. Employing the “Pretty Police” to lure-in gay men was a bizarre and twisted idea. Pure and utter entrapment in its worst form.

Hearing about Anthony being arrested and then promised anonymity in the courts, only to then have himself outed in the press was horrific. Losing his dignity in such a public way and then being evicted from his home at such a young age must have been terrifying.

Were the experiences of these gay men different to what you expected?

Having done so much research on the subject before we shot the film, I was aware of just how bad things were before and after the 1967 Act. What I didn’t expect was the lasting impact this had had on their lives, even today. That they find themselves introverted, lonely at times, troubled by mental health issues but thankfully they’ve found some solace, love and joy in life since.

From the conversations with these gay men, were there any experiences you felt were also very applicable to you?

Although I’m less than half the age of these men, it was a surprise to hear so many similarities in the experiences we share. The bullying in school, mental torture while in the closet, the lost loves who ended up being self-hating homosexuals and the times where I tried everything in my power to trick myself into being straight. All of these lived experiences have changed me, have made me, have damaged me but I am content with it now. I realise this is a struggle most gay men face, some worse than others. It is our job, the ones who survived and came out the other side, to be the examples of hope and happiness for the next generation of Queer kids. This is why I made the film. To look at our bright future as a community without forgetting our long and tortured past and those who paved the way for us to be free today.

How did you and the production team go about finding your interviewees?

I was introduced to the head of an amazing organisation called Opening Doors London. They support older LGBT+ people who may be suffering from loneliness, dementia or those just looking to make new friends. I heard they were having a fundraising event so I went along and very cheekily asked for the microphone. I went on stage and basically pitched the idea of my film to a room full of lovely mature queers and then spent the next hour chatting and getting contact info. I never got so many fella’s numbers in one night!

I then started the long process of phone interviews and hearing about their amazing lives before we decided which four men had the most to say and share. I am so lucky that Alan, Patrick, Anthony and Scott came forward and were so open and candid on camera. They are real inspirations to me and we keep in touch quite regularly now. Alan actually flew into Toronto to join me as I premiered the film at a festival.

Was the short film everything you wanted it to be?

When you head into a project like this you have no idea what you will end up capturing and if it will be any good. It’s a typical anxiety any journalist or filmmaker has. You are only as good as the contributors you find and how comfortable you make them.

I knew I was happy with it when I sat next to my editor on the first day of the cut and started crying as I watched back the raw footage. Although I was there on the day, hearing their stories in such an intimate way on screen moved me. I am incredibly happy with it.

I wanted this film to be a real, unfiltered and colourful snapshot of British gay history. To take us back to a time of institutionalised discrimination told from those who suffered at the hands of it. I wanted to document these lives and struggles so that they will never be forgotten. To remind us how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. Looking at how much has changed in 50 years is somewhat inspirational. It’s an example of how time and activism can change opinions, can change society and can change the world.

Has the film prompted you to reflect on your own sexuality at all?

I’m in a constant state of self-reflection when it comes to my sexuality. Asking why I’ve been given this gift of being gay and pondering how I can now see it as just that, a gift. When once it was the thing I hated most about myself.

Making this film has made me realise that the one thing these men wished for is a free and open gay youth. They can never get that back. It was stolen from them. I now more than ever cherish every flirty conversation with a guy on the Tube, every random kiss on a night out, every first date, every romantic moment with another man and every beautiful sexual experience. I am so thankful that I get to experience these things without fear, judgement and hatred. I have what they didn’t, so I will not take it for granted. Our sexualities are glorious, natural things that should be seen as such. Let’s celebrate it at every opportunity I say!

What did you learn about the history of gay men in Britain that you hadn’t known about before the short film?

I believed that things generally got better once the 1967 Act passed. This couldn’t have been further from the truth as we saw in the film. It made gay men even more of a target. Hunting season was in full swing. On paper, things were supposed to get better for gay men. In practice, it was a licence to single out a group and make their lives hell.

What do you hope young people like yourself will take away from the film?

I hope young people simply recognise the struggles of those who have come before us. I want respect and understanding for all those men who lived through this time. We owe a lot to them. We don’t learn about our gay past in schools. That’s why it is vital that we document and tell these stories ourselves. So that they stand the test of time and are never erased by a system that wants all of this to disappear into obscurity. I cannot and it will not. Too many gay lives were destroyed for our history to be swept under the rug.

It can be easy to forget that it wasn’t always this easy to be a young, confident and happy homo. When we reflect we respect and when we learn of our history we appreciate the joys and freedoms afforded to us all the more.

I Am… is available to watch online now.

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