Jeremy Gavins was 18 years old when he saw his boyfriend Stephen knocked down dead in front of him. It was late 1972 and a snowstorm was raging in Bradford. As the body lay crushed under the vehicle, Gavins staggered back through the blizzard and sank into the snow, howling.
It was during the six months in which the British medical establishment tortured Gavins every week. Sometimes it was two or three times a week. A succession of doctors and psychiatrists strapped him into a chair and passed electrical currents through his thrashing body because he was gay. They said it would cure him.
Gavins only unearthed the whole story of Stephen’s death in 2011, nearly 40 years later. A lifetime’s assumptions about who killed him, how, and when, were finally overturned. The twin horror of the electric shocks and the accident, until then seemingly unrelated, suddenly surfaced, spilling out to expose an entwined tragedy. He never knew the events were related.
He thought he knew what they had done.
Today, Gavins, 63, perches upright in one of only two chairs in his cramped sitting room, forearms on the armrests, re-enacting the position they put him in.
His body shakes when he recounts what they did. His fingers vibrate, flickering back and forth. He has to stop when the words conjure too much, when 45 years of memories and aftershocks overwhelm. He can still feel the volts going in.
But he wants people to know what happened – and who was responsible. His story exposes a culture of homophobic oppression filtering through every level of British society, and implicating every institution of power: the health service, the education system, the state, the church.
And yet today Gavins apologises: for the mess in his modest terraced house; for only being able to find one photograph from that time; for the swearwords that erupt when he relives the most humiliating episodes. No one has ever apologised to him.
As the sky darkens and the wind shoots down the chimney, shuffling around the fireplace, the truth about Gavins forms over several hours in every word and gesture and facial expression: He is still howling.
“Everyone hated queers,” he says, loudly, in his deep West Yorkshire accent, pouring water into mugs for a brew. He has just picked me up from the station in a weather-beaten Land Rover.
He is talking about St. Bede’s, his old Catholic grammar school in Keighley, a former textiles town on the outskirts of Bradford. It is just 80 miles from where he lives now, alone, in Ulverston, Cumbria, and where he mends dry-stone walls for a living. A line of muddy boots occupies the bottom rung of a bookshelf.
By “everyone”, Gavins means in particular the teachers, many of whom were priests. His home life was no different. His Catholic parents were so corseted that any mention of sex was considered filth.
“They thought David Attenborough was a pervert,” he says. This was because the famed naturalist broadcast animals mating – or “fooking” as he puts it. Queers, as far as his parents were concerned, “should be put down”. They were unaware their third son was one. “If they’d found out they’d have kicked me out.” They did not hug their children.