Road less travelled

Big Issue North vendor Robert had to hide his sexuality for years because of the stigma of being gay in a Gypsy community. It came at a cost

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It took Robert* decades to feel comfortable with his identity, but he’s finally able to say it. “I’m a gay Gypsy, which is something very taboo in my community,” he says. “I’m the black sheep because I tell it how it is. I say to people: ‘I’m gay, so what? If you don’t like it, tough!’”

A Romani Gypsy whose family moved around a lot when he was growing up, Leeds Big Issue North vendor Robert, 55, spent his early years on camps and roadsides with his parents and eight younger siblings.

Their schooling was sporadic and when they did attend lessons their Gypsy background, unkempt appearance and lack of proper uniforms marked them out for bullying by other pupils.

Robert’s father, who got by working as a labourer and buying and selling on markets and doorsteps, was a heavy drinker. His ferocious drink-fuelled attacks on their mother are one of his son’s strongest childhood memories – along with the overwhelming pressure on him to fight.

He says: “On a Gypsy site you’ve got to be hard when you’re young. My dad was always pushing me that way – he’d have my brother and I sparring and punching buckets of sand – and he would often give me a backhander for no reason, saying: ‘That’ll toughen you up.’”

Their dad had a reputation for being a hard man and other Travellers would frequently challenge him to a bare-knuckle fight. As the oldest boy, Robert was expected to follow in his footsteps but he was not that way inclined – a source of bitterness for his dad.

He recalls: “When we were 10 or 11 we’d get older boys, maybe 16 or 17, coming to beat us with the aim of making our dad look bad. And we couldn’t back down. I just had to get in there and do my best or else I’d get a hiding later from him too.

“I knew even then I wasn’t a manly man – it just wasn’t in me. When I was really small he’d take me everywhere with him in his horse and cart but as I got older he always seemed to be disappointed in me. He’d often tell me that I wasn’t a man and to go and play with my little sisters and the other girls. My brother, who was three years younger, was much more like Dad so he eventually took over my first son role and I was ignored.”

When Robert was 14 he ran away from home for the first time, spending nine months sleeping rough in Glasgow – 20 or so miles away from the site on which his family was living. It was his first taste of life outside his tight-knit community but it came to an abrupt end when he bumped into his dad one day on the street.

He recalls: “You don’t really associate that much with outsiders as a Gypsy so I tended to be wary of other people. I had certain survival skills even at that age because I’d spent so much time selling things I’d found in bins and on tips with my dad as a kid, and on the streets I became a bit of a loner. It was hard being just 14 and sleeping alone in an empty house or behind rubbish bins, but I just learned to get on with it and keep my head down.

“One day though I was caught by my dad. He was out drinking with some pals in the city centre when he spotted me. He grabbed me, slapped me about a bit and dragged me home to the camp, where I was confined to the caravan for a while. Even after all this though, no one sat down to ask me why I’d left and my reason for leaving continued to be swept under the carpet.”

Robert had run after a year of being tormented by the memory of a sexual assault committed against him by a family friend – and by the reaction of other people living on the site to what had happened. The incident and its aftermath left him confused about his sexual orientation and mistrustful of other men for decades.

“It was hard being 14 and sleeping in an empty house or behind rubbish bins.”

The man responsible for the attack, himself barely out of his teens, was chased from the site but the assault was never spoken of again – at least not by the adults.

Almost four decades on, Robert becomes visibly emotional and his piercing blue eyes moisten with tears as he explains: “It was hard to deal with the fact no one would talk about what had happened. When I told my mum, she told my dad and he slapped me, told me to stop crying and said he’d deal with it. I don’t know what exactly happened but my attacker was gone the next morning.

“My mum was very shut off and withdrawn – I think all her spirit had been beaten out of her by my dad. My parents wouldn’t talk about it any further and no one else on the camp would discuss it either. But then it got to the stage where the other children knew what had gone on and were taunting me about it.

“They’d shout things like ‘you like men’ or ‘you’re a woman’, or would shout ‘bitch’ at me or tell me I must have let him do it. That’s tough to deal with and it got to the point where I’d had enough and just ran.

“I was having these feelings about men which I didn’t understand, and I was getting all this hassle on top of them. Did the abuse make me gay? No, of course it didn’t. But when I was younger I did think that. I’ve learned as time went on that I’d always had those tendencies.”

On his return home nine months later, life pretty much reverted to how it had been before. Robert was kept under close supervision by his father – spending his days helping him on the market or buying up bric-a-brac to sell to householders or at jumble sales. Any money he took would be collected by his dad at the end of the day.

Eventually the pressure of bottling up his feelings and living in such a closed-off environment got to him and twice he tried to take his own life – both times ending up having his stomach pumped in hospital.

“That was the hardest part about living in that community, because no one wanted to discuss it. No one sat me down and said ‘how has this affected you?’ or ‘how are you feeling today?’ None of that; no arm around you. Everyone in these camps knows everything that happens but there was no one to talk to.”

At 16 he finally decided enough was enough and crept out of the trailer for good. Robert hitched his way to London and found a job washing up in a pastry factory – along with a bedsit. When that employer closed down a year later he drifted into selling sex to survive.

Outside these encounters however he went back into the closet – telling people he was straight, or occasionally bisexual, and not sharing the fact he was Gypsy with anyone in case they judged him.

“I had it in my head that I didn’t want to go down that road again,” he explains. “I think I thought I could build a life for myself if I came away from being gay. Now I realise I was kidding myself but this took me years to work out.”

After two years in London he felt the pull to return to Scotland and found a high-rise flat in Glasgow. One night when he was 20, Robert went to the cinema with a friend and met a young girl who later became his wife. She was five years younger and it took several years for them to get together properly, but they went on to spend a decade together – and to have five children.

For the most part he was faithful but towards the end he found himself drifting back towards men.

“I slept with a couple towards the end of the marriage and so walked away from it when our oldest child was 10. My wife didn’t know about my leanings until that point but I sat her down and told her that I couldn’t continue with our relationship because I was pretending to both of us. I told her I loved her but only as my best friend and she wasn’t actually that surprised. She said she knew there was something I wasn’t telling her.

“When I was married, although I wasn’t acting on my feelings until the end I was still looking at men and feeling attracted to them. I was always gay of course but being seen as heterosexual was my safety mechanism, somehow. I don’t regret getting married for one minute but I wouldn’t do it again.”

Robert moved to Manchester after his divorce, and lost touch with his children after they moved addresses. Over recent years he has reconnected with two of them and discovered he now has eight grandchildren.

“The others didn’t want to meet me. Yes, that hurts, but as you get older you learn to put these feelings in a box and that box stays closed. It’s easier to deal with that way.”

After a long period of unemployment following his move, he found work as a cleaner and over the course of a decade worked his way up to area supervisor in the firm. But when the owner sold up he found himself out of work again and eventually ended up selling Big Issue North – first in Manchester city centre and now, after a period of ill health, in Leeds.

His parents have both now died but Robert remains in occasional contact with the rest of his family in Scotland. “None of them has ever really said anything about me being gay. Some don’t really agree with it but they accept it. In the past I was afraid to tell people who I really was but it’s not something I’m willing to hide away any more.”

* Not his real name.

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