Derek recently celebrated his 88th birthday and can look back with pride on a life dedicated to supporting gay rights.

Derek lived through a restricted and ‘dangerous’ period when homosexuality was a crime and witnessed friends dying during the horrors of the early AIDs years.

Yet, despite the difficulties and heartbreak Derek, who became one of the first beneficiaries of Re-engage’s award-winning rainbow call companions service launched earlier this year, maintains a positive outlook on life.

“Yes, it has been difficult at times, but would I do it all again? Absolutely. It’s been a good life and I have no regrets.”

Derek was born in Walthamstow, east London and his parents, Percy and May, moved to nearby Ilford a few years later where his dad ran a business manufacturing clock dials.

When he was 15, he began a printing apprenticeship which was interrupted three years later by his 24-month stint of National Service which saw him serve in the Army Catering Corps in Aldershot and Germany. He then resumed his seven-year apprenticeship.

“I knew by the time I was 15 that I was gay, and that’s when I told my parents. They were absolutely fine about it and said they had already guessed.

“It was a weight off my shoulders because it pre-empted all those silly, ‘when are you getting a girlfriend?’ questions. So, in the coming years I kept disappearing to London to the haunts where gays would meet. Everything had to be very hush-hush because it was a pretty dangerous time. You might even get arrested for holding a man’s hand in the street.

“There were no gay clubs or bars, everything was very restricted. But things became better for me when I moved to a house near Hyde Park Corner which was only for gay people. There were about 20 of us living there and I made some good friends.”

When he was 30 Derek met his partner Ray and they stayed together for 47 years until Ray’s death.

Over the years, attitudes began to change although the Sexual Offences Act, which permitted homosexual acts between two consenting adults over 21, did not come into force until 1967.  Gay men continued to encounter discrimination and other problems, so Derek and Ray ran a helpline as part of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

“Slowly things began to get better.  Clubs like Heaven opened and people became aware that the ‘Pink Pound’ was quite powerful. It was still a battle at times, but we were making progress.

“However, AIDs naturally had a massive impact on everyone. I lost a lot of friends. Hospital wards were full of people who were terribly emaciated. It was absolutely awful but somehow, I got through.”

Following those dark days, the highlight of Derek’s life came at a recent Medway Gay Pride march where, as the oldest member of the gathering, he was nominated to carry the banner. Afterwards actor Mark Rylance gave a speech.

“I was incredibly proud about being asked to carry the banner.  But the real crowning moment was when I looked around and saw half a dozen families there, prams included. I couldn’t quite believe how far we had come. It was a wonderful moment.” 

Derek, whose sister, Linda is 12 years his junior, has just one regret. 

“I wish there were more social clubs for older gay people. Rainbow call companions is a wonderful service and I hope more of our community will come to use it. I get regular calls from my call companion, Jules, and we talk about almost everything. It’s marvellous for me because otherwise I might not speak to another person from one week to the next.” 

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