David Shenton is proud of Norwich leading the charge when it comes to supporting and fighting for its LGBTQIA+ community.
According to 2021 figures from the Office of National Statistics, 14.09% of people living in the NR3 district of Norwich don’t identify as straight. Making it home to the highest proportion of LGBTQIA+ people in the county and the 19th highest concentration nationally. The figure for the whole of Norfolk was 2.66%.
With the 15th annual Norwich Pride event next month, we spoke to cartoonist and teacher David, who has illustrated LGBTQIA+ comics since the 1970s, addressing issues like same-sex marriage and the AIDS epidemic.
“I came here in 1970, left for a bit in 1990… Norwich was affected quite early by HIV and AIDS. We were one of the first places in the country to have our own phone-in safer sex helpline, working with the STD clinic to get information out in our own words but still in a clinical way,” recalls the 73-year-old, who’s taught art at a number of schools across Norfolk as well as art and literacy at Norwich Prison.
“There was a group of gay women who called themselves Blood Sisters. Because gay men weren’t allowed to give blood, they stepped up. It seems all so small, but we did something. It was quite pioneering. I chaired this little group along with the gay society and university, just gathering our forces I suppose.
“LGBT+ History Month at The Shoe Factory this February was such a success and the people who worked on that need to be applauded. I think Norwich Pride is one of the best in the country. It hasn’t been commercialised and promoting some supermarket or something. You still walk through tiny, cobbled streets, through the shoppers. I’ve walked hand-in-wing with Captain Canary at one of them and it’s just so lovely. I’m absolutely proud of Norwich Pride, and everything people in the city have done for inclusion, diversity and tolerance.”
I ask about recent protests around drag queens telling stories to children in North Walsham and Norwich, which saw protestors in a stand-off with supporters of the event on the steps of The Forum.
“[Events like these] are such an easy target. The one in North Walsham just crumbled because everybody was scared. Then it happened again in Norwich, but we were prepared and were all outside barring the way, so it went ahead.
“There was a rally in Chapelfield Gardens, just across the road from The Garage, because trans rights in Scotland have been attacked by the government in London, and the same awful right-wingers showed up. [Objectors] have to ship in right-wingers from other places because there’s very few here.”
Laughing that he sounds like “an old lefty”, David puts the rise in intolerance down to Trumpism and the current British Government.
“People need to be educated and cared for,” he says.
“I’ve been fighting for equality since I was 16. We’ve come a long way. We’ve got equal marriage now, but we still haven’t got the Church of England allowing same-sex couples to marry in church. Each time you say, ‘we’ve got this’ you think ‘there’s always that’. Things can change. You see it happening elsewhere in the world and it can so easily happen here.
“My partner of 22 years died in 2018. I was at the registrars, and they said, ‘what is your relationship with the deceased?’ I said ‘husband’. But it’s really quite tricky for me to say that you know. It just seems so… And they said ‘well, I’ll just put civil partner’. And I said, ‘no, you won’t. You’ll put husband because that’s what he was and that’s what I was.’
I wonder – has he become so tired of the fight he’s considered giving in?
“I would really like to. I do tire of it. But you can’t. You’ve got to be on top it. It’s like going to a football match and the goalkeeper’s wearing pink and the bloke next to us was making some comments. You just say, ‘come on, show some respect’. If you can stop even that tiny bit of homophobia, make that person think that what he’s saying is homophobic, then you’ve won that little battle.”
Right now, what really tires David – who recently completed his latest graphic novel Forty Lies, based on his appearances at Norwich Arts Centre’s True Stories Live events, where people create stories live on stage based on a random subject matter – is his tap class at The Garage.
“It’s been two or three years and I love it. I can do it, but I can’t remember what step comes next. You look at your feet as though they’re going to tell you what to do,” he laughs.
“That’s good though, you’re exercising a different part of the brain. [I started] because I’m a gay man and most dances are with partners. I did a bit of that awful line dancing when I lived in London. With tap you can just dance, on your own…
“I’d love to learn to Jive. Same sex Tango would be great, wouldn’t it? Or Salsa. Or Lindy Hop… When I join anything at this ancient age, the first thing I say is ‘I’m gay’. I don’t wait to be outed. If they don’t like it, then I just go home. But there’s none of that at The Garage. I feel comfortable there.”
As always, The Garage Trust is proud to support Norwich Pride, which returns on 29 July. We strive to be a welcoming and affirming place for the transgender and non-binary community at The Garage in Norwich and at our sister venue The Workshop in King’s Lynn. We recently signed the TransFriendly pledge. On 17 June we have Glitzy Trender Presents: The Norwich Trans Pride After Party! featuring a super line-up of gender-diverse performers.
Our friendly front of house team are happy to answer any questions. Give them a call on 01603 283382 or email email@example.com.