Sitting opposite Cath Hall in the neat sitting room of her suburban Manchester home, nursing a cup of Earl Grey tea, I have to admit that I have never met anyone less like a witch. But it was as "the Witch of Withenshaw" that this embodiment of homeliness, with her soft Lancashire accent, was once reviled across the pages of Britain's tabloids, all because she set up a lesbian and gay fostering charity called the Albert Kennedy Trust.
The boy in whose name the charity was founded died 10 years ago this month, aged 16. The circumstances surrounding his death remain a mystery, and have been the subject of heated debate in the local press, in which he has been both sainted and demonised. On the one side, it is said he was the victim of "queerbashers". On the other side, the official version, he died by misadventure. Whatever the truth, says Cath - and one senses that she herself is no longer sure - he was undoubtedly a victim in his short, difficult life of appalling homophobia; homophobia which is still there, insists Cath, and not that far below the surface, as the innocent drinkers at a pub in London's Soho found out a couple of weeks ago.
Albert's body was found by a beat policeman in a Manchester city-centre street in the early hours of a Saturday morning. He had apparently fallen from the top of the Chorlton Street multistorey car park. The "2am Death Leap" made the front page of the Manchester Evening News the next day. "A rent boy carrying a killer disease plunged to his death in Manchester's red-light district," read the story. "Firemen wearing special gear had to wash down the street where the teenager was found to ensure no one came into contact with his blood."
In fact the "killer disease" was hepatitis B, not usually fatal, and Albert was not a professional rent boy, says Cath, although he had occasionally resorted to prostitution to support himself when he was absconding from the Salford children's home where he lived. But the tone of the coverage reflected the mood of the times. This, after all, was shortly after Section 28 passed into law banning local authorities from "intentionally promoting homosexuality", and when Greater Manchester's chief constable James Anderton could say he had been inspired by God to state publicly that Aids was a divine retribution for homosexuality.
Cath knew Albert. She describes him as a "sweet boy". He was best friends with a 17-year-old boy called Paul whom she was then fostering. The only time she loses her composure slightly is when she talks about that night 10 years ago when Albert died. "Paul came flying into the house about one o'clock in the morning and said, `I think Albert's dead.' He was very distressed. I rang round one or two places and then I got through to the children's home and they said, `Yes, it's true, he is dead'." Then the police arrived. "They barged their way in looking for Paul. Paul told them they'd been chased by queerbashers and they'd run up the stairs of the multistorey to get away from them. Paul was with him up until almost the last minute, but he didn't go right up to the top. Whether Albert turned around to confront those who were chasing him or not, we just don't know."
At the inquest held a few months later on 1 September, more pieces fell into place, but the puzzle remained. The police, who maintain today that the case was fully investigated, could find no evidence of the alleged queerbashers. The coroner, Leonard Gorodkin, concluded that there was nothing to suggest anyone was with Albert at the time he fell to his death, although he read out the statement from one Lesley Morris whom he described as "a very important witness". She said that she had seen Albert standing on the ledge of the top level of the car park at two o'clock in the morning, shouting "Help me" and waving his arms about. She apparently thought he was drunk and, in fact, Albert and Paul had been drinking and, perhaps crucially, had taken LSD. Seconds later, Lesley Morris saw Albert crash to the ground.
The death of Albert was a defining, galvanising moment for Cath, which turned her life upside down. She was recently divorced, with three grown- up children who had left home. Trained as a teacher, she had lately moved into school-home liaison work in the Moss Side area, and had started fostering. "I didn't know anything at that time about being lesbian or gay," she says. "I had two neighbours who were gay men and I just spoke to them now and then about the weather and the garden, and that was it. I wasn't curious about them or their lifestyle, they were just Colin and Brian."
The unfolding story behind Albert's brief life and tragic death opened up a very different side to gay life. Albert had been in the care of Salford Social Services, and was resident at the time of his death at The Grange children's home in Eccles, but was a regular absconder. According to the chairman of Salford Social Services, Councillor Joe Burrows, speaking in the immediate aftermath of his death, "We could not lock him up. He was not abusing society by robbing and mugging. He was abusing himself by his lifestyle. We gave him the best of care, but he was able to leave the home." According to Kate Williams, another of the Trust's first supporters and workers, the "best of care" included other children in the home urinating on his bed and writing "poof" in lipstick across his bedroom mirror.
A picture began to emerge, and Albert was not an isolated example. "Albert had been moved around from one home to another," Cath discovered. "They kept saying he was an absconder and that no one could do anything with him - but he was only doing what a lot of gay teenagers in care were doing at the time. Because they had to be back in the homes for 10 o'clock, just as the gay scene was getting exciting and the clubs were opening, they absconded on Friday night and went back on Monday morning, and to finance themselves they did a bit of rent but they weren't rent boys. Then they'd get reported to the police as missing persons, and they'd turn from being young gay people wanting a good time into criminals."
It is disarming to meet someone you might otherwise expect to be quietly, respectably, semi-retired, to be this accepting - some might say, naively so - of a section of society so alien to her own experience.
Cath got involved in a gay youth group. She found that problems extended beyond the care system: the teenagers were also suffering abuse and violence at school, and even in the home. "I came across young people who were having really bad problems at home, being hit by their fathers and bullied by brothers because they didn't fit expectations of what a young man should be. Some were in worse situations than others, thrown out of their homes at two o'clock in the morning when their parents found out they were gay, and their belongings left in bin bags on the front doorstep. Another boy's father threatened to knife him if he didn't change his ways."
The Trust was formed in July 1989. It was, says Cath, "an emotional response, an angry response, to what was going on". Their first placement, before they were even really ready, was a boy called Roger who had become destitute and tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head with an air rifle. He survived, despite the lead pellets lodged in his brain.
Word soon got round about Cath and her charity, and newspapers began running stories including, in October 1989, the News of the World, which staked out the house. "They got Geoffrey Dickens, who was the Tory rent- a-quote MP then, saying I needed my head examined because of this thing I was trying to do, but it was through that `expose' that several people who became carers wrote to us. Later on we decided we wouldn't talk to the press at all. We had a lot of very hurtful publicity early on. They said the Trust was going to be like a dating agency for rent boys and older gay men. We were also quite sure that there were certain people very high up who were trying to stop us. People couldn't accept that it was all above-board and done genuinely to help young gay people."
Cath rejects much of the criticism aimed at the Trust as plain homophobia. Why, she asks, would gay or lesbian foster parents be any more likely to abuse their positions of trust than their heterosexual counterparts. In response to worries about paedophilia, which have also been wheeled out over the years, she is immediately ready and primed with the statistics: "Ninety eight per cent of paedophiles are straight," she says. "And the largest number of paedophiles are fathers, which makes a joke of the accusations levelled against us."
Since the early, difficult days the Trust has placed and helped out hundreds of teenagers from its two bases in London and Manchester. In addition to placements, it has a telephone helpline and a befriending service for lesbian and gay teenagers who are on their own. It also helps with housing, and offers training and advice for social workers and social services departments, many of whom now make referrals to the Trust, although many others remain suspicious.
Salford Social Services, at least, has apparently changed. According to its new director, Anne Williams, "There is much more training and awareness now of the issues facing adolescents and surrounding the sexuality of young people. We hope, and believe, that it is far easier for young people to share their feelings now. Clear lessons were learnt from the death of Albert Kennedy, in Salford, and across the country."
Twenty-year-old Adam turned up in London from Dudley a few years ago when he was Albert Kennedy's age, with no one to turn to and nowhere to go. Now 20, he is planning to go to college and until recently was fostered through the Trust with a gay couple, Dave, who works for London Underground, and Sean, who works in marketing. I meet all three one evening at Dave and Sean's flat, in a high-rise a few minutes from Stockwell tube in south London. Dave, who is 47, is initially gruff and uncommunicative, continuing to watch EastEnders while we talk, at one point joking that he "hates the lot of them" when asked about various foster placements, but it also becomes clear as the evening progresses that Adam has got him wound round his little finger.
Sean, who is nearly 10 years younger than Dave, and originally from Scotland, has a job in marketing, and also now works for the Trust. He says he comes up against blinkered attitudes not just from some institutions and organisations, but also from many would-be carers. "I call it the Torch Song Trilogy syndrome," he says, "where the gay would-be carers think they're going to be like Arnold and they're going to have a lovely little kid running around calling them mum. And some kids are nice, and some are not, but they don't see you as parents, and we're not asking anyone to step in and be mums and dads."
There are also illusions to be shattered for the young people who get the placements, says Sean. "When we make a placement it could be the first time in a long while that a young person feels safe now that they are out of a homophobic environment and they normally have a honeymoon period where everything's lovely, but gradually they start looking at all the other things in their life which they've got problems with, and the carers end up dealing not with issues around their sexuality, but issues like not being able to get a job, or not having a good relationship with their parents."
The main issue for Adam at the moment is whether he will get on to the anthropology course at university with his grades. Otherwise, initially, he seems a happy-go-lucky, trendy boy about town, except he is all too aware of what might have been his fate. It seems that in some places, the lessons of Albert Kennedy's death may not have been learnt. "I've been in foster care and children's homes all my life," he tells me. "People don't accept you for who you are, they'll just place you with anyone. I was put with a Baptist minister and when I came out as gay they chucked me out. And I'd get my bedroom wrecked in children's homes and I'd get beaten up by other kids. And the staff don't want to know. We had a lot of meetings to discuss my sexuality and they sent me to a child psychologist and all this shit. At the end of the day if you're gay you're gay. It's not a mental illness."
His experiences have obviously marked him, but it becomes clear they have somehow been transmuted into anger. "I'm fed up of reading these articles saying we don't have an equal age of consent because we're impressionable," he says. "No one turns round and questions someone for being straight at 14. Ten per cent of the population is gay so when is the other 90 per cent going to get it into their heads that you don't just turn gay when you're 20 years old - you've always been gay. Dave and Sean have shown me positive things about being gay. I was very negative before, you just think it's a problem. They've done a lot more for me than my own family ever did. If it hadn't been for the Trust I wouldn't like to say what I would be doing now"
The Albert Kennedy Trust (0171-831 6562). http://www.akt.org.uk/
Ten years ago this month, 16-year-old Albert Kennedy fell to his death from a multistorey car park in Manchester. The mysterious circumstances surrounding this tragedy inspired Cath Hall to set up a controversial Trust to rescue other children victimised for being gay. Jonathan Dyson meets the woman the tabloids called `the Witch of Withenshaw'
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