At 93, George Montague likes to joke he’s “the Oldest Gay in the Village”—it’s actually the name of his memoir.
But he’s not pleased with the British government’s plan to pardon thousands of men who, like him, were convicted of gross indecency while homosexuality was a crime in England.
In the first place, the measure only pardons those who have died, like code breaker Alan Turing, who was granted a special pardon by the Queen last year. Men who are still living would have to file paperwork to clear their names.
Secondly, and more importantly, he doesn’t want a pardon. He wants an apology.
“If you accept the pardon, then you accept that you were guilty,” Montague wrote in an essay in The New York Times. How can I be guilty for being born the way I was? My mother made me a homosexual!”
This afternoon, a Change.org petition he started calling for that apology is being delivered to Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street.
Born in 1923, Montague grew up in working-class England, the son of a gardener and a laundress. He admits he was a poor student—”virtually illiterate”—but was good with his hands and became a pattern maker.
By his teen years, he sensed he was different from other boys, but in the 1930s there was no discussion of homosexuality and certainly no community to turn to.
“It was such an aberration, such a terrible thing,” he recalls. “People automatically thought that you were a pedophile and that was very hurtful. So you did everything to hide it.”
Montague sublimated his desires, worked hard and became heavily involved in the Boy Scouts. He even found a girlfriend or two.
When WWII broke out, he became a physical training instructor with the Royal Air Force. “At first I worked in a factory repairing airplanes. I wanted to be an aircrew member, but I was rejected.”
The pressure to marry intensified after the war and, at 35, he took a wife.
“Vera… accepted that I was gay,” says Montague. “I did anything I could to make her happy and loved her, but I was still in love with the boyfriends I had on and off, and she put up with all of that.”
In those days, the police would catch a young, vulnerable gay man in a compromising position and press him to give the names of everyone he knew to be gay. “That was called ’the queer list,’ explains Montague. “My name was on the list so I was always very careful.”
But one day in 1974, Montague got picked up by the police in a public restroom. “I was in the stall when the police came pounding on the door,” he recalls. “I was alone and doing nothing wrong—but it didn’t matter.”
He was convicted of gross indecency and forced to resign from the Scouts after 40 years—most spent working with severely disabled children.
Montague still cherished the Scouts and their code of always telling the truth, “but I was living a lie,” he says. Until he was 60, Vera was the only one who knew about his sexuality.
After his mother died, Montague felt more at ease.
“We had a little family meeting, and I told my children, ’Sorry, guys, your mummy and I are going to live apart because your daddy’s gay.’ My daughter said, ’Oh, Daddy, we’ve known for years.’”
Three years before Vera died, Montague met his future husband, Somchai Pukkhlai, at a bar in London.
“I was in love with him the morning after I woke up next to him,” he shares. “My wife liked him, too, and one day she said, ’I’ve had him all this time. You can have him now.'”
Together for 21 years, the two men married last year right before Brighton Pride.
“We shall be together until the day we die,” Montague says contentedly. But before then, he wants the record set straight.
“I don’t want a pardon, because I didn’t do anything. I will reject it,” he told the BBC. “I’ve already had a letter from the Home Office saying my conviction is to be disregarded. I don’t want that either. That means it’s still there.”
He wants the government to acknowledge and atone “for the ignorant homophobia of all the predecessors of the present Parliamentarians, during almost all of the 20th century.”
And he’s convinced he’ll get that apology, even if it takes a few years. He’s also convinced he’ll live to something else: “I look forward to my 100th birthday. And when that day arrives, this old queen will get a letter from the real Queen.”