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From the Jaws of Adversity – Jaq Bayles interviews Chris Gull

Jaq Bayles April 7, 2020

Chris Gull has been a pioneer in the distribution of funds to LGBTQ+ causes over some years, making sure the least advantaged don’t miss out – and he’s passionate about getting others involved. He tells Jaq Bayles what makes him an advocate of community work.

The mere mention of a dentist can be enough to make a lot of people feel a bit faint, but do they pause to think about the broader life of the person willing to spend their career grappling with other people’s oral hygiene? John Schlesinger’s 1976 movie, Marathon Man, has a lot to answer for – it was there that the notion of torture and the dentist’s drill became intrinsically linked in popular culture and probably accounted for an upswing in benzodiazepine prescriptions for dental patients.

But, of course, when the myth is monstrous the reality is frequently the exact opposite. Take Chris Gull, for example, veteran LGBTQ+ campaigner and chair of the Brighton Rainbow Fund – you’d be hard pressed to meet a more calming presence. As a dentist in Moulsecoomb at the height of the 1980s HIV health crisis he was, for some time, the only one who would see people who had been diagnosed because “there was a lot of fear among health professionals, which meant they were doing things like saying: ‘I’ll see you at the end of the list’.”

In fact, it was his dentistry that led to a lifetime of working to better the lives of LGBTQ+ people as he got to know the organisations supporting people living with HIV and Aids. As a result he joined the Brighton Cares hardship fund in 1992, and chaired it for seven of its 10 years, helping to raise money until the advent of combination therapy meant the fund was no longer needed.

But one thing led to another, and it’s no surprise to hear him cite James Ledward as one of his big role models, given that it was he who, some years ago, invited Chris to join a grants panel to distribute money raised by Pride. Then, 10 years ago saw the advent of the Brighton Rainbow Fund with Chris at the helm and started with money left from fundraising for The Aids Memorial. Chris takes up the tale about the fund that is a part of The Sussex Community Foundation (SCF): “There were five or six of us who gave advice about where to grant applications. We weren’t a separate organisation but as the fundraising grew we were putting 10% to the SCF for admin so we set up as a Community Interest Company in 2014.”

While Pride is the main fundraiser, it isn’t the only one and has no say in how funds are distributed.
“The concept was always to be a central fund. Venues can now safely say they are fundraising because the money is going to where it’s needed. Before that happened venues or fundraising at venues would be lobbied by the organisations and smaller groups would get left out. The Brighton Rainbow Fund is done by application, we have a grants advisory panel for the statutory and voluntary sectors and we can monitor how it’s used.”

The Fund has commissioned a scoping exercise on young LGBTQ+ homelessness in Brighton & Hove with the Albert Kennedy Trust, which found 25% of young homeless people across the nation identified as LGBTQ+, although in Brighton that figure was 33%. Chris says: “The reason there’s such a disproportion across the nation is that people run away from situations, young people are outed or come out or are found out and it doesn’t go well and they are in a situation of being bullied or leaving home at the age of 18 and Brighton is a mecca. They are particularly vulnerable, often going to chemsex parties. It can be difficult to help them initially because they don’t have a local connection.”

This is an issue close to the heart of Gscene founder James Ledward, after whose death The Ledward Fund was created for people who wanted to contribute to provide emergency accommodation for people in that situation. “Because it isn’t statutory money it can be used for people without a local connection to get them into a safe space until things are working out.”

Indeed, Chris gave a rallying cry at James’ funeral, inviting anyone who could to join in helping those in need.
“It’s important for people to get involved from both sides. The LGBTQ+ community is polarised in terms of life experience, in terms of what life has brought them. Some of us have done very well because, historically, we haven’t had families and school fees etc but a lot of people have. The idea that we’re a group of universally well-off pink pound owners isn’t true. Some of us do have that and a lot of us don’t. There are disproportionate levels of depression, loneliness and poverty as well as wealth compared to the nation as a whole.

“We talk about the LGBTQ+ community but it’s actually a series of communities with different needs and experiences, but historically we have also been there for each other.”

But why is he such a keen advocate of voluntary work? “It’s easy to give a trite answer along the lines of ‘getting  satisfaction from helping others’… but it’s more complicated than that. I think that volunteers get back as much as they give, not just with that sense of satisfaction, but in actually being part of a community with shared goals, shared life experiences, and the ability to make positive contributions to our communities, and moving projects forward together.

“Most of us, if we take time to reflect, can recognise that we have some sort of privilege, whether time, money, a skill, experience from a long life, a degree of freedom, and opportunities which we have because of the efforts of those who came before, whether parents, or activists, teachers or friends.

“Do we just pull the ladder up and let others fend for themselves? Or do we become the enablers who allow others, who haven’t had those privileges, to climb up with us?”

As to who his icons and role models are: “Maya Angelou, Armistead Maupin, My Oma, My Mum, Alan Rickman, Graham Wilkinson and Father Marcus…”