OUTcast S1, Ep 7 • 08 Nov 2021 • 23:33
Rosie: Welcome to OUTcast, the podcast where we catch up with some of the most engaging, courageous and inspiring LGBTQ+ people from all over the world.
We ask our lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer guests where their coming out journeys began, what they’ve gone through along the way – the joy and the pain, but we promise there will be more joy – and what gives them hope.
I’ll be interviewing people from all walks of life, from hardworking queer people behind the scenes, to more familiar faces you might have never known even had the coming out stories they’re about to share.
You can follow us on social media @OUTcastLGBT and you can find us online at outcastpod.com.
Libby Pentreath is a singer-songwriter, charity worker and radio presenter based in West Penwith in Cornwall.
The name is a giveaway, so you may have guessed it – she is a relative of mine; my grandfather and her father are brothers. It’s really special to get the chance to catch up with someone in my family for this podcast and have a another gay member of the Pentreath clan on OUTcast.
Libby spent her career working with children and in child support, and on the side she pursued her passion for music, playing guitar, and gigging and touring around the country.
She moved to Cornwall in 1998 and worked at Falmouth University nursery while continuing to develop child support programmes, and initiatives to support children with autism.
Since retiring, Libby has continued to be generous with her time, supporting children and also a small charity that raises money for Yezidi children in Iraq, who lost their homes and schools during Isis occupation in 2014.
Libby also presents on local Penwith radio station, Coast FM, and continues to play and record her own music.
Rosie: Libby, welcome to OUTcast. It’s great to have you on.
Libby: Thank you.
Rosie: Thanks so much for your time. We spoke recently, and you said that you never came out as such. You kind of got on with your life, you happened to have female partners…
Rosie: …You lived in Surrey in the 80s, and we spoke about how you kind of got on with it, and it was very positive. But let’s unpack it a bit – can we go back to the beginning and hear where you were born and what your childhood was like.
Libby: Well, I was born in Wells in Somerset, so not too far away from Cornwall. The family, obviously, are Cornish, going back a long way to dear old Dolly [Pentreath] and beyond.
But I was born in Wells in Somerset. I’ve got three siblings – Andy, Sarah and Nick, and there are two years between each of us, and it was girl, boy, girl, boy.
Rosie: Mm hmm. Very tidy!
Libby: Very tidy. I can’t imagine how it was so tidy then in my youth. Because my dad was a vicar, he was a curate, we moved all over the place, to Leatherhead, to Hazelmere, to Elstead.
And I remember in Elstead being an angry teenager, but I don’t know what I was angry about. I think I probably do now, but at the time you don’t know when you are a teenager, and the eldest. I suppose there was a lot of responsibility on me, and the other children and looking after or being with them. But they probably would say that I didn’t do that very well.
Rosie: In terms of being angry, do you reckon that you were realising that you might be different, or gay in a time where it wasn’t necessarily an easy time to be gay or different?
Libby: I wasn’t a girl that liked dolls and prams and girl’s toys, and things like that. I would rather go out and play football, and go off on the bikes of my male friends.
But I was going out with guys, you know, when I was old enough to. I was engaged to a guy for a long time, and I’ve been engaged a couple of times, but they didn’t work out. But it didn’t work out in terms of their reliability, rather than anything else that I wasn’t liking or anything, I was fine in those relationships.
Libby: I loved guys and girls, women and men. I guess I was a bit “muxed ip” – mixed up. I think people, children are, and I think it’s very difficult for them to ascertain what it is that’s making them angry. I guess we get this angry teenager thing, don’t we? Not always angry – not all teenagers are angry, and I know that – but I think with me it was just, the more I look back on it now, the more I understand.
Libby: But I also remember my dad being attacked. Having a church, people would go into the church and steal things. You know, they’d steal, and in those days they didn’t pack everything away, like the candlesticks and silver this and silver that, and they’d be out in the church and the church would be open. There was a gang around trying to get into the church and my dad went out to sort them out, and I was really worried about Dad. I can’t remember how old I was – maybe 12 or 13, maybe a bit older. Went out with a broom, me, to get them!
They did go off, which was good, but things like that happened all the time. My dad had… there were flowers on the doorstep once, and there was a little thing written in remembrance of him, and I thought, “what?”
We didn’t really know much as children what was going on, but Mum and Dad obviously did. And then a couple of days after that, the village hall burned down, which was just a house away from us. It was all tied up together. I remember my dad woke up in the middle of the night and said something like, “I know the writing on that card.” It was obviously going around his head because he was trying to work out who had sent this awful thing about him dying, and it was a really difficult time.
We went through some stuff as kids. Actually, talking to you is kind of knocking up memories and things, it’s really good. It was difficult for Dad.
Rosie: And what strikes me is obviously Harvey was a vicar. As a gay person or an LGBTQ+ person, you might think it’s not compatible, but how was that relationship once you were realising you were gay?
Libby: It was good. But, to start with, I was the one that was concerned about telling Mum and Dad that I was now living with Chris, who had a daughter who was three, Helen; we were all living together.
We’d moved in together and everything, but I wanted to make sure that Mum and Dad knew the whole, all the ins and outs about it.
I was talking to Chris about it, because I’d said that I was talking with you, and I said, “We were really happy weren’t we?” and she said, “Yeah, yeah, we were happy, but it was very difficult at times, and we lost friends.” Which we did.
Helen was three, so it was about 1980. We moved in together in about 80, 81 sort of time, and like I said, when I moved in with Chris in New Malden, we wrote, I wrote, to Mum and Dad and I think Dad was a bit better about it than Mum to start with. But then when they met us, when we came down to Cornwall and they met Chris and everything, it was just like normal.
Libby: For me, and I guess it was a bit of a life-change for Chris because she was married before. And we met because Helen came to the Nursery and I met Chris, and we were just chatting and we just got on so well.
I had been with women on and off, but not hugely. And guys, I mean I told you. I’d probably be bisexual or something probably.
Rosie: Yeah, if you need a proper label.
Libby: And with Chris, we just moved in together and we were together for a long time – 23 years, or whatever. And had Lauren in 1991 – I can talk about that! That was doing it ourselves. We had a book called Doing it Our Own Way.
Rosie: Brilliant! I do want to hear about this, yeah.
Libby: And we read that, because we were thinking, “How can we have a child?” You know. It’s not done to, you know… But I’d asked around a load of friends, I’d asked around a load of guys that I knew, and said, “look, do you want to, you know, offer something to us?”
And one of them said, “yeah, actually, yeah I would.” A couple of them said yeah, but one of them was serious about it and came round and did the deed in the bathroom. And we had quite a laugh trying to sort it out! And Lauren was born in 91, and you know, she’s 30 now, she’s got twins and a one-year-old (nearly one), so five-year-old and one-year-old, and she’s married and been with Scott a long time, and they get on really, really well.
And she loved growing up with two mums. I think it was difficult with Helen. I think if you spoke with Helen, when Helen was three in that sort of 1980, when was it 79, 80 kind of era? I think she had difficulty at school, the fact that she had two mums. But that’s all we said was, “you’ve got two mums.”
Libby: And Lauren had two mums and she was happy about that. She has met her biological father.
Rosie: What strikes me, first of all, having Lauren you were able to have quite an organic experience. We had a guest on the podcast recently who, at least when we spoke, was going through an IVF process and it was very expensive and very complicated and very risky.
It feels like it’s just getting more and more complicated, and more and more heartbreaking, and more and more expensive.
Libby: And more and more form-filling.
Rosie: Yeah. And more tests for this, tests for that… “Oh, but you don’t tick this box. Oh, we can have another few grand here and perhaps you will.”
Libby: Exactly! And that wasn’t what it was like with us.
Rosie: Yeah. It’s great to hear.
Libby: It was just a natural kind of normal kind of process. I mean, it was… I think, because Chris had Helen, and I didn’t want to live my life without having a child, but I obviously only had the one, but it was kind of like an organic thing. It was like, you know, then you could just ask somebody and they’d say, “Yeah, alright,” and they’d go in the bathroom a while and…
I mean, we had lots of friends who went through that IVF, and went through awful costly [experiences]. And Lauren has been, because they’ve had to have IVF. And they’ve got three beautiful kids now.
And I feel lucky that it was that time of our lives, or that maybe I didn’t even look into anything else. I just thought, “well we’ll ask, ask around.”
Rosie: It feels so organic and nice.
Libby: It did feel organic and nice, it just felt okay, and it wasn’t anything big to kind of write home about. Obviously Mum and Dad were like, “What, now you’re pregnant?” “Yeah, yeah yeah.” But they were fine about that.
Rosie: That’s good. It sounds like you were fairly open with Lauren if she had an opportunity to meet the donor and things.
Rosie: So she was able to have quite a healthy approach to it. Did she have any struggle, or like you say, was it mostly pretty open and she had an okay time having two mums?
Libby: I think lots of children have sort of bullying and stuff when people find out things. I think it was very difficult for Lauren at certain times, but I’m not exactly sure of the basis for that sort of bullying.
But some of it, I know with Helen, I know that she had difficulty, but all her close friends were round at ours all the time, and they were supportive of her, and she got through stuff.
Rosie: Yeah, I mean it sounds so wholesome and beautiful, and I think it’s good to hear that all these different families can exist. And, yeah, it’s just wonderful to hear that it was a kind of natural process. And wonderful to hear that your parents, as well, were…
Libby: …and my aunts… The family were good, and okay about it. Dad was very much – he was a canon of Guildford Cathedral and Truro Cathedral. However, he was very much a man of the people – it’s a bit of a cliché – but he very much was that. He didn’t want to go any further up in the church. He wanted to be working on a good level with people, because that’s what he was good at.
Rosie: I think, being gay and non-religious, you have an outside look in at religion and you forget all these special things.
Libby: Mmm. Religion, for me, is the physical doing, is the physical helping others. It’s that. It’s offering your love, and your care, and your listening skills, and your pointers if you can give pointers – it doesn’t mean everybody can. And it can be very stressful at times, because you have… I mean, my work was stressful working in social care and things like that, and it doesn’t leave me. You know, I’d go home but I wouldn’t go away from what I was worrying about, you know, it was really difficult. But, yeah, I think that, for me, that’s what the basis of religion is is the care, and the love that you feel for other people.
Rosie: Mmm hmm.
Libby: Even if they’re really difficult at times, which they can be!
Rosie: It’s incredible, it’s so incredible how leaders like your dad, and how you were able to touch people and help people.
Rosie: So you worked with children, and in social care. How did your work and also being a woman who lived with a woman, being a gay woman I suppose if you were to use a label, how did they coexist?
Libby: I think it was difficult at one stage in the school when people used to equate, you know, bad stuff, that gay people may be bad with your kid, or may be a bit abusive or whatever, which is rubbish.
Rosie: They did, yeah. We’ve had so many guests say that – from a Nigerian refugee who fled Nigeria and a very religious family who believed that if you’re gay of course your a paedophile, and we’ve had a British guest who said the same, who was gay in the 70s and 80s. And it really was a common association.
Libby: Yeah, it was in that time. It was lovely working in the school [though]. Like I said, I was there eleven years, and I did my work experience in my second year of NNEB [National Nursery Examination Board] at this school, and was then asked by the headteacher to stay on and, “can you please take the job”. And I said, “yeah, yeah, I would love it!”
And I was doing music. I was a guitarist and doing all the songwriting and singing with the children all the time – so I’d have a little line of children with little ukuleles sitting next to me and playing, it was lovely.
Libby: But yeah, it was difficult at times, but we just kind of got through it. I did eleven years in the school, and then I went to the Early Years Service as a Social Work Assistant, and I worked in the Early Years Service as well, so I was always with children.
Then I was a Senior Social Work Assistant, which meant we could do everything except ASW-approved social work, because I was a Senior Social Work Assistant in Kingston, and it was great working there with them.
Libby: But then, I was so busy, because if I wasn’t working I was gigging, in restaurants and bars and Pizza Huts and goodness knows whats everywhere, and writing my own stuff. And I was in a couple of bands. I was in the Jim Reeves Tribute Show. I went round, travelled round and did a tour of England – up to Scotland and back down again doing these “Welcome to the world of Jim Reeves!” concerts, with this guy who was a fish and chips owner.
Rosie: Obviously we’re from the same family, and growing up we always heard about your music, and how…
Libby: Did you?!
Rosie: Yeah! …and how much you played around and gigged and stuff. How did you get into music?
Libby: I started playing guitar when I was fifteen and because I could play C, F and G okay, then I could learn all the other chords.
And I learnt ‘Patrick McGinty, an Irishman of note’ and from there, I started to write stuff. And I was in a religious rock band called Virtual Image, and we released a single called ‘The Age of Fire’, which is visible on YouTube. And then I was with some friends of mine, and I’ve just been in lots of different bands really.
I started off in 1976, Bethany. We were a folk group – young members of the congregation – and we won Guildford Diocese’s Song Contest with one of my songs, which was great.
Because I’ve just recently written a song called ‘A New Home’ for the children of the Isis geneocide in 2014, the Yezidi children, and I wrote a song and produced it, recorded it and produced it on a CD with three other songs of mine.
Rosie: Yeah. And the charity you mentioned with the EP – is that the charity shop you work for here in Penzance?
Libby: I used to work with Refugee Aid here, who were basically an aid drop, and people volunteering going out to Calais – to the ‘The Jungle’, as it was in Calais, and Dunkirk – and we were doing pop-up shops then, but popping up for a couple of weeks or a month at a time.
And then myself, Shelley and James were chatting and we decided we’d start our own charity, and we called it One And All Aid – ‘One and All’ being the Cornish thing, of course. Ostensibly we were an aid drop for Calais and Dunkirk, and Greece, and our main project was the Angel School, this school in Sinjar for the children who had run for the hills when Isis took over Sinjar and razed it to the ground really.
And they ran to the mountains and the hills, and some of them, a lot of them, are still living in tents there, or living in makeshift places that were really only supposed to be lived in for about a year, but they are still there. This was 2014, that the last genocide happened.
Libby: And of course, the children lost so many people. So many women were taken away as sex slaves, or slaves, and so many of their fathers and grandfathers and families were killed. And the children were playing in the streets, and there were tunnels under the road where there were still bombs and things, and they’d just gone.
And we found this building. I interviewed, on the radio, Anna Ronya, who was a nurse who went off and worked out in Sinjar with people because of their medical problems. I got her in, and she inspired me to do this – take over this building that wasn’t razed to the ground, and had a big wall and everything – and we changed it into the school. And the guy that owned the building allowed us to have it for two years for free, so that we could set it all up and everything, and now we’ve got two education projects running, and 300 children in school, not hurting themselves or doing nothing.
Libby: We work with Yezidi Emergency Support, yes, we work with them, and we work with the Woven Foundation in America who give us a good amount of money every year to pay for a couple of teachers. And we sell stuff on ‘Bag-a-Bargain’ on Facebook, and we have a shop when we can. And this latest shop we’ve got in the Greenmarket in Penzance, we have it for fifteen months, which is a long time when you’re retired, to be working three days a week, flat out!
For me, this is one world, this is one home, we’re all on this world and we need to be able to help where we can. And we do – we help with Street Food Project, Food for Families; we help with all sorts of growing links; we help with all sorts of charities that we can; resettlement charities for refugees… So, whatever we can do we can do.
Rosie: Yeah, incredible! I mean, you’ve retired and you’re doing so much incredible work, it’s amazing.
Libby: Yeah. Tell me about it!
Rosie: And of course you’re a grandma now, so you’ve got the kids.
Libby: Nanny! Nanny, darling. Yeah.
Rosie: It feels like our conversation’s sort of spanned generations. You know, speaking about where you were born and then speaking about you meeting Chris, and her daughter and having Lauren, and now Lauren’s got kids and things, and you’re grandmother. It’s incredible.
Libby: I know. How does it happen?!
Rosie: I know! Life just suddenly [finger snap]!
Libby: I know, but how does that happen?! Inside, I’m playing guitar and I’m still maybe 25.
Rosie: How have things changed in your lifetime, do you think for gay people, or for LGBTQ+ people, what has changed?
Libby: I have such difficulty saying “LGBTQ plus.” And I wouldn’t want to say it in case I get it wrong, because I wouldn’t want to disrespect anybody at all.
For me, it’s changed because there’s a label everywhere. It feels like you can say the wrong thing, or it feels like it’s almost too… that you have to be absolutely right and on the nail when you speak to people, whether it’s about their fluidity or their binary, non-binary, all that kind of stuff.
But I don’t know everything about it, and I don’t want to talk wrongly about it.
Libby: And people may think, you know, “she’s gay and bisexual, whatever, so she should know about it.” But I just live my life, helping people when I can, writing songs, putting them out there, looking after the kids. It’s just life for me. I think it’s changed possibly because there is so much labelling now.
Rosie: Yeah. Being gay, and being LGBTQ+, wherever you are on the spectrum, however you identify, is – in general, in the West – getting more accepted. Once it’s out in the open, it means that there’s room for that backlash against it, all these definitions come from the fact that it is better now, in general it’s easier to be LGBTQ+ than perhaps in the 80s and beforehand.
It is about having role models, and I think the more we have the more we can all just become human beings. I mean, coming back to labels, I think also it’s important that you’re Libby and you’re a grandmother and you’re working for this wonderful charity, and you are a musician, all those things – and you’re gay. It’s just one more facet of your self.
Rosie: Thank you so much for coming onto OUTcast and speaking with me. I wanted you as a guest from the beginning!
Libby: Aw, bless your heart. Thank you so much, it’s been lovely talking to you.
Rosie: Thank you for listening to OUTcast– a podcast with interviews and coming out stories from inspiring LGBTQ+ people.
I’m your host, Rosie Pentreath. I hope you can join us again next week.