Dealing with loss: Ron and his husband Allan on a bench before Allan's death Credit: Ron Whalley

“My grief finally gave me the courage to live as a proud gay man”

Throughout most of his life, Ron Whalley has felt compelled to keep his sexuality private. Then a huge personal tragedy changed his outlook.

“Don’t get upset. I love you.” Those were the last words that Allan, my husband and partner of 50 years, said to me as I cradled him in my arms in his hospital bed.  

It was early March, 2020. The world as we knew it was about to change because of Covid-19, but my life – and my world – had already shattered.  

Allan had been my first and one true love, and now I had to deal with his loss.  

We met in 1969, driving around town in Macclesfield – me in my red Hillman Imp Sport and Allan in his white MG sports car. The attraction was instant and from our first conversation, we both knew we had found ‘the one’.  

Ron as a 10-month-old baby with his motherCredit: Ron Whalley
Ron as a 10-month-old baby with his mother

Homosexuality had been decriminalised in England two years earlier, but homophobia and discrimination was still rife. An only child, I lived at home with my parents and Allan lived at home with his mum. I’d tell my mum and dad that I was “out at parties” or “drinking with mates” when in fact, I was hiding out with Allan.  

We were just like any other young couple in love – infatuated with each other. In many ways, we were opposites. I was into studying and gaining qualifications in electrical engineering, while Allan was more practical, and ran his own metal bashing company. But we were the perfect fit for each other – we could be our full selves when we were together.  

That was important because there was no way we could have come out.  

My first job was in the defence industry and at the time, it was the Cold War and there was a strong link between being gay and espionage. I had to keep a low profile and in the end, I moved into the railway industry – it was better paid and there was no risk of being vetted. 

I introduced Allan to my parents as a friend and they loved him. As the years passed, we set up home together – we didn’t hide ourselves away, but we never showed affection to one another in public.   

Ron and Allan sitting at a desk on the day of their civil ceremonyCredit: Ron Whalley
Ron and Allan on the day of their civil partnership in 2009

My parents must have realised that we were a couple, but they never once brought it up – and neither did I. When friends or relatives would ask if I had a wife or a family, my dad would say I was “shy”.  

We’d spend Christmases together and often my mum would say to me, “I do love you, you know.” I think that was her trying to tell me that she accepted who I was – even if she couldn’t bring herself to say the words out loud.  

We had a very happy and busy life together, although for the last 15 years of his life, Allan was prone to getting infections and bouts of sepsis. He was hospitalised several times but always managed to fight it off. Until, in 2020, he contracted sepsis again and this time it took hold and he suffered total kidney failure. 

We were the perfect fit for each other – we could be our full selves when we were together.

We both knew the end was coming and in March 2020 – it was Friday 13th – I lay with him in my arms and felt his heart stop beating. We stayed cuddled up together for three hours until finally, I whispered, I’m sorry, I’ve got to leave you now.  

Walking through the corridors and out of the hospital, I felt crushed with sadness. I was completely alone – no friends, no family, no Allan.  

Then, in the foyer of the hospital, something caught my eye. There was a display of LGBTQ information and, in among all the posters, was a pile of leaflets with the words ‘Silver Rainbows’. I’d never heard of it but the leaflet explained it was an organisation for elderly gay people, so I put it in my pocket.  

Losing a partner brings so many different emotions – one moment, it feels surreal, the next you feel choked by loneliness. But for me, the sense of complete loss triggered a new frame of mind. I had money and a nice house but emotionally, I had nothing.  

For the first time in my life, I thought: I don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks of me. I’m not going to hide anymore. 

Ron sitting in the driver's carriage of a trainCredit: Ron Whalley
Ron has a passion for heritage railways

So the next day, I decided to call the number on the leaflet. I didn’t know what to expect, but a guy called Colin answered and I told him my situation. He was on holiday at the time, trying to get home before the Covid lockdown started, but he promised to call me when he made it home.  

Looking back now, that was the day I was thrown a lifeline.  

Colin and I met up a few days later in Crewe and he explained that Silver Rainbows was a local group for LGBT people to get together, chat, and find common interests. As Covid restrictions came in, I started joining them for socially distanced walks in the outdoors and I met lots of people who, like me, had been forced to live under the radar. Others had led completely hidden lives.  

I still had lots of other interests and hobbies – I help run a heritage railway and I preserve theatre organs – but there was something very special about being among a group of people who just understand you. We’d talk about books we’d read and share stories about relationships and our lives – the highs and the lows. There was never any judgement, just acceptance. 

Ron's friends from Silver Rainbows waving at the camera - the group has helped him deal with lossCredit: Saga
Ron has a new lease of life thanks to the connections he’s made from Silver Rainbows

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2021, it was Colin who once again helped me through. He met me before and after my radiotherapy sessions and when I was in a very dark place, he suggested I try counselling through Silver Rainbows. 

Being a northern man and working in quite ‘butch’ industries, I’ve always been dismissive of therapy and this idea of looking after your mental health. But again, I felt like I had nothing to lose and agreed to give it a try. 

I’m so pleased I did because counselling has been a revelation.  

In the first few sessions, every time I started speaking, I broke down in floods of tears. We’d talk about Allan, grief, cancer, loneliness, missed opportunities, my sadness at having hidden who I was for so many decades…

Everything came gushing out and I now realise how much I hadn’t processed. Counselling has helped me to do that and I still go once a week – I’d recommend it to anyone who is struggling.  

For the first time in my life, I thought: “I don’t give a damn about what anybody thinks of me. I’m not going to hide any more.”

I’m now in a much better place. I still miss Allan hugely but I’ve met someone else who I feel a similar spark with. It’s nice having one special person in the world to care for again, and to know that he cares about me too.  

So much has changed for the better in my lifetime. Recently I was in a restaurant in Manchester and a young man was sitting at an adjacent table.  A few minutes later, another young man came in, kissed him and sat down. It made my day to see that loving gesture being made in public and after the meal, I told them so and they thanked me for what my generation had done for them.  

But there are still pockets of shocking homophobia, and there are still plenty of men and women who feel they can’t live as their authentic selves.  

I hope that by finally showing the world who I am, I can make other older people realise there is no shame in being themselves – and that it’s a step worth taking while you still have the time. 

Find out more about Silver Rainbows here 

Written by Ron Whalley