brighton's history

A History of Lesbian & Gay Brighton

Chapter 3: Out of the Closet, 1967-87

The late sixties and early seventies were a pivotal time for gay culture. In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised male homosexual activity for consenting adults in private. Flower Power and revolution were in the air and a general loosening of moral restrictions enabled young people in particular to challenge homophobic attitudes, both among straight people and gay people alike. Although gay pubs and clubs continued to exist in Brighton, they became less intimate as juke box and disco replaced piano; flashing lights put paid to chandeliers for ever. Politics became more important to more people and those who described themselves as homosexual or queer came under pressure to embrace Gay Pride as a concept and as a lifestyle.

The Forty-Two Club at 42, King's Road engaged both with the old and the new orders. It was Brighton's longest running gay venue, opened in the fifties by the licensee of the Greyhound pub in East Street, which had a gay bar upstairs. At home, it retained its intimacy but it also 'came out'. Brighton Gay, Brighton Gayer and Brighton Gayest were the first three of many reviews to be staged by club members in the late sixties and seventies and were held at town venues like the Co-op Hall in London Road and the Wagner Hall in Regency Road:

'When they came round every year, we always went. You used to see the queue of all the gays, standing outside waiting to get in. And I said, 'If anyone came along in the bus, they'd say, 'Oh, look at all the gays there, look at them all. And I'd say, 'Well, there you are. Point the finger now.''' Aileen

The Gay Liberation Front came to Britain from America in 1970. Triggered by the New York Stonewall riots and informed by campaigns against the Vietnam War, GLF was revolutionary in its aims. It advocated 'coming out', working together for social change, sexual freedom and challenging gender stereotypes. It gave birth to London Gay Switchboard and Gay News, Britain's first national gay newspaper. Now, pubs, clubs and newly forming social and campaigning groups could advertise their existence - and be found even by isolated individuals.

The Sussex Gay Liberation Front (SGLF) was established in February 1971 by a group of Sussex University students and lesbians and gay men from the town, including some of those who queued outside the Co-op Hall to see the Forty-Two Club shows. They organised the first gay demonstration in Brighton in October 1972 and the first Brighton Gay Pride march in July 1973. Only a tiny minority of the town's gay population was ready to take to the streets however, and there was not another Brighton Pride until 1991. SGLF organised the first openly gay dances and hundreds came to prestigious venues like the Royal Albion Hotel and the Royal Pavilion:

'We had the banqueting hall with all the furniture pushed to one side for dancing; the bar was in the kitchen. I remember that very tall, stately woman who was the curator standing in the hallway, welcoming everybody. It felt wonderful because there we were in the stately home of England having our dance.' David

The Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) was a descendant of the Homosexual Law Reform Society which had been instrumental in getting the 1967 Sexual Offences Act passed. That legislation had only partly decriminalised male homosexual activity and CHE sought to achieve full legal equality. It was a respectable, highly structured organisation with a national executive and branches throughout the country. Regular regional and national conferences were held. When the 1979 national conference took place at the Dome and Corn Exchange in Brighton, debate raged in the Council Chamber and the pages of the Argus, with some Tory councillors and some church groups calling for it to be banned. The local CHE group met every Monday from the early seventies to the early eighties in the upstairs rooms of the Marlborough, the Stanford Arms and the Cricketers. It ran in parallel with GLF until late 1975. Brighton CHE produced a monthly newsletter, had regular speakers and topics for discussion at its meetings and held social events for its members, about 30 or 40 in number, mostly men.

What was to become Brighton Gay Switchboard started in 1975 at the Open Cafe, a centre for alternative politics in Victoria Road:

'The Brighton Lavender Line started on April 26th 1975 just by having a telephone available in a downstairs room at the Open Cafe, right next to where people ate and smoked - and what they smoked! Advertising was really difficult because the Argus was not gay-friendly so we advertised in alternative news-sheets, also pubs, newsagents and telephone boxes late at night.' Terry

In 1977 the Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) in Britain added to its list of demands, 'An end to all discrimination against lesbians'. The International Women's Day March through Brighton town centre in that year featured a large banner proclaiming 'Women's Liberation Demands Lesbian Liberation'. The Women's Liberation Movement wanted to change the world by freeing it of patriarchal structures, thereby enabling women to discover and fulfil their own potential. Within the WLM radical feminists argued that this could only be achieved by separating from men. To this end many lived in women-only households, worked in women-only collectives and socialised at women-only events. Heterosexuality was rejected. It was thought that any and every woman could be a lesbian if she so chose. Many women had previously found that they were attracted to other women and this hothouse atmosphere nurtured the seeds of their lesbianism.

Brighton had a strong radical lesbian presence and a feminist awareness of the power relationship between men and women permeated lesbian politics in the town during the seventies and eighties. This led to a separation from GLF and CHE, which were regarded as having no interest in lesbian issues, and a focus on issues affecting women generally - campaigns against male violence, e.g. the peace movement, Women's Aid, and Rape Crisis. Politics and pleasure often fused:

'The peace camp [on The Level] was the first time that I'd really met lesbians and I liked them - in fact I quite fancied some of them. There was this huge tide of women coming out from all sorts of places - leaving their men and going and joining all these women who were going to change the world - mostly by sleeping with each other in sleeping bags, from what I could see, which seemed a very good way of going about it!' Janet

A lot of lesbian energy went into the National Abortion Campaign and the running of Brighton Women's Centre. Brighton Lesbian Line was set up as an alternative to Switchboard and ran for 13 years.

Entertainment for lesbians took a turn for the better thanks to radical feminists. Devil's Dykes was started in 1977 as an all-women, and nearly all-lesbian, band. They shared a vault under the old Resource Centre in North Road (where the Brighthelm now stands) with a punk band called The Parrots. In 1980 the band metamorphosed into the Bright Girls with an all-lesbian line-up, four of whom were also shortly to become members of the lesbian theatre company, Siren. Siren's plays were hard-hitting critiques of women's position in the world with strong lesbian themes. They frequently premiered at the Marlborough or the Nightingale pub theatres to rapturous audiences of local lesbians. The company toured extensively until 1990.

Brighton Lesbian Group (BLG) steered a middle path between the Women's Liberation Movement which was regarded by many lesbians as too wild and way out and the still relatively secretive gay pub and club scene (which at this point offered very little for women). Started in 1976 under the umbrella of CHE, the group quickly became independent and attracted a wide cross section both of occupations and political complexions. Lively debates resulted! At its peak in 1980-81, upwards of 30 lesbians used to meet on Wednesday and Sunday evenings in the bar of the Dorset Arms on the corner of North Road and Gardner Street. The landlady used to tell her other customers they were 'the Ladies Sports Club'.

'A lot of the women who came along were horrendously isolated. One of the things we did was start a newsletter and there would be women on the subscription list who we'd never see but we'd get these letters saying, 'Thank-you, thank-you - you're my only contact with other lesbians.'' Ruth

BLG came to an end when the Dorset Arms changed hands in 1982.

The mid-seventies was a time of new initiatives by the lesbian and gay communities, followed by backlash, followed by protest. In 1976 Southern Television, the local ITV channel, broadcast a documentary about Brighton CHE. Tony Whitehead, later to become head of the Terrence Higgins Trust, was filmed kissing his boyfriend goodbye on Brighton Station. His employer, British Home Stores, promptly sacked him. Members of the local gay and women's liberation groups joined together to demonstrate with banners, placards and leaflets outside BHS in Churchill Square:

'I was spat and kicked and shoved and sworn at - as well as having positive remarks made by people passing by. I think that being spat at was the thing that shocked me most because of the depth of hate that it seemed to show. They were very ordinary people who did it.' David

A screening of Word Is Out, a documentary about lesbians and gay men coming out in America was organised jointly by Sussex University Gay Soc and CHE in 1979. It was publicised in the Argus and was showing to a packed hall when several skinheads invaded. Widely thought to be National Front sympathisers, the thugs overturned tables, injuring two of the organisers. The next day, The Evening Argus ran an editorial which enraged local lesbian and gay groups who regarded it as condoning the attack. After a demonstration outside the newspaper's offices a right of reply was won and also a compensatory feature, later that year, about Brighton Gay Switchboard. This was probably the first positive report about lesbian and gay issues the paper had ever made.

At about the same time Brighton Police were having a clamp-down on gay clubs in the town, several of which were failing to get their licences renewed. This precipitated an unusual collision of interests between the scene and the liberation groups who all felt (and were) beleaguered and in need of safe space. A campaign was begun to set up a Gay Community Centre which was initially widely supported. As the clubs got their licences back, however, support fell away and after a few years the idea was abandoned. Dymples Disco, the main long-term fundraiser for the Gay Centre Appeal continued to run independently as a lesbian disco until the mid-eighties, with women disc jockeys - practically unheard of at the time.

Whilst pubs and clubs for men have flourished throughout Brighton's gay history, venues for women have struggled to keep going. From 1984-1991, many lesbians found a convivial and discreet social life centred on the home of a lesbian couple who lived near Preston Park. Initially operating under the umbrella of Kenric, the national lesbian social organisation, they also advertised their monthly socials through Brighton Gay Switchboard.

In 1984, amid the fear, denial and bewilderment among gay men about the start of the AIDS epidemic, a few activists were galvanised into action, aware that the existing services would not be able to cope with the demands of the major crisis being predicted. Already the first gay man with AIDS in Brighton had died. Brighton Gay Switchboard had made a swift response to the widespread ignorance about the disease late in 1983, with one of the first leaflets in the country to explain the facts as then known. In 1985 the Sussex AIDS Helpline was set up and soon their activities had expanded to include training for volunteers who would deliver a home care service for people living with AIDS. There was an uphill battle to be fought both to combat the 'Gay Plague' mentality of the tabloid press and to persuade men who had sex with men that they should practise safer sex. The AIDS Positive Underground Theatre Company was set up in 1989 as a cultural response to the crisis:

'There was a trilogy under the heading, Crying Celibate Tears. They set out to explore the issues which were arising from the large number of gay men in Brighton who were either HIV positive or who had developed AIDS - the issues for their partners, the issues for their family and friends, the issues which affected people's future sexuality. I can remember going to see these plays with a group of friends and our discussing them for hours afterwards.' Ted

Chapter 4 of 4: A Community Comes of Age, 1988-2001

All text © Brighton Ourstory 2001


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