brighton's history

A History of Lesbian & Gay Brighton

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

By 1985 lesbian and gay liberation was getting on well enough for a serious backlash to start, fuelled by fear and prejudice about AIDS. The GLC (Greater London Council) and some London Boroughs had been making small grants to lesbian and gay organisations and the Inner London Education Authority was taking the very first tentative steps towards teaching positive images of lesbians and gay men in schools. Championed by the moral right of the Conservative Party, Section 28 became law on 24th May 1988. It forbade local councils to 'promote homosexuality' or teach 'the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'. After a decade of political separation, lesbians and gay men found common cause and a massive groundswell of opposition arose.

In Brighton the first public meeting, called by Brighton Lesbian Action, was held in February 1988; about 300 people attended and Brighton Area Action Against Section 28 was born. By then the legislative process was well underway and there was little hope of defeating the Bill. BAAAS28's considerable energy went into opposing the spirit of the legislation, in working to gain the support of other organisations and giving lesbian and gay issues a high profile in the town by doing direct actions:

'Five demonstrators promoting the cause of lesbian and gay parenthood disrupted the Princess of Wales's address to the International Congress for the Family in Brighton yesterday.' The Times 13 July 1990

BAAAS28 meetings were always chaired by women to avoid previous difficulties of mixed campaigning, where men had been dominant. A march through the town from Hove Town Hall to Brighton Town Hall was organised at the end of May each year to keep up awareness of the legislation. In 1991 BAAAS28 campaigners decided to change the focus of the march from demonstration to celebration, introducing the first Brighton Pride March since 1973. The Campaign continued until 1994, by which time it had changed its name to OUTrights! and had initiated Brighton's first lesbian and gay community safety survey, with disturbing results.

One of the spin-offs of the campaign against Section 28 was the setting up of the Brighton Ourstory Project, lesbian and gay history group. Throughout the nineties and beyond they were to produce shows, exhibitions and books based on an expanding body of knowledge which was gained by interviewing a wide variety of gay people about their lives.

From its modest beginnings Brighton Pride grew into a major attraction for residents and visitors alike. The first Pride in the Park took place in 1992, organised by a group of community activists called Pink Parasol. Although financially unviable because most business interests had not yet seen the potential of a local Pride festival, this event showed what could be achieved and set the standard for later years. The organisers of Brighton Pride '95 were the first to attract major sponsorship and bring on board the pubs, clubs and drag artists. After that the event went from strength to strength with Pride 2000 and 2001 reporting 60,000 visitors.

Despite its (deserved) reputation as a tolerant haven for lesbians and gay men, Brighton was not free from hate crime. By the beginning of the nineties this fact was being recognised by Brighton Council who set up a Police and Public Safety Committee. Surveys undertaken by members of the community showed that a large proportion of gay men and lesbians, who used scene venues, had recently suffered homophobic attack or abuse. Key councillors and council officers together with some enlightened police chiefs worked with representatives of the lesbian and gay communities to devise strategies to tackle the problem. The road was not smooth and as well as negotiation and discussion, activists were frequently driven to angry demonstrations when the gravity of the situation was not recognised or when cases of gay bashing were mishandled by the police. The key problem in tackling hate crime was the under-reporting of incidents to the police for fear of either not being taken seriously, of facing homophobic abuse from police officers or of themselves being charged with an offence. In 1998 the Lesbian and Gay Community Safety Forum was set up as a multi-agency response to the problem and also formed a group called Diversity Alliance to tackle anti-gay bullying in schools. In 2001 the Police launched their Anti-Victimisation Initiative funding two specialist workers from the LGBT community.

In the nineties a new alliance was begun between the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities and the transgender movement, inspired by the American example where transgender politics was thriving. Evidence suggests that Brighton has long been a home to people we would now describe as transgender. Women passing as men and intersexual people were a presence in the queer bars of the fifties and in the sixties Georgina Somerset, a high-profile male-to-female transsexual, made her home in Hove. In the seventies, people undergoing the ordeal of national health sex change operations, who were required to spend a year living fulltime in their chosen gender, were advised that Brighton was a good place to do it.

The nineties generally in Brighton were characterised by growth and consolidation. Delighted crowds flocked to see the Alternative Miss Brighton contest. Brighton Cares raised funds through entertainment to assist people with HIV/AIDS and significant changes occurred on the commercial scene. Whereas in the eighties the town's nightclubs had suffered from a small-town atmosphere, the Club Shame one-nighter at the Zap Club catered to a cutting-edge dance crowd and drew clubbers from London. Shame was followed by the enduring success of the same promoter's monthly one-nighter, Wild Fruit, in 1992. Revenge, the town's first sizeable dedicated gay club, boasting two dancefloors, opened on the Old Steine in 1991. By the end of the decade, London clubs such as Popstars and Crash were running one-nighters in the City and a number of new venues had joined the older establishments around St James's Street, making the area truly a Gay Village. The year 2000 also saw the first full-time bar for lesbians open in Brighton.

Chronicling these changes was Brighton's first free gay magazine, G-Scene, funded partly by advertisements for the burgeoning pubs and clubs. The magazine took a campaigning role and was an important voice for a gay community growing in confidence. The Critical Tolerance and Zorro reports were symptomatic of this new confidence. Initiated by community activists, with prominent support from G-Scene, these reports prompted the Health Authority to increase its budget for education about AIDS among gay men and establish the town's first gay sexual health clinic.

With the change of government in 1997 and a growing realisation of the power both of the pink pound and the pink vote, Brighton and Hove Council began to acknowledge the rights of its LGBT taxpayers. Mindful of the annual boost to the local economy provided by many thousands of LGBT visitors, the Council became keen to be seen as supportive of Brighton and Hove's LGBT community. New funding in figures hitherto undreamed of began to change the face of the LGBT voluntary and community sector. Previously run almost entirely on the goodwill of volunteers and funds from the community, massive, short-term funding through Regeneration budgets made possible a much higher profile for the LGBT community but also laid the foundations for a new spirit of acquisitiveness and competition between groups.

At the turn of the millennium, it was indicative of a relaxing of attitudes generally that the front man for Brighton and Hove's successful bid for City status was an openly gay man and that the Council's Chief Executive was able to come out as gay at the prestigious launch of the Anti-Victimisation Initiative. Perhaps the most telling change though, was in the attitude of local newspaper, the Argus. Feared in the fifties and sixties for its power to ruin lives, hated in the seventies, eighties and nineties for its biased reporting, by 2000 the Argus was carrying same sex personal contact ads, was giving Brighton Pride prominent and positive coverage and was supporting local initiatives to combat gay-bashing.

Looking to the needs of Brighton's LGBT population at the start of the twenty-first century, community-led survey, Count Me In, made a major contribution to the understanding of LGBT issues and priorities for action. With 158 questions and 1145 respondents, the survey was a substantial piece of research, professionally conducted. Funding for the work came from the Single Regeneration Budget's round on Social Exclusion. Some of the findings were stark, especially in the fields of mental health provision, self harm and suicide. At the time of writing a group of LGBT community representatives is working to set up an elected and accountable community forum which will progress a strategy addressing these and other problems and be the community's voice to the wider world.

All text © Brighton Ourstory 2001


All text and images copyright Brighton Ourstory, a registered charity, number 1106242. | sitebysimon