Ground Level Gay Pioneers

Last month I had the privilege of being involved with a project run by City Books, who have been getting the town to read the 1950’s Brighton based novel: My Policeman, By Bethan Roberts. The story explores a time and place where many gay men lived in fear of arrest or persecution for loving someone of the same sex.

As part of the project I got to interview some of Brighton’s older gay men from the social group GEMS, and asked them about their experiences of growing up gay in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Some of the stories were quite harrowing, with tales of being thrown out of their homes by their parents whose love turned to disgust that their child wasn’t straight.

For some of the runaways, the only option was to turn to a life on the streets, which in turn led to some being forced into prostitution as a way of staying alive. Police corruption was rife, with many being sexual abused by the very people in authority they hoped would protect them.

Others spoke of the gay bars that were hidden from view, and only known about through word of mouth; and even then, the places would be filthy dives. At the time such places were gay men’s only sanctuary, where they could relax and be themselves, but even then there was always the fear that the police would make one of their frequent raids and threaten the customers with arrest

Thankfully change came when in 1969, a group of thoroughly pissed off New York drag queens hit back at the police brutality, they and other gay men had suffered by the men of the law who regularly raided the Stonewall Bar. The Riot that followed became known as the Stonewall Riots and would change the way the LGBT community was treated forever.

The Stonewall Riots would become the cartelist for the LGBT community back in the UK, encouraging the minority groups to get together and form UK Gay Liberation Front, demanding to be seen and heard.

For many men who had kept their sexuality under wraps for so long they chose to shout out to the world that they were gay, som ewent ulta butch, steering towards the leather biker look, while others took to wearing tight trousers and shirts, topped off with a bright silk handkerchief tied around their neck, even if this meant putting up with the shouts of “Queer” or worse being beaten up for daring to be true to themselves.

There was also others  with a bit of money, like a man I met called Robert who dared to stand up to the police and opened an upmarket restaurant In Earls Court, catering for the LGBT community and opening at Christmas so that his customers whose family had turned against them would not have to be alone.

These days, some of the gay bars like goldfish bowls, open for all to see and if the fancy takes us, we can march through town in our underpants on LGBT Pride Day, or be totally nude on Dukes Mound Beach. With this in mind we should take time to remember those pioneers who stayed true to themselves, stood up to the bigots and campaigned for a change in the law.

Their actions also gave people like me the right to rage against draconian laws like Clause 28, stand up and fight for equal treatments for people living with HIV, and to champion those who start up support groups like Lunch Positive, Outdoor Positive Peer Action, The Hankie Quilt Project and Bear Patrol.

Living in the 21st Century, it is very easy to be complacent about the freedom we have to be ourselves, and all the more important that we remember and be thankful for those who fought hard for equality rights.

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