Sunday, January 10, 2016

Out and Proud in North London; Haringey Stories (2)

Reported from Radical History Network of North East London Meeting  (25th Feb. 2015)

 Sylvia’s Story
Sylvia offered a movement based perspective as opposed to the more political angle of Chris’s.

Sylvia lived in Streatham; hung out in Islington. She became a photographer; going freelance in 1982. She came out in ’86 and got involved in the lesbian and gay movement. She had been heterosexual; then changed her mind. This was the time of a feminist surge that included in its stance the idea that any woman can be a lesbian; a radical and dangerous idea (to men and heterosexual norms).

Lesbian Line
She joined Lesbian Line; a women’s helpline set up by people on Gay Switchboard. ‘It was all DIY; no computers then’. They relied on the local and national press to advertise while putting on discos to raise funds. She worked on the phone line every Friday and found that, ‘In 20 minutes you could change someone’s life’.
Lesbian Line folded about 10 years ago (2005?) and ‘It would not be different now’. While there has been institutional change it is just as difficult to come out now as at any time. It is a big step and is not welcomed in families or schools. Nevertheless, the big difference now is that ‘now they know they have to shut up.’ Another improvement now is that there is a framework for coming out; before there was no context in which to follow this path.
And you can’t take any gains for granted. Before the Nazis came to power Berlin was the gay capital of the world. While, today, living next to a Christ Apostolic Church which ‘wants to kill you’ for being gay or lesbian is a daily reminder of the hatred that lurks.

Changing Times
At this time national politics was ‘disgusting’; union bashing dominating the Thatcher era. However, municipal politics ‘was brilliant’. Several Labour Councils included sexual orientation in a list of discrimination policies and were pilloried for it. And the means of formal local democracy in London, Manchester and Sheffield amongst others was being utilised by campaigners to great effect: ‘We owned it’ and ‘it brought people in so later they got rid of it out of spite’. Another important movement was that which centred around Greenham Common Women’s Camp. ‘So out of that framework everything was up for grabs.’
It also felt like family structure was changing and everything was up in the air. Chris, himself, had nephews at school that had lesbian mums and there was a surge in lesbian babies who would grow up not having any representation in books reflecting their lives.

 ‘Jenny lives with Eric and Martin’
In 1981 a straight Danish woman, Susanne Bösche, wrote an illustrated children's book called ‘Jenny lives with Eric and Martin’. It aimed to show children how some people live in different family structures and that it shouldn’t be shocking to others. It covered, for example, a trip to the laundrette, a surprise birthday party, and an incident of homophobia in the street. It was written for children though it was only kept as a reference for teachers at a teacher’s resource centre.  
In 1983 the Mail reported that a copy had been found in a school library in Haringey and that outraged parents didn’t want it. After reading the press many parents became genuinely worried. In some quarters hysteria was being whipped up and there was talk of book burning. However Section 28 kind of put a lid on it.

The Movement: One big happy family?
Now Sylvia is trying to put the L back into LGBT (Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay and Transgender).  ‘It’s not one big happy family; but it never was’. There have always been issues between and within these groupings. ‘It has always been an uncomfortable movement.’

Question from the floor: Is it true of the LGBT movement that if people question one thing it opens people’s eyes; people start to question other things. Ultimately people will question ‘the system’ in general and hierarchies of power and wealth everywhere?
Reply: The existence of Tory gays and the like would counter that positon. Also, self-loathing was/is a serious issue.

Trouble in the Rainbow

In the late 1970s Chris was involved in organising a demonstration that attracted 70 to 80 people at Finsbury Park that marched passed the Tory club in Manor House. Chris was in the Rainbow, a gay pub, handing out leaflets when he was surrounded by 20 people. “It’s people like you who give us a bad name!” This is a common reaction to those who raise their head above the parapet and are seen as stirring up trouble. ‘The rosy idea of the gay community never existed.’ Chris felt disillusioned about the gay community and also about racism within it.
Chris knew those involved with LGSM (Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners) who supported and directly engaged with miners in South Wales during the ’84 strike and who were recently portrayed in the excellent film ‘Pride’. Chris, meanwhile, was occupied with Bruce Grove Miners' Support Committee.
‘There’s no point fighting for the lesbian and gay movement if you’re not fighting for the trade union/labour movement; it is one of the most positive things about the movement.’ [I am reminded of the moment at the end of the film Pride when at the pride march in ’85 the LGSM section are told to go to the back of the procession because politics was to be downplayed; deemed unfashionable.]

Remembering past events

Prompted by a pile of related newspaper cuttings and old photos of demos etc. we recalled past events. 
  • Reading Matters, a socialist bookshop in Wood Green that no longer exists was recalled as part of our discussion.
  • Aids: We remembered the anti-gay hysteria surrounding AIDs. It was in 1982 that the first gay man, Terrence Higgins, died of Aids.
  • Fined for kissing in the street: One newspaper cutting included an article dated 26th April 1988 stating that two 19 year old chefs were fined £40 each, under the Public Order Act 1986, for kissing in the street; in 1988!

Clause 28: December 1987
On the 18th September 2003 Clause 28 was repealed. No one was ever prosecuted under it. This being because it was against ‘pretend family relationships’; it was all meaningless. Clause 28 was part of the Local Government Bill. According to a source the clause was written by lawyers/clerks in the Home Office who were against it and who deliberately worded it so that it would be unenforceable and in fact it was never even tested. ‘You think the government is monolithic and organised when in fact it’s a shambles!’
However, everyone did feel scared by it; it silenced people. It stated, for example that:
‘A local authority shall not:
(a) Intentionally promote or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.
(b) Promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality in a pretended family relationship.’
‘We have been rather invaded’
“We have been rather invaded.” These were the words of Sue Lawley, the 6 O’clock News presenter of the time, when confronted live on air by Clause 28 protesters. It was May 23rd 1988 and as ‘the show’ began loud protestations can clearly be heard (though not seen); “Stop Section 28!” Further rumblings of disorder can be heard as the protesters handcuff themselves to furniture as the co-presenter sits on one of them. Two got into the studio, four into the building while there were more outside.

Abseiling Lesbians
What happened in the dusty old House of Lords was that the peers had just had a two hour debate on the Local Government Bill.  They voted 202 to 122 to pass it.  A group of protestors in the public gallery began heaping abuse on them, while four lesbians attached wires to the ironwork and unfurled two thin wires.  Three of them abseiled down into the chamber shouting "LESBIANS ARE OUT!"  Three House of Lords Ushers, all retired naval warrant officers, tried to quell the protest and in the chaos two of the three abseilers walked out of the chamber. (Taken from The Blog That Peter Wrote).

And finally, a word of warning
‘We’ve made huge gains but we must still be cautious. In Manchester it may be okay but in small places like Cleethorpes it may not be. And of course gains can easily be taken away.’ Chris

[Names have been changed]

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