The large majority of contributors to this book were living in London and the South East of England when I interviewed them, but many of them originally come from all over the United Kingdom as well as from countries such as America, Tanzania, Barbados, Germany and Thailand. Some of them played extremely important roles in lesbian and gay political history, effecting political and legal change through their involvement in those political groups, whilst others perhaps would not have seen their experiences as leading towards anything other than getting on with their lives as lesbians and gay men, the best way they knew how.
I am, of course, totally indebted to all of the contributors for their stories and I hope by reading them in this book that many more people will learn about our own often unrecorded – and at times, barely visible – social and political history.
Clare Summerskill, London, 20121
1 Summerskill, Clare. Gateway to Heaven – Fifty Years of Lesbian and Gay Oral History. London: Tollington Press, 2012.
Some Extracts from Contributors
When I was about eleven I had lots and lots of girlfriends, and one particular one, I used to nip out at night and go across and sleep with her. But not like that. Nothing ever happened. But I was madly in love with her. And I used to sleep next to her and think “Oh my God” and I was sweating and I wanted to put my arms around her but you couldn’t…. So, eleven, I knew I was different from everybody else.
I grew up in Dagenham, where Fords is. It was the biggest council estate in Europe. It was very depressing there, a very straight scene. I joined the library. You were allowed to join it when you were eleven so I read all Freud’s books and psychology stuff and my Mum used to say “Carol, why are you reading all that stuff?” So I said “Well Mum, I’m trying to find myself.” She said “What do you mean?” I said “Well I think I’m different to everybody else.” “No you’re not. There’s nothing different about you. If you keep on reading those books then you will imagine you’re one of those people.” And I said to her “But Mum I think I’m a lesbian.” “Oh no, you’re not. No you’re not.” Just shoved it under the carpet completely.
I don’t think I had any problem about being gay but I wanted it kept completely separate from the rest of my life. I had a life that was gay and a life that was not gay and never the twain shall meet.
Jackie Forster was very brave. She talked about legal rights and how the issue shouldn’t be shoved under the carpet. She used to be Jacqueline McKenzie. She was pretty famous in her day and had her own television show and she was extremely funny and very clever. She took over a magazine called Arena Three and me and my girlfriend Marion, we decided to volunteer our services. We weren’t a bit political. We just wanted to meet some lesbians who weren’t these really heavy dykes. Someone you could walk down the street with and if you bumped into your mother you wouldn’t have to run away and hide.
And then we got involved with C.H.E. Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Snore title. Which was quite a large organisation. We used to get edicts from head office about how we ought to be campaigning for this and marching for that and so on but we just used to have fun and parties and just be happy as a group. Because it was a really bad thing to be gay then and a lot of people were very, very neurotic and frightened. Frightened mainly.
In the early Fifties there were several high profile cases where the police actively enforced laws prohibiting sexual behaviour between men. The best known one was Lord Montagu. During the Montagu case I wouldn’t buy or read any of the newspapers with the case in because I actually knew Michael Pitt-Rivers who was Lord Montagu’s cousin, who was in the case, and we were terrified that we might be dragged in there because I knew Michael Pitt-Rivers had my name and address in his address book.
I’ve never had an experience like working on Spare Rib. It was absolutely fantastic! It was dramatic and intense. Don’t let me slide over the fact that it was hideous as well. I mean all the fights we had there were so destructive. Fights about anti-semitism, Zionism, racism, lesbianism, feminism, those were the main ones. Anti-abortion, class, Women’s Aid. There were millions of meetings on the whole time. Millions of Demos. But my happiest years as a lesbian were at Spare Rib. When I first joined the collective in 1976 it was already changing, opening up to a wider range of women. We all did everything, so I was one of the editors. We were sitting in this building, putting out this magazine. We were held accountable all the time. You’d get people saying “You’re prejudiced. You said that completely the wrong way. You have to print a retraction. We demand a meeting.” Every issue became divisive. And within the collective we’d have these very complicated and many-layered tensions, tears, screaming, running out of the office. But I felt that lesbian feminism was my movement. I felt like I belonged and nobody was going to tell me what to do!
I think for many men, AIDS was a complete mind-fuck in what was happening. It completely blew the world away.
I suppose some men never got over the tragedy of it really but some did and some became very committed in self-help activities, running drop-in centres and producing newsletters and I think that that self-help tradition was one of the most important things that came out of that mid Eighties period. It was extremely difficult to get support from anyone at all at that time so I suppose they began to realise that they were not just people who felt desire for other men, they were part of a group in society and like any group in society, if you work together, you can get things that you don’t get if you don’t work together. Among some men who had not been politically conscious there was a consciousness about what it meant to be a gay man.
I left school at fifteen and worked in a shop till I was seventeen when I joined the Navy. I had no education to speak of but I’d seen the Wren’s magazine and the glamour of something like that was uncontrollable for me! The day I left home I was terrified because I hadn’t really thought it through and my mother was sort of hanging on my legs to stop me. I had my first relationship with a woman when I was twenty-one. I suppose we were all a club within a club. It was like a sub culture. The pinky rings were usually the telling factor, you used to wear one if you were gay.
You did four year stints in the Wrens and when you got to twelve you could sign for your pension. Well I’d been there ten years when one day they called me in to see the Officer In Charge and I could see copies of my letters that were written some time earlier, quite a few years ago and she charged me with being a lesbian. So what do you do? I wasn’t going to lie. And I thought she’s got evidence in front of me and in that split second it seemed better not to lie…to be called a liar would have seemed worse than being a lesbian to me. I was in shock. I just couldn’t believe it but basically my career was at an end from that moment on. I can still see myself standing on the steps waiting for my taxi to take me back to my bed sit. My uniform and equipment and pay book had all been handed in. There was tremendous shame involved in that…and of course I was out without a pension.
When I was living in South London two or three lorry drivers used to stay, bringing their lorries outside at the place where I was living, spend the night and go home to their wives. Quite extraordinary.
I’m German by birth. One moment everything was lovely in Germany and the next people were dragged off into concentration camps. I was thirteen when I left Germany but I had to go back and I came to England again when I was sixteen on the Kindertransport. I came to England just before the war. My father was murdered in a concentration camp and was beaten to death and my mother eventually died on transport to a concentration camp. My brothers and I got out.
So I suffer from an anxiety neurosis because I’ve experienced how quickly prejudices can be fed to rational human beings, because it’s always easier to blame somebody. I think people of colour will be the first to get it in the neck if that should happen but I think they’re probably strong enough to resist because of the numbers. But gays are an easy target, and having been at Speakers’ Corner all these years there’s still a tremendous antagonism towards homosexuals.
We always had this thing. We said we’re not going to be second class citizens. Freedom isn’t something that’s given you forever, you have to fight for it every day, and we had to bloody well fight.