Lesbians and gay men reflect on their lives and their place in society from the 1940s to the 1990s

Gate­way to Heav­en by Clare Sum­mer­skill both the title of both a book (Gate­way to Heav­en: Fifty Years of Les­bian and Gay Oral His­to­ry) con­tain­ing oral his­to­ries excerpts from 46 LGBT nar­ra­tors and also the title of the play (Gate­way to Heav­en – The Play) based on inter­views with 24 old­er les­bians and gay men.

The book ver­sion, Gate­way to Heav­en: Fifty Years of Les­bian and Gay Oral His­to­ry, con­tains excepts from inter­views con­duct­ed with some of those who were at the fore­front of the strug­gle for les­bian, bi, gay and trans equal­i­ty in the UK, as well as oth­ers who led more pri­vate lives. Clare Sum­mer­skill first gath­ered these life sto­ries while pro­duc­ing ver­ba­tim plays and films. They address cen­tral issues in British social and polit­i­cal his­to­ry from the 1940s to the 1990s. This is a dra­mat­ic peri­od for the les­bian and gay com­mu­ni­ty. It begins in clos­ets of fear – arrests and hid­den base­ment bars – and emerges in courage with the first Pride march­es and the repeal of anti-gay legislation.

As the con­trib­u­tors aged, their can­did mem­o­ries and hard-won wis­dom were at risk of going unrecord­ed, but in Gate­way to Heav­en: Fifty Years of Les­bian and Gay Oral His­to­ry, they are cap­tured for every­one, from stu­dents of social and oral his­to­ry or LGBTQ or queer stud­ies to the gen­er­al reader.

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The Play

Gate­way to Heav­en was orig­i­nal­ly the name of a play, pro­duced in 2006 and writ­ten by Clare Sum­mer­skill, from inter­views with twen­ty-four old­er les­bians and gay men. It was staged at Oval House The­atre, where it had a three-week run, and then it toured to the­atres around the UK. The play was direct­ed by Kate Crutch­ley and per­formed by Clare and mem­bers of her own com­pa­ny, Artemis. Age Con­cern (now Age UK), saw the play and they com­mis­sioned a film version.

Queens’ Evidence

When the diver­si­ty depart­ment of the Lon­don Met­ro­pol­i­tan Police saw the film ver­sion of Gate­way to Heav­en, togeth­er with Age Con­cern Open­ing Doors, they com­mis­sioned Clare to write a sim­i­lar piece, based entire­ly on mem­o­ries of old­er LGBT peo­ple about their rela­tion­ships with the police over their life­times. The so-called ‘Hate Crime’ Bill of 2009 had just been intro­duced and The Met were inter­est­ed in exam­in­ing why there was such a low lev­el of report­ing of homo­pho­bic hate crime from old­er peo­ple in Lon­don. For that project, Clare inter­viewed a fur­ther twen­ty peo­ple and pro­duced a film called Queens’ Evi­dence.

Staying Out Late

In 2011 Clare was involved in a the­atre project called Stay­ing Out Late, which, through impro­vised scenes and a script­ed per­for­mance, looked at old­er LGBT people’s hopes and fears about care in lat­er life, specif­i­cal­ly with regard to their sex­u­al­i­ty. For this project, Clare also inter­viewed some of the par­tic­i­pants about their lives.

The Book

After cre­at­ing these films and the­atre work Clare then realised that there was an enor­mous amount of mate­r­i­al from the inter­views she had con­duct­ed that had still not been employed for any of the projects she had cre­at­ed, and she was aware that she held a vast amount of excit­ing and inter­est­ing sto­ries that had still not seen the light of day. She asked sev­er­al con­trib­u­tors to all those projects if they would be hap­py for those oth­er inter­view extracts, along­side the pre­vi­ous­ly used ones, to appear in a book, called Gate­way to Heav­en: Fifty Years of Oral His­to­ry. This was pub­lished by Tolling­ton Press in 2012. The script of Gate­way to Heav­en – The Play was lat­er pub­lished in 2019.

The Title

The title of the book and the play refers to The Gate­ways, which was one of the most famous women’s bars, locat­ed in Kings Road, Lon­don, and fea­tured in the film, The Killing of Sis­ter George; and Heav­en, which opened as a gay men’s night­club in the 1980s and remains one of the largest and most pop­u­lar gay dance venues in Europe. The pic­ture above is of the entrance to The Gate­ways Club.