Reading’s gay history project


Lorna McArdle, Andrew Stonehill Brooks, Brendan Carr, Yvette Barda and Bobby Smith at the launch of Hidden Voices | Get Reading

A new project has been launched to research the history of LGBT people in Reading, UK in time for LGBT History Month which takes place in February 2015. (October is the chosen time in the US.) The project has Heritage Lottery funding and will involve local LGBT charity Support U leading research from older members of the LGBT community who remember when it was illegal to be gay.

Lorna McArdle said: “Support U is dedicated to supporting the LGBT community and this project will assist our organisation in seeing a real picture of the cultural past and present. The older generation is still detached from the LGBT community at large and we would like to bridge that gap with this project. It is only right that we make sure the history of the LGBT community is shown, to highlight just how far we have come towards acceptance.”


Leather Daddies and Rainbow Crossings – welcome to San Francisco’s new-look Castro


Leather enthusiasts at the 1978 San Francisco Gay Day Parade | San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society

Writing in Mission Local, Daniel Hirsch is concerned that marking gay places as historic places is counter productive and diminishes or alters the history.

At a time when bars and other queer spaces are struggling to stay open, the approach some groups are taking to mark LGBT history also has the potential to forever alter, and possibly diminish, surviving spaces. The fear is that by marking a place as historic, its current inhabitants may get pushed out to make more room for all the memories.

In the Castro district, not all residents are happy with the redevelopment of their area.

The rainbow crossing designs | Castro Biscuit

In the Castro, there’s a current plan by the Department of Public Works and the Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District to paint the district’s crosswalks in rainbow colors. It might seem at first glance like a whimsical way to celebrate the neighborhood’s queer history and culture. But for some, being somewhere over these rainbows represents further gentrification and worse, “Disneyfication.”

“How many more rainbows do we need, I mean, jesus,” said Waiyde Palmer, a contributor to the Castro Biscuit and Castro-resident since 1986. “I’m fine with a little bit of fey, but the rainbow crosswalks are the equivalent of a cheap souvenir T-shirt, like, ‘I went to the Castro, and all I got was this rainbow crosswalk.’”

Rainbow crosswalks date back to 2008, when efforts of the Castro Castro/Upper Market Community Benefit District coalesced with the city’s plans to repave roads and improve sidewalks, in a large effort called the Castro Street Improvement Project. (The Castro CBD, one of many in the city, is a special business district funded by a special tax, made up of merchants organized to improve the neighborhood as they see fit.)

In conjunction with the Planning Department and Department of Public Works, the Castro CBD took on the task of “beautifying” the neighborhood. Through a process of public input and outreach, this means the improvement project will include the following decorative elements: 20 sidewalk etchings featuring highlights of Castro history, as well as decorative LED sidewalk lights, and those rainbow-colored crosswalks.


Charlotte and the Angels of America


Fort Worth Opera in a performance of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” opera version, 2008 | Ellen Appel

The Levine Museum of the New South, in Charlotte, N.C., recently unveiled a history exhibit, “LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality” to tell the history of Charlotte, N.C.’s, gay and transgender community. 18,000 same-sex couples call the state home, including 2,000 in the Charlotte area, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

The exhibition casts fresh light on the “Angels of America” controversy.

In 1996 a brouhaha erupted when some county officials objected to gay themes presented in a local performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America.” The controversy led to a vote in 1997 to restrict funding to the Arts & Science Council. The move gave the city a reputation for being intolerant.

Bob Barret, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, took a high-profile stand for the gay community during the “Angels in America” affair, helping to create an organization called Citizens for Equality, which staged a defiant news conference on the steps of City Hall.

“I don’t know that it changed anything, but we were visible and saying, ‘We don’t like what’s going on,'” says Barret, who had challenged the Observer’s coverage of the gay community as far back as 1992, when he met with editors at the newspaper. “The media didn’t have a clue who gay people are, because people weren’t willing to stand up. Once we started to do that, attitudes changed fairly quickly. Still, there were death threats, and awful stuff was sent in the mail to me. And stuff was left on my car. People in charge at the university told me, ‘You need to be very careful. People are watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake.'”

University of North Charlotte Multicultural Resource Center

Book shop proprietor Sue Henry was perhaps the city’s most high-profile LGBT representative of the ’90s, and was the first openly gay candidate for mayor of Charlotte, in 1995.

Her store, Rising Moon Books & Beyond, became a meeting place for gays and lesbians during the “Angels in America” controversy, with groups gathering among the books to make placards for their demonstrations. She likens it to the city’s first LGBT community center. It closed in 1997. Henry was also involved in bringing the annual North.Carolina gay and lesbian pride event to Charlotte in 1994, which she says made local gays and lesbians aware of “what we can do when we came together.” “I don’t feel especially brave. Maybe I’m stubborn,” says Henry, who currently lives in Greenville, N.C. “For the first couple of years I had the bookstore, I would go in expecting the windows to be broken out by a brick, but it never happened. It’s that worry, that fear, that often stops the LGBT community.”


The John West Murder Case


Gwynne Owen Evans (left), 24, and Peter Anthony Allen, 21. Prison Service Photos/Liverpool Echo

On 7th April, 1964, two unemployed men, who could not afford to pay £10 in court fines imposed on them for earlier thefts, murdered a man. Peter Allen, age 21, and Gwynne Evans, age 24, drove to the home of John West, age 53, a laundry van driver of Seaton, Cumbria.

Evans left Allen in the car while he tried to persuade Mr West to give them £10 in return for sex. Mr West declined. Evans went back to the car and fetched Allen. West saw Allen and asked him, “Who the bloody hell are you?” When Allen did not answer, West made a lunge at him. Allen panicked and hit West. Then Evans battered West with a bar.

Mr West’s battered and stabbed body, which was naked from the waist down, was found by Police one day later – 8th April, 1964. Police found Evans’ rain coat at the scene, and identified it as belonging to Evans when they found in one of the pockets, a medallion bearing Evans’ name.

Each man blamed the other for the violent murder.

Mr Justice Ashworth sentenced them both to death.

Their defence teams appealed. Lord Chief Justice Lord Parker, Mr Justice Winn and Mr Justice Widgery rejected the appeals of Allen and Evans, with the Lord Chief Justice saying: “A more brutal murder it would be difficult to imagine.”

Both Allen’s and Evans’ mothers petitioned then Home Secretary Henry Brooke for clemency. Clemency was not forthcoming.

Evans was hanged at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, by executioner Harry Allen (no relation) while Allen, who had trashed his cell when he realised that clemency was not forthcoming, was hanged at Walton Jail, Liverpool, by executioner Robert Stewart. Both men were hanged at exactly 8.00 am on August 13th, 1964.

In 1964 in Britain, homosexuality between men was illegal.

On 15th October 1964 Britain had a General Election which was won by the Labour Party. The incoming government had a reforming agenda and the death penalty for murder was temporarily suspended for a trial period by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. The Act did not suspend the death penalty for other offences, which included espionage and piracy.

On 16th December 1969, Parliament reviewed the temporary suspension and voted to end the death penalty for murder by an overwhelming majority: 343 in favour, 185 against, a majority of 158.

At that point Evans and Allen went into the history books because they became the last people in Britain to be hanged. The case became known as the Allens and Evans case and their victim West became completely forgotten.

£10 may not seem like much money in 2014, but in 1964 it was more than the average basic weekly wage.

The death penalty was finally abolished in the United Kingdom in 1998 by the Human Rights Act and the Crime and Disorder Act.


The Long Beach Bath House


Frontiers Los Angeles

Frontiers LA reminds us of the history of The Long Beach Bathhouse which was a popular cruising spot in 1914, and of the tragic consequences for some customers.

The bathhouse attracted all types of beachgoers, including men who thought a rendezvous was worth the risk of arrest. In November 1914, a police sting netted dozens of cruisers. Curiously, the state’s sodomy laws did not cover oral sex, so the majority of men were charged with ambiguous “social vagrancy” misdemeanors. While one person, a florist named Herbert Lowe, fought the charges, most pleaded guilty and paid a fine. Tragically, two of the arrestees committed suicide, including a respected banker named John Lamb.


The Names Project and the Aids Quilt


Forks Washington Chamber of Commerce

The Names Project began assembling the quilt of panels representing victims of Aids in San Francisco in 1987. The first name to be remembered on a completed quilt panel was that of Marvin Feldman. Each panel is six feet by three feet.

Name panels continue to be added to the quilt daily. The total quilt weighs more than 50 tons.

Sections of the quilt are on display around the US at various times.

The Names Foundation note:

The initial idea for The AIDS Memorial Quilt came to our founder Cleve Jones at a 1985 candlelight march to honor the memory of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, both assassinated in 1978. While planning the march, Jones learned that more than 1,000 San Franciscans had been lost to AIDS. In their honor, he asked his fellow marchers to write the names of those friends and loved ones on placards and carry them in the march. For the first time, numbers became Names.

At the end of the march, Jones and other participants taped the placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. It was this action, the creation of a wall of names with its resemblance to a patchwork quilt, which gave birth to the idea for The AIDS Memorial Quilt and eventually, The NAMES Project Foundation.


The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence


Christopher Street Day parade, Fulda, Germany, 1993 | Sir James

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are a colourful and distinctive charity, protest, and street performance organization of Queer Nuns who fight sexual intolerance with drag and religious imagery. They also satirize gender and morality issues.

The movement started in 1979 when a group of gay men in San Francisco began wearing habits in visible situations to draw attention to social conflicts and problems in the Castro District. The original three men procured habits from a convent in Iowa pretending to be putting on a a performance of The Sound of Music!

They are an international organisation, and there are around 600 Nuns in Australia, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.

It was a time when religious participation in politics was growing, and Anita Bryant and Jerry Falwell were crusading against the acceptance of the gay life style. The Castro District as a major gay neighborhood was targeted by several dozen church members who took to its streets to preach about the immorality of homosexuality.

The name of the group became familiar in 1980. The nuns held their first fundraiser, and a write-up in The San Francisco Chronicle by Herb Caen printed their organization name, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The benefit was for San Francisco’s Metropolitan Community Church Cuban Refugee Program.

The community was then hit with the AIDS crisis and the Nuns played a major part in organising awareness, and are thought to have produced the world’s very first Aids awareness literature.

Members of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence who have died are referred by the Sisters as “Nuns of the Above”.


The play “Bent”




The play “Bent” by Martin Sherman was first performed on May 3, 1979 and explores the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany. The play is set during and after the Night of the Long Knives.

Sir Ian McKellen as Max in the original production | Sir Ian McKellen

Max is gay and sent to Dachau concentration camp under the Nazi regime. He denies he is gay and gets the Jews’ yellow label instead of the pink one given to gays. In camp he falls in love with his fellow prisoner Horst, who wears his pink triangle with pride.

Very little was known about the treatment of homosexuals during Germany’s Nazi period, and the play helped to stimulate interest and research into gay history.


Gay personal contact adverts



Personal advertisements from people trying to find partners gained popularity during and after the First World War, but it took some time for openly gay people to be allowed to place personal advertisements in gay or any other newspapers. Now, of course, the internet offers appropriate advertising services.

“Small ads” played a key role in the formation of the gay scene. Since 1921, the police had clamped down on any publication suspected of carrying ads for homosexuals. Advertisers were undeterred, however, using code words such as “artistic”, “musical” and “unconventional” even as early as the Edwardian period, to signify that they were gay.

By the 1950s there were correspondence clubs, pen friend clubs and tape-correspondence clubs (for people with tape recorders) which offered a “contact list” service for a small annual fee to members only. These organisations’ contact lists rapidly filled up with entries for single men.

By 1967, male homosexuality between consenting adults had been legalised but advertising for same-sex partners still carried some danger, as the editors of Exit and Way Out magazines discovered in 1968, when police decided their publications were obscene. The BBC notes that

they and their advertisers were eventually found guilty of conspiring to corrupt public morals.

The next attempt to run gay contact advertising was tried by the underground newspaper “International Times”. Duncan Campbell notes that

in 1970 it was prosecuted for conspiracy to corrupt public morals and conspiracy to outrage public decency by running gay contact adverts, even though homosexuality had been legalised three years previously. The publishers were convicted on both counts, although cleared of the latter on appeal, and the paper briefly closed down as a result.

Gay News was established in 1972 as a newspaper for the gay scene and by mid-1975, had a paid circulation of over 7,500, even though most news agents refused to stock it. In contravention of the House of Lords ruling that advertisements for sexual acts between men were illegal, Gay News also published personal ads, insisting not very convincingly that these were strictly non-sexual in intent. Gay News was prosecuted, eventually, but not for the advertising.

“International Times” was launched on 14 October 1966 and relaunched as a web journal in 2011.


Gay sweatshop


James Cartwright and Rik Makarem in rehearsal for “Passing By”, 2013 | Uncredited photographer/Tristan Bates Theatre

Gay Sweatshop was formed in London in 1974 and had its roots in the lunchtime theatre club “Ambience” held at the Almost Free theatre, which was an alternative theatre established in 1971 in Rupert Street, Soho, London W1 – audiences were expected to pay at least one penny for their admission ticket.

Founding members of Gay Sweatshop included John Roman Baker, Roger Baker, Ed Berman, Gerald Chapman, Norman Coates, Laurence Collinson, Suresa Galbraith, Drew Griffiths, Philip Osment, Alan Pope, Lloyd Vanata and Alan Wakeman. They wanted to set up the first Gay Theatre season in the UK to counteract the prevailing conception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public. They realised that a great deal of hard work was required and came up with the name The Gay Sweatshop and it became one of the best known gay theatre companies in the UK.

In 1975 they published a Manifesto which stated that the Company’s objective was:

To counteract the prevailing perception in mainstream theatre of what homosexuals were like, therefore providing a more realistic image for the public and to increase the general awareness of the oppression of sexuality, both gay and straight, the impact it has on people’s lives and the society that reinforces it.

Jingleball – a gay sweatshop production at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1987 | Sharon Smullen/ Royal Holloway University archives

In 1975 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality invited Gay Sweatshop to perform at the annual conference in Sheffield. An Arts Council grant allowed them to put together “Mister X”, jointly written by the group and based on personal experiences and the book “With Downcast Gays: Aspects of Homosexual Self-Oppression” by Andrew Hodges and David Hutter. “Mister X” was a huge success and it went on tour. Many gay men and lesbians went to a gay play for the first time in their lives to see Mister X.

In 1976 Gay Sweatshop put on plays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts including “Mister X”, “Any Woman Can” by Jill Posener, “Randy Robinson’s Unsuitable Relationship” by Andrew Davies, Ian Brown’s “The Fork”, “Stone” by Edward Bond and “Indiscreet”, a follow up to “Mister X” written by Roger Baker and Drew Griffiths.

In 1977 BBC 2 televised a play by Noel Greig and Drew Griffiths, “Only connect”.

Gay Sweatshop was wound up and papers held by the Royal Holloway in the official archive indicate that the organisation was wound up in 1997.

In 1984, the talented Drew Griffiths, actor, playwright and one of the company originators was the tragic victim of a homophobic murder by a man he picked up at the Elephant and Castle. The single Why? from Bronski Beat’s album Age of Consent was dedicated to his memory. Drew Griffiths was 37.

I joined Gay Sweatshop in 1975. I joined with great fear and trepidation – after all, I could be ruining my career – (I remember vividly the first press call when I deliberately disassociated myself from the group, sat with my back to the cameras, afraid of being publicly identified as a homosexual) but somehow found the courage to direct two of the plays in the first season. At the end of the first six months I knew that the previous seven years had been preparation for this.’

Drew Griffiths

In 2008 Noel Greig commented on Drew:

He never recovered from the indignities of being gay, all that stuff I was talking about [the idignities of being a gay man pre-1967 and the legalisation of homosexuality in Britain]. I’m sure it wasn’t just that… but just thinking about Drew. But his passion. Gay Sweatshop was a mission for him.

Noel Greig died in 2009. His archive is preserved by the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.

Gerald Chapman died in 1987 aged 37.

Bryony Lavery, the well known dramatist, was for a time the artistic director.

David Benedict, the drama correspondent, was joint artistic director from 1988 to 1992.

The playwright Martin Sherman was also involved with Gay Sweatshop, especially contributing the play “Passing By” which has recently been
revived. In 2013 he told “Whats Peen Seen?”:

When Passing By was first produced it was unheard of to present a gay relationship with a sense of human normalcy about it, and so it had particular meaning to audiences within that context. Now that is taken for granted, theatrically, at least, and audiences are able to concentrate on the relationship itself…. I suspect I was fed up with the way gay characters were presented onstage and I wanted to write something that I thought was truthful and not suffused with self-pity or misery. Ah – that’s a slightly noble answer, and possibly self-serving; I would like to think I was carrying a banner. It’s probably more likely that I just wanted to write a play and write something that was familiar to me and my friends and made sense to us and was truthful to our lives…

Actor and playwright Kevin Elyot who acted with Gay Sweatshop died on 7 June 2014. Guardian obituary

Jill Posener obituary, Mike Kalemkerian

This post was amended on 22 July 2014 to include the obituary for Gay Sweatshop actor Kevin Elyot.


Two Gay Sweatshop Plays: As Time Goes by and The Dear Love of Comrades, Paperback – 6 Apr 1981 | Amazon

Due to the additional information our correspondents have kindly revealed, this post was republished on 1 August 2014.

Since the article was first researched, further information about Gay Sweatshop has become public and the post was expanded on 2 August 2014 to include these insights.

I would also like to thank my correspondents for their help in compiling this revision. Thank you!

The Official Gay Sweatshop Archive is held by the Royal Holloway University, London.