The British Library’s gay secrets

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A scene from “My beautiful laundrette” | Oliver Stapleton | 17102

A new exhibition at the British Library, London, “Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty” explores Britain’s evolving attitudes towards homosexuality. Original literary manuscripts and rare prints of newspapers and novels document the “transformation in society’s attitudes towards gay love and expression”.

A memo from the lord chamberlain’s office, dated October 1958, proposed marginally greater freedom for gay playwrights. “For some time the subject of homosexuality has been so widely debated, written about and talked about, that it is no longer justifiable to continue the strict exclusion of this subject from the stage. … I therefore propose to allow plays which make a serious and sincere attempt to deal with the subject.”

The exhibition includes a manifesto from the Gay Liberation Front, notebooks and journals from writers including Sarah Waters, Kenneth Williams and WH Auden, a never-before-seen annotated script by Hanif Kureishi for the Oscar-nominated film “My Beautiful Laundrette”, and the first edition of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/01/british-library-explores-changing-attitudes-to-gay-love-in-exhibition


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Tate Bares All

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The Critics | Henry Scott Tuke | Warwick District Council

London’s Tate Britain is preparing its first show dedicated to “queer art” -“Queer British Art 1861-1967”. It is almost 50 years since the decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales.

“We have works which demonstrate lots of different attitudes, from anxiety to celebration,” Curator Clare Barlow told the Observer, adding that other items came to acquire notoriety by accident. Walter Crane’s languorous 1877 painting, The Renaissance of Venus, is a good example. “Crane’s wife did not want him viewing or drawing nude women, so instead he used a well-known young male model, Alessandro di Marco, to stand in for the goddess of love.”

The exhibition includes a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde by Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington, given to the writer as a wedding present by the artist and now being shown publicly in Britain for the first time. Next to it is Oscar’s prison cell door.

Queer British Art 1861-1967 is at Tate Britain, London SW1P, from 5 April to 1 October 2017.


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The Raid on the Caravan Club

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Inside the Caravan Club | Police Photo/UK National Archives | 17049

The Caravan Club in Soho, London was a lesbian and gay friendly members’ club that billed itself as “London’s greatest bohemian rendezvous said to be the most unconventional place in town”. The club, at 81 Endell Street, was one of many mostly temporary venues at a time when being openly gay was perilous, often resulting in prosecution and imprisonment.

The club was run by Billy Reynolds and a former strongman and escapologist called Jack Neave, known as “Iron Foot Jack” because of the metal platform he wore to compensate for a shortened leg.

After a series of complaints about the behaviour of the customers, the Metropolitan police put the club under surveillance from October 1933. Police seem to have watched the comings and goings from unused offices at the Shaftesbury Theatre opposite.

In August 1934 they raided the club, with plainclothes officers easily entering by pretending to be visitors.

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Inside the Caravan Club | Police Photo/UK National Archives | 17050

The officer in charge of the raid was Inspector Clarence, who noted : “The room inside was very badly lighted and the atmosphere was awful. … Men were dancing with men and women were dancing with women, a number of couples were simply standing still, and I saw couples wriggling their posteriors, and where I saw men together they had their hands on the other’s buttocks and were pressing themselves together. In fact all the couples I saw were acting in a very obscene manner.”

A policeman on the raid reported: “Two men were standing in front of each other dancing and moving their bodies close to each other. One had his hand on the other’s flies and the other one said: “Oh, darling.””

One policeman was shocked to enter the bathroom and find two men applying mascara and rouge to each others’ faces.

One regular customer, Cyril, had written a letter to Billy Reyolds, which was found and seized by the Police. “I have only been queer for about two years because I knew nothing about it until I came to London.” He was married and had a daughter. He ends the letter: “Billy, please be a dear boy and destroy this note.” The note is kept in the National Archives.

103 men and women were arrested and taken to Bow Street police station. Many of the young men there were working class. The majority were found not guilty in court on condition they never frequented such a club again.

History does not record whether they complied with that instruction.

Reynolds and Neave were given sentences of 12 months and 20 months respectively hard labour in prison.

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/feb/27/revived-1930s-london-gay-members-club-caravan-club-raided-by-police


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Islington gets a gay archive

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Highbury Fields, 1971. Picture: Islington Local History Centre | 16460ga

A new LGBT archive is being created in Islington, London, a borough steeped with LGBT history. Today Islington council launched an appeal for people to scour their homes for LGBT memorabilia – photos, posters, flyers etc – to build the archive, which is likely to be housed at Islington Museum in St John Street.

150 brave campaigners held Britain’s first ever gay rights protest in November 1970 in Highbury Fields. A torchlight rally was organised by the Gay Liberation Front in response to the arrest of Louis Eakes in the Fields. Mr Eakes, of the Young Liberals, was detained for cruising several men in a police entrapment operation. Mr Eakes claimed he was asking them for a light.

http://www.islingtongazette.co.uk/news/heritage/highbury_fields_gay_rights_demo_was_a_watershed_moment_islington_museum_to_set_up_first_lgbt_archive_1_4729260

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The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London

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Chris Helgren/Reuters | 15362

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was built in 1863 at Spring Gardens, Kennington Lane, on land which was originally part of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and was originally a music hall. It seems to have been a local gay pub ever since it opened as a public house. After the second world war it became associated with drag acts, with performances from Hinge and Bracket, Regina Fong and Lily Savage. On one occasion Princess Diana went there dressed as a man.

On 8 September 2015, in an attempt to save it from being closed by new owners and the site re-developed, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was made a grade II listed building – the first building in the UK to be listed in recognition of its importance to LGBT community history. This followed a campaign supported by Boris Johnson, Sir Ian McKellen, Paul O’Grady and others.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/09/this-london-pub-just-made-gay-history-but-can-it-be-saved.html

http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/03/31/freddie-mercury-dressed-princess-diana-in-drag-to-sneak-her-into-a-gay-bar/


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The London Gay Centre, Cowcross Street

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67-69 Cowcross Street | 2014 | Google Street View | 14474

The London Gay Centre at 67-69 Cowcross Street, London was established by the Greater London Council in 1984-5 with a grant of around £750,000. Plans were for facilities including club/performance space, cooking and dining space, a bookshop, a daycare, a lounge and meeting room, a media resource center, offices and other meeting spaces. London was trying to emulate Birmingham, which had opened a Gay Centre in 1976.

Many LGBT organisations of the time were allowed to use the centre for postal purposes.

As a non-commercial gay venue there were problems with volunteers, political infighting and general mismanagement due to staff turnover. When the GLC was abolished in 1986 ownership of the building was transferred to the London Residuary Body. The centre continued in operation for five years but mounting losses, including a robbery, resulted in its closure and subsequent sale. The building is now the headquarters of the charity AddAction.

Vice: The London Lesbian and Gay Centre remembered after 30 years

Updated 27 August 2016 – link added.


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London’s gay bars

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Gay bars have existed in London for hundreds of years, although they weren’t originally called that.

Dr Matt Cook, Social Historian at Birkbeck College, University of London points out that the nature of gay identity has changed fundamentally.

“The idea of a singular identity is very new. In 16th Century England there was a subculture loosely relating to the theatre. Men didn’t identify as specifically gay. Things happened in the context of a sexualized, risque environment and being queer was a part of a more general underground culture.”

In the 17th and 18th Century, “Molly houses” started appearing. Sometimes they were coffee or ale houses or private rooms in otherwise straight pubs.
“A lot of the knowledge we have about early gay culture is from criminal records. Molly houses were often raided and people being prosecuted is the main source of information about what happened at that time.”…

“In the 1940s and 1950s there was the A&B club, otherwise known as the Arts and Battledress and there was also the Rockingham, both in Soho. They were for a more middle-class clientele. There were also pubs such as the Salisbury in Covent Garden which weren’t as exclusive.”

The Salisbury is no longer gay, but the current duty manager, Jon Badcock, says tourists still visit the pub and ask about its history. “We’re in the middle of theatreland … Some of our older regulars remember sitting in the snug while Kenneth Williams held court.”

The early part of the 20th Century saw women becoming visible on the gay scene, with the Gateways Club opening on the King’s Road in Chelsea in 1931. Because women hadn’t featured in criminal trials, there were no public records of lesbian culture.