it is THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF the first PRIDE march IN LONDON AND WHAT A LOT HAS HAPPENED OVER THOSE YEARS. MATT NEWBURY LOOKS AT SOME OF THE TRIUMPHS AND TRAGEDIES, THE CELEBRATIONS AND SCANDALS THAT HAVE KEPT LONDON AT THE FOREFRONT OF THE LGBT+ STORY FOR THE PAST FIVE DECADES
Although private, consensual same-sex activity between men was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, at the dawn of the 70s there was still a huge amount of stigma attached to homosexuality. However, the decade was to give birth to the Gay Liberation Movement and the first steps towards the equality rights that the UK LGBT+ population enjoys today.
The first Gay Pride march in Britain was organised by the Gay Liberation Front, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York. The theme was “out and proud” although, with most gay people still being in the closet and often ashamed of their sexuality, only 700 people took part in the march from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park, which was accompanied by a heavy and aggressive police presence. After the parade there was an unplanned gay picnic in the park where people shared food, drink, dope and music.
Four members of the Gay Liberation Front also founded Britain’s first gay newspaper in 1972. Gay News was a fortnightly publication that reported on discrimination, political and social issues, whilst campaigning for law reforms. In doing so, it faced an angry backlash from the establishment, with the publication successfully needing to challenge an obscenity charge in 1974, when they published a cover that showed a male couple kissing.
In 1977, the paper and its editor were found guilty in a blasphemous libel case, when they published a poem called The Love that Dares to Speak its Name which sexualised the body of Christ at the crucifixion. The editor received a suspended sentence and the £10,000 in court costs were paid by a fundraising campaign. On the back of the publicity and a backlash against the verdict, the paper’s readership grew from 8,000 to 40,000.
While being out and gay was dangerous across the UK in the 1970s, the underground gay scene flourished, especially in London. Earl’s Court was the hub for gay men, who hung out and cruised in leather bars with blacked out windows like The Coleherne (frequented by Freddie Mercury), Bromptons and the Copacabana nightclub. Lesbians frequented the Gateways Club on Kings Road, which was featured in the 1968 film, The Killing of Sister George.
The biggest change to the gay scene was to come in 1979, when the gates of Heaven first opened under the arches behind Charing Cross Station. Created as an American-style nightly disco, it became the place to be, bringing LGBT+ clubbing into the mainstream. The club went in to be bought by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group in 1982, with the entrepreneur recognising the value of the pink pound for the first time.
WHAT WE LISTENED TO
Starman – David Bowie (1972)
Walk on the Wild Side – Lou Reed (1972)
Glad to Be Gay – The Tom Robinson Band (1976)
The Killing of Georgie – Rod Stewart (1976)
I Feel Love – Donna Summer (1977)
WHAT WE WATCHED
Pink Flamingos (1972)
The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
A Change of Sex (1979)
As we entered the 1980s, hiNRG music provided the soundtrack to the clone scene that had taken over Earl’s Court and the cellar bar at Heaven. The clone look, imported from the Castro area of San Francisco, saw gay men wearing a hyper-sexualised and macho uniform of denim and leather, accessorised with a Muir cap and handlebar moustache. In complete contrast, gender-bending fashionistas were adding camp creativity to the Tuesday night events at Blitz in Covent Garden. Amongst these Blitz Kids credited with kick starting the New Romanic Movement were the likes of Boy George, Marilyn and Princess Julia, creating their own androgynous fashions.
And then the party abruptly stopped when gay men in London began to start being affected by a mysterious disease which was first reported in the US. Originally dubbed the “4H disease,” as it seemed to only affect “homosexuals, heroin users, haemophiliacs and Haitians,” it was then called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) and finally Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. It was a devastating disease and a devastating time, as anyone who lived through the period and lost friends or lovers will attest.
Not only did the disease rip through the community, but gay people were also demonised and shamed like never before. It’s something that Russell T Davies’ masterpiece It’s a Sin captured in such a moving and visceral way. The disease was also to claim the lives of some of our greatest entertainers and performers including Freddie Mercury, Kenny Everett, Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, Sylvester and Keith Haring. Almost four decades since AIDS was first identified, 33 million people have died as a result of the disease across the planet.
If we can find a positive in so much tragedy, it was the creation of HIV and AIDS charities, who not only worked to educate and support people, but also took a lead when it came to health care provision and ground-breaking research. It also galvanised the gay community to become more political than ever before, which was especially important when the Conservative government introduced Clause 28, a nasty piece of bigoted legislation that decreed that “a local authority shall not (a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intension of promoting homosexuality; (b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’” There are disturbing echoes in Florida’s recent “Don’t Say Gay Bill.”
Clause 28 seemed to legitimise homophobia and made it ever more difficult for young LGBT+ people to access information in a pre-internet age. The law certainly triggered a new momentum in activism, with the charity Stonewall formed by Sir Ian McKellen, Lisa Power MBE and Lord Cashman CBE to fight for equality in response to the law. Whilst the purpose of Section 28 had been to silence homosexuals, it actually led to us becoming a more vocal, politicised and visible community than ever before.
In 1987, Westminster Council decided to clamp down on the sex shops and brothels of London’s red-light district in Soho. This attempt to clean up the sleaze saw much of the sex industry moving elsewhere, leaving a number of empty premises. The Swiss Tavern, which was a popular haunt for gay men, became an openly queer venue under the name Comptons. The move was to kick start an LGBT+ nightlife revolution that saw Soho become the gay centre of the UK and the envy of the rest of the world.
WHAT WE LISTENED TO
Tainted Love – Soft Cell (1981)
Do You Really Want to Hurt Me? – Culture Club (1982)
Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1983)
Smalltown Boy – Bronski Beat (1984)
It’s A Sin – Pet Shop Boys (1987)
A Little Respect – Erasure (1988)
WHAT WE WATCHED
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
Prick Up Your Ears (1987)
Out on Tuesdays (1989 – 1994)
The start of the 1990s saw something amazing happen to the gay scene in London. Rather than being hidden away in back streets and behind discreet doorways and blacked out windows, gay venues started to come out themselves. The likes of The Village on Wardour Street kickstarted a new out and proud trend by having large plate-glass windows looking right down Old Compton Street. Such was the success, the original owners soon opened The Yard on Rupert Street, with a large outdoor space visible from the street.
In 1991, Conservative MP Jerry Hayes was outed by the News of the World, at a time when the tabloid press was notorious for blackmailing closeted people. Hayes had met an 18-year-old Young Conservative called Paul Stone at the 1991 Conservative Conference and committed a “lewd act” as the legal age of homosexual sex in 1991 was 21. The MP had previously voted in favour of Section 28 and other anti-gay legislation.
In the same year, Conservative MP Edwina Currie introduced an amendment to the age of consent for homosexual acts, aiming to bring it down to 16 in line with heterosexual law. It was defeated, but the age of consent was lowered to 18 in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The lesbian age of consent was conspicuously left out of the debate.
Toward the end of the decade one of the most extraordinary TV programmes ever by one of our greatest ever writers exploded onto our screens. Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk introduced the world to Stuart, Vince and Nathan, three gay men living and playing around Manchester’s Canal Street. The Channel 4 TV show bought queer life into the living rooms of millions, often in deliciously explicit detail, outraging the Daily Mail along the way.
The 1990s were also a golden age for LGBT+ films, with the likes of Wilde, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Philadelphia, The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry, My Own Private Idaho, Gods and Monsters, Heavenly Creatures and Beautiful Thing all released. The decade also brought us some iconic documentaries like Paris is Burning and The Celluloid Closet.
Just when it seemed that gay people were being accepted as never before, at 6:37pm on Friday 30 April 1999, a nail bomb planted by neo-Nazi David Copeland exploded in Soho’s Admiral Duncan pub. Three people died and 83 suffered burns and injuries, with four of the injured needed amputations. It was the third bomb Copeland had planted in London in a one-man campaign aimed at stirring up ethnic and homophobic tensions. There is a memorial chandelier in the bar, with an inscription and plaque that commemorates those killed and injured in the blast.
WHAT WE LISTENED TO
Vogue – Madonna (1990)
Better the Devil You Know – Kylie Minogue (1991)
A Deeper Love – Aretha Franklin (1993)
Believe – Cher (1998)
Outside – George Michael (1988)
WHAT WE WATCHED
Tales of the City (1993, 1998)
Beautiful Thing (1996)
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert
Will and Grace (1998 onwards)
As we entered the new millennium, all of the campaigning and activism by the LGBT+ community and charities like Stonewall led to a large number of equality victories under the Labour government. In 2000, the ban on LGBT+ people serving in the armed forces was lifted, while the following year the age of consent was lowered to 16 in line with the heterosexual age of consent.
And the victories kept coming. In 2002, same-sex couples received equal rights for adoption, while in 2003 it became illegal to discriminate against LGBT+ people in the workplace. That same year, Section 28 was finally repealed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (it was abolished in Scotland in 2000).
Up until 2004, people in same-sex relationships had no way of formally recognising their relationship. This also meant they couldn’t enjoy the same tax benefits, pensions and inheritance arrangements that were available to same sex couples. This all changed when the Civil Partnership Act was passed by Westminster Parliament in November of that year and came into effect on 5 December 2005. The first civil partnership ceremony took place on that day between Matthew Roche and Christopher Cramp. The statutory 15-day waiting period was waived, as Matthew was suffering from terminal cancer. He died the next day.
Another big victory came when the Gender Recognition Act was passed, also in 2004. The legislation allowed transgender people to fully and legally identify with their chosen gender for the first time. Trans people could also acquire a new birth certificate, although gender options were still limited to “male” or ‘” female”.
In 2004 former Mardi Gras director Jason Pollock founded the Pride London charity with a mandate from London Mayor Ken Livingstone to produce a free festival. The march was dedicated to murdered Jamaican gay rights campaigner Brian Williamson. A contingent of the Gay Police Association also marched in their uniforms in the parade for the first time. The parade was followed by a rally in Trafalgar Square with speakers including Lord Waheed Alli (the first openly gay peer), Peter Tatchell and the London Mayor.
Meanwhile dating app FaceParty organised The Big Gay Out in Finsbury Park, a commercial festival that was to run for two years taking over from the Mardi Gras events in the same location. In contrast, the Duckie crew continued their Gay Shame events (a festival of homosexual misery that ran in various club venues from 1996 – 2014) in protest of the commercialisation of Gay Pride and the lack of political and community spirit.
Gaydar arrived in the early 2000s, as a tool to connect gay and bisexual men for friendship, hook-ups, dating and relationships. Initially desktop only, it would expand to the app market by the end of the decade. Such was the success of the platform, it opened both Gaydar Radio and a short-lived Soho bar called Profile. The impact on the gay scene was fairly catastrophic, with people able to meet up without going to bars and clubs. It was to lead to the development of a slew of new dating apps, many of which are still familiar to
WHAT WE LISTENED TO
Your Disco Needs You – Kylie Minogue (2001)
Lady Marmalade – Christina Aguilera, Mýa, Lil’ Kim and Pink
Take Your Mama – Scissor Sisters (2004)
Robyn – Dancing on my Own (2010)
Pink – “Raise Your Glass (2010)
WHAT WE WATCHED
That Gay Show (2001 – 2002)
Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
The L Word (2004 onwards)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009 onwards)
Coming into the next decade, the gay scene was really starting to spread its wings, with Vauxhall becoming a grittier antithesis to the camp and commercial Soho. The likes of the Eagle London and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern become neighbours with kinky dives and all- nighter clubs, which saw LGBT+ clubbers sharing the tube home with those on their way to work.
Meanwhile, the east of London was becoming an alternative queer mecca, with venues like Dalston Superstore providing a home for the misshapes who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Sadly, throughout the decade, almost 60% of the gay venues in London would close their doors, due to a combination of redevelopment (including the Crossrail scheme), the popularity of dating acts, and LGBT+ acceptance in general, meaning queer people can usually be themselves in any venue.
In 2013, Alan Turing received a posthumous royal pardon. The pioneering cryptographer helped break the German Enigma Code during the Second World War, but, despite his remarkable achievements for his country, he was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 and chemically castrated. Later in 2017, an amendment to a clause in the Policing and Crime Act known as the Alan Turing Law, saw the pardoning of all historic instances of criminal convictions of gross indecency against men. In 2021, Alan Turning went on to become the face of the £50 note.
In 2014, the witty, moving and politically savvy film Pride hit the cinemas, based on the true story of Mark Ashton and a group of lesbian and gay activists who raised money to help families affected by the British miners’ strike in 1984. The film features the recreation of the Pits and Perverts Festival starring Bronski Beat, as well as scenes set at the 1985 Gay Pride March. It’s a joyous film that doesn’t trivialise the issues depicted. It’s also very difficult not to be an emotional wreck by the closing credits.
The twenty-tens were also the decade when sports really started coming out of the closet too. In 2013, Olympic diver Tom Daley revealed on his YouTube channel that he was in a same-sex relationship with Oscar-winning screenwriter, DustIn Lance Black. Stonewall also sent Rainbow Laces to all of the professional football clubs in the UK to encourage players to show their commitment to making sport inclusive. Women’s football and rugby clubs led the way, boasting the highest numbers of out players.
During the decade, the number of LGBT+ TV presenters grew significantly, whilst the popularity of streaming services also meant that we got more representation that was often seen in more conventional cinema settings. Shows like Orange Is the New Black, Sense8, Looking, Pose, Love Victor, Special, the reboot of Tales of the City and Sex Education saw 21st century queer lives represented in all their gender-defying and colourful splendour like never before.
WHAT WE LISTENED TO
Born This Way – Lady Gaga (2011)
Same Love – Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert (2012)
Let’s have a Kiki – Scissor Sisters (2012)
King – Years & Years (2015)
Thanks U, Next – Ariana Grande (2018)
WHAT WE WATCHED
Orange is the New Black (2013 onwards)
Cucumber/ Banana/ Tofu (2015)
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Love Simon (2018)
To say the start of our current decade has been unexpected and unpredictable would be an understatement. Whilst we are only a couple of years in, there have already been countless highs and lows. Record numbers of competitors were out at last year’s delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, with Tom Daley finally diving (and knitting) his way to a gold medal alongside his synchronised diving partner Matty Lee. In May, Blackpool’s Jake Daniels became the UK’s first male pro-footballer to come out since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
On the negative front, The United Kingdom has dropped from 10th to 14th place on the ILGA Rainbow Europe Map and Index, following “widespread political and media anti-trans sentiment.” The UK Government has also fallen short on long-promised reforms to gender recognition, while the banning of so-called “conversion therapy” for all doesn’t include trans people. According to Stonewall, one in eight trans employees has been physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the last year, while half of trans people have hidden their identity at work for fear of discrimination. These issues should be at the heart of this year’s Pride in London.
To finish on a very positive note, this year also brought us the whimsical teen romance Heartstopper, introducing the world to Nick and Charlie and their colourful collection of queer friends. It’s definitely what the world needs right now and sends such a positive message of hope and acceptance to the younger LGBT+ population. Actor Ncuti Gatwa (who plays gay student Eric in Sex Education) has also been cast as the new Doctor Who, whilst transgender actress Yasmin Finney from Heartstopper has been cast as the character of Rose in the same show.
What a remarkable ride LGBT+ people have been on over the past five decades. A journey that has taken us from homophobia and police aggression on the first Pride march to millions of people across the world enjoying a romance between two teenage schoolboys. In the 1980s, youngsters struggled to access gay publications, while today the graphic novel on which Heartstopper was based has topped the children’s bestseller list in the UK. Now that’s progress.
Happy Pride everyone!
WHAT WE’RE LISTENING TO
Lil Nas X: Montero (Call Me by Your Name)
Ava Max: My Head and my Heart
Sam Smith with Summer Walker: You Will Be Found
WHAT WE’RE WATCHING NOW
Queer as Folk the reboot