The Gay Liberation Front …

… and subsequent related stuff, letters etc

Information collated for an email interview with a student in the US researching a project on the history of GLF, January 2019. The info following is from notes first made in 2010 in preparation for an interview (on marking 40 years of GLF) as a member of Age Concern’s Opening Doors Older LGBT project. Added to in 2012 and 2015, edited in 2019. 

‘I’m Frankie Green, born London, England,1949, a lesbian who’s been involved in various political movements or campaigns, such as the Gay Liberation Front, the Women’s Liberation Movement, women’s squatting communities, feminist rock bands, anti-Clause 28, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, environmental and anti-racist protests. I worked at lots of different jobs and voluntary occupations: waitress, cleaner, care assistant, driver, shop assistant, factory worker, disabled people’s support worker, e.g., before going to university as a mature student, getting a BA in Humanities and MA in Literature, then working as a Library Assistant and volunteering in literacy tutoring and HIV/AIDS support. Here’s a bit more: https://www.hiveonline.org.uk/events#1038

The Gay Liberation Front & me

I wasn’t one of the people who deserve the credit for taking the lead in GLF’s work; I didn’t make much of a contribution to it. I was one of the many people for whom GLF was a vital stage in our lives. It changed my life, maybe even saved it.

I found GLF in early 1971 – just too late to attend the first meetings at the London School of Economics (where it had been founded in October 1970 by a group including Bev Jackson (who’d run for office at that university while a student with the slogan ‘Bev the Lez for Prez”), Aubrey Walter, Bob Mellors, David Fernbach and Richard Dipple) and at Middle Earth in Covent Garden. I went to weekly meetings at All Saints Hall in Notting Hill until January 1972, at which point most of the women split from the men and began meeting separately. So this was a short period of time chronologically butavery intense one, and one which changed my life, crammed full as it was of activism, complicated events, fun, excitement, fast-evolving debates on sexuality, class, ‘race’, gender, transgender issues and more. (GLF activist Stuart Feather has compiled a chronology in his recent book Blowing the Lid: Gay Liberation, Sexual Revolution and Radical Queens http://www.zero-books.net/books/blowing-lid)

I was not involved in GLF for long, and only recently have been reappraising its importance, which can only be understood in the historical context of what preceded it. Lesbians were pathologised, as were gay men. There was some overlap of both experiences, but we did not have the legal prohibition which criminalised and imprisoned them. Our oppression was that of stigmatisation, shame, incarceration in mental institutions, the threat of losing homes, jobs or being unemployable, and the cruelty of being having children taken away. Women who had had children in heterosexual relationships were deemed by the courts to be unfit mothers. Friends of mine lost their children. Women having children by donor were similarly vulnerable. London’s Evening News paper did an expose on doctors providing women with this service with the headline ‘Dr Strangelove’. Consequently, lesbians held a protest by occupying the offices (see Spare Rib archive e.g. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/spare-rib-magazine-issue-129) This loss of child custody was a major issue. Gay Sweatshop’s play ‘Care and Control’ was a landmark in dramatising this injustice. (For more info, please see the fantastic archive on alternative theatre, including LGBT drama: http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/categories/gayandlesbian/

http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/history/companies/gay-sweatshop/care-and-control/)

My experience as a young lesbian had probably been fairly typical of the time for a woman of my background. Born in 1949 in a working-class white family in West London, I was taken by my parents when they emigrated in the 1950s to ‘New Zealand’, to where the same social structures had been transplanted. The message I had growing up seemed that you’d only be accepted if you took a particular path, living within heterosexual and capitalist career norms. School was authoritarian and harsh. There was no way of articulating unconventional feelings, and hiding what you felt seemed necessary to avoid ridicule or worse. Psychiatric services were to be avoided at all costs; there was no gay-friendly counselling. ‘You’ll end up in Sunnyside’ (the local ‘loony bin’) was the threat, and many did. 

As a child and teenager I felt increasingly unhappy, more so as the 60s wore on, and becoming a lesbian was difficult – like many people alienated by insular environments I began to dream of escape. I felt at odds with the conventional ethos of the society, in terms of the prevailing gender and racist conventions.I felt wrong, out of place, unhappy; I was uncomfortable in that type of society and disliked its colonial settler relationship to the land and ownership/exploitation of it. Especially later when I discovered the history of what had happened there to the indigenous people, the Maori. And that profits from the triangular slave trade – Britain–Africa-Caribbean – had funded colonisation in Australasia. Then when back in England meeting people from Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc, becoming more politically aware and coming to see how the jigsaw pieces of individual experience fitted together to make the bigger picture – personal journeys and aspirations of families like mine, post-WW2 ‘ten-pound poms’ migrating as a labour force to populate the colonies of the British Empire and further dispossess the indigenous population. I had the opportunity to learn early about racism by witnessing the treatment of Maori through the experience of living in Aotearoa/NZ, which fuelled my disgust at the injustice perpetrated upon Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Palestinians and anyone others dispossessed and colonized. ‘The non-Indigenous sense of belonging is inextricably tied to this original theft: through the fiction of Terra Nullius the migrant has been able to claim the right to live in our land. This right is one of the fundamental benefits white British migrants derived from dispossession.’ – Aileen Moreton-Robinson.

Alienation led to depression, eating disorder, bouts of drink and drug use and promiscuity. Always feeling out of place was not simply because of being a lesbian, but that was a major part of it. I dropped out of high school, had a series of tedious jobs. In terms of sexual orientation lesbians and gay men’s experience was hard – friends of mine were sectioned in psychiatric hospitals to suffer aversion therapy and ECT, people committed or attempted suicide – and a horrible silence about lesbians simultaneously invisibilised us and denied our existence while viewing us as monsters, freaks, perverts, mannish, not real women, somehow sub-human. 

There was no encouraging cultural input; we were invisible, or presented negatively. Films such as ‘The Fox,’ (based on a DH Lawrence story), ‘The Children’s Hour ’ (from the Lilian Hellman play) and ‘The Killing of Sister George,’ presented the tragic outcome of lesbianism as suicide or death from a falling phallic tree, providing nothing positive (other than creating a desire to go the Gateways, the lesbian club in London’s Chelsea.) There were no books, plays, music, no hint of the great flowering of lesbian, gay and feminist culture that was to come. The first lesbian writing I remember was Violette Le Duc’s ‘La Batarde.’ Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’  at least mentioned lesbians, if weirdly – and contained the relief of the premise of the social construction of gender: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.’

Luckily I missed out on Radclyffe Hall’s ‘The Well of Loneliness.’ Reading Jean Genet added an imagined sense of bohemianism when frequenting the few sleazy bars and clubs on offer, but I never fitted in with the idea of butch and femme that dominated the scene. I was lucky however in that there was a small group of alternative people, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, artists, writers and students in town, and I hung around on the fringes of that, comforted by their existence, developing crushes and having my first romantic experiences with women. There was activism against South African apartheid and the Vietnam war, although I encountered anti-gay attitudes and sexism amongst left-wing activists. I’d tried relationships with men, fallen in love with women at school & work, unsuccessfully, had a minor nervous breakdown, dropped out of a university course, hitchhiked in Europe, made my way back to England. I felt there was a radical tradition here that I could feel at home and participate in as an incipient feminist and socialist; I’d always been inspired by stories of Suffragettes, the Levellers, the Luddites etc – a tradition of people’s movements for justice.

In 1971 I was working as a waitress in Earl’s Court Wimpy bar, dreaming of being a writer. During the night shift it was full of drag queens, rent boys, people drifting between gay bars and clubs. One night a bunch of exuberant gay men came in selling GLF’s newpaper, ‘Come Together’. I was at my first meeting two days later, swept up in enthusiasm and wild energy. Walking into the hall, where a huge excited crowd of hundreds of gay men and dozens of women was buzzing with ideas and energy, was overwhelming. There I met masses of people: lesbians from Ireland, Scotland, country towns they’d fled, Franco’s Spain, dykes visiting from America such as Marguerite Paris, the late great film-maker from New York who made fabulous film of Gay Pride on Christopher St. Although women were in a minority and Black women and men even more so it was diverse in some ways and hugely inspiring; it was wonderful knowing other people were doing same things all over the country and other parts of the world. In England groundwork had been done by the Minority Rights Group, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, and lesbian groups Sappho and the magazine Arena Three. We knew of The Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine Society in America. The Stonewall riots had impelled and inspired GLF here. 

In July 1972 I helped organise and went on London’s first Gay Pride march. By then most of the women had left GLF, and some saw it as regressive to go on the march; others of us felt that to be visible as lesbians was important. I remember standing on the plinth, a few hundred of us, in Trafalgar Square. Protesting against persecution and celebrating our existence. Impossible then to imagine that people would later be there in their thousands. All these years on it’s hard maybe for some people to imagine what it was like before that moment: although there was joy and we had good times, the repression of the 1950/60s, ghettoised lives, secrets, fears, having to hide, losing jobs, losing children, being queer-bashed, took a toll. 

There was so much going on in GLF. Meetings every night, marching, lobbying, protesting, debating … I remember: sit-in demos in pubs that refused to serve us; street theatre against the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall and against Mary Whitehouse’s Festival of Light (where I remember the police started to attack us to the live accompaniment of Cliff Richard singing ‘Throw Down A Line’); women leafleting the Gateways when they refused to allow us to distribute GLF papers; women’s group meetings; consciousness-raising groups; working in the office in 5 Caledonian Road’s basement, answering letters and phonecalls – the precursor of helplines such as Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and Lesbian Line, which I joined in the 80s. The counter-psychiatry group, working against the definition of us as mentally ill; Troops Out of Northern Ireland demos; Free Angela Davis protests outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square; GLF women demonstrating outside Holloway women’s prison against unjust incarceration; supporting May Hobbs and the Night Cleaners’ strike; the 1972 miners’ strike, where I remember being crushed by police horses in Whitehall and where a GLF lesbian castigated male Trade Unionists who were shouting ‘Heath’s a poof; protesting about Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972, when British soldiers shot unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Northern Ireland) in another march on Downing St; producing the 2ndlesbian issue of ‘Come Together’; living in communes; Gay Days of being out in public; spray-painting graffiti; breaking into houses to squat. For an interesting personal historical account of this time, in particular West London GLF activism and transgender women in GLF, please see the website created by Mair:

https://web.archive.org/web/20080426221334/http://www.maironline.com/bobby/index.htm

There was a huge outpouring of creativity that emerged from that time: music, literature, theatre, newspapers, magazines, helplines, support groups, campaigning work, legal changes and reforms.During the 1970s and 80s many of us were setting up women’s squatted houses and communities; in some places there were whole streets of women’s squats. At the time many empty houses were taken over by people who wanted to live communally and/or were homeless and couldn’t get on social housing lists; the squatting movement was very strong and important in drawing attention to the scandal of private and council property being left unused when homes were needed. Lesbians and gay men were active in this movement, sometimes separately, sometime overlapping with mixed groups. Women became proficient in manual trades – plumbing, carpentry, building skills etc. Additionally we were involved in running printing presses to contribute to debate about housing and other rights, went on many protests (e.g. occupying Trafalgar Square Post Office during an International Women’s Day march to protect Family Allowances) and were often in court over our squatting actions. A wealth of information on this time is available from the Lesbian Archive at Glasgow Women’s Library https://womenslibrary.org.uk/explore-the-library-and-archive/the-archive-collection/the-lesbian-archive/, the Feminist Archive https://feministarchivenorth.org.uk and the Feminist Library https://feministlibrary.co.uk, and the music and cultural resistance that grew out of these times is archived in the Women’s Liberation Music Archive: https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk

Remembering GLF

For me encountering GLF was a watershed moment – one of those Big Bangs of ideas and energy that turn the world upside down – an intense burst of activism which continues to expand. Previous actions I’d taken part in rarely had that spirit, were serious events dominated by the ‘straight’ left. GLF was carnivalesque, took the piss out of the straight world, it was radical, outlaw, didn’t want to just be accepted or assimilated into the world but to change it utterly! It was vibrant, exciting, anarchic, celebratory, irreverent, showing that life-affirming fun was not separate from serious politics and questioning and criticising and analysing institutions and practices: denaturalising the family, heterosexism, marriage, monogamy, repressive gender roles of masculinity and femininity, ‘race’, rejection of patriarchal and authoritarian structures. 

I don’t want to put a gloss on the past or view it through rose-tinted spectacles. There were divisions and conflicts within GLF; I confess much of that passed me by, as I was swept up in the excitement and wasn’t involved for long. Perhaps there is an advantage to that: these memories for me are a mostly positive overview. Some of the concerns of lesbians and gay men overlapped – job & housing discrimination; family rejection; being ridiculed; physical violence; coming out; but some diverged widely, with men concerned with age of consent, police harassment of cruising, while lesbians were dealing with child custody issues, supporting women faced with husbands’ domestic violence and economic dependence upon men, childcare, housing, e.g. 

Some time afterwards, I came to know of the attempts by child sexual abusers to hitch their wagon to the Gay Liberation movement to gain legitimacy, using the euphemism ‘paedophilia’; it was sickening to discover this, though it was obvious in hindsight that a specious confluence of ideas of liberation created a perfect storm for this predatory opportunism. Finding out about this cast a retrospective shadow over my experience of GLF.

GLF happened in the era of and was inspired by movements for social justice of that time: anti-colonialism; Civil Rights & Black Power movements; the Women’s Liberation Movement; the anti-apartheid movement. Its manifesto  stated ‘The long-term goal of Gay Liberation, which inevitably brings us into conflict with the institutionalised sexism of this society, is to rid society of the gender-role system which is at the root of our oppression … We do not intend to ask for anything. We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights.’  It recognised that overthrowing gender roles and heterosexism were the basis of our struggle. And it was not bounded by national boundaries but had a spirit of internationalism.

In GLF we weren’t after being equal within an unequal society through reforming it, but about throwing out the whole system that was based on and perpetuated inequality, injustice, capitalism, class, race, gender. Radical transformation of the social, political, economic order. I still believe that, but also have a different understanding now however of the ramifications of equality in the sense of human rights, the importance of equality under the law.

You could say there were two divergent strands of activism, which often is the case in social movements: on the one hand a radical, transformational politics, and on the other an equality-based or assimilationist politics seeking acceptance or integration within existing norms. And a dialectical, ever-changing relationship between them.

Women in GLF and the WLM

In October 1971, I went with 2 minibus-loads of GLF women to the 2nd national Women’s Liberation Movement conference, in Skegness. There we introduced the politics of lesbianism to the agenda, and had to deal with much antagonism. Our revolt was part of a larger one against the rigid structure of the way the event was organised by a National Co-ordinating Committee. Women broke out of sitting in rows listening to a panel presenting papers and went off into small workshops, discussing sex, sexuality, everything about our lives: ‘we are the experts!’ That was very exciting – taking power back, developing our own analyses, doing consciousness-raising.

Snapshots of memory: queues of women forming on stage, a man from a Maoist group jumping up and trying to take away the microphone, a GLF woman taking it and saying ‘we have to discuss lesbianism,’ finding that both the accommodation and conference were mixed and insisting that men must leave, that this was the Women’s Liberation Movement – for and by ourselves – and must be based on political autonomy (from other political groupings and men.) Someone was overheard asking ‘how come the lesbians have so many children?’ Circles of women with serious faces, the long hairstyles of the time, earnest impassioned discussions. 

In the new year of 1972 a GLF women’s group ‘think-in’ was held at All Saints Hall, which decided the women would split from GLF. Gay Women’s Liberation began meeting at the Three Wheatsheaves pub in Upper Street in Nth London and then in Sth London, when Lesbian Liberation set up in a women’s centre. 

As I recall it, GLF women were varied, but whether left wing, liberal, apolitical or becoming radical feminist, most came to find the male dominance of GLF difficult, both in behaviour and sheer outnumberedness. However, it was also a positive political decision to leave, not simply a reaction to sexist behaviour and tokenism toward us. The men varied too: some supported Women’s Liberation, some were sorry we left, others sexist, hostile, glad to see the back of us. I saw it as a natural evolving of understanding – becoming woman-identified and moving toward the Women’s Liberation Movement and being part of that. It was not always a smooth ride however, insisting on our presence in the WLM; we had to contend with heterosexism and prejudice there too, along with issues of class and racism. However ‘the right to a self-defined sexuality’ came to be a preface added to the WLM list of demands, as well as the call for ‘an end to discrimination against lesbians.’ 

I came to feel and still believe that while gay men and lesbians have overlapping issues the persecution of lesbians is part and parcel of the oppression of women generally – denial of our right to own and control our own bodies and lives, to bodily integrity and self-determination, reproductive and sexual rights. I felt it was important to assert this viewpoint and felt disappointed when in subsequent decades lesbians and gay men were again bracketed together having once taken that progressive step forward into autonomy – it became like ‘Mr and Mrs Gay’ – and that categorisation split lesbians off from other women. Not to deny that those local government equality units in the 80s did some positive work. I just thought then lesbians were again subsumed within mixed organisations and divided from other women, classed as female gays rather than as women(And also that there was a risk of co-optation and funding-dependency making us vulnerable.)

Heterosexism– the belief that women and men are complementary opposites, that women are not complete without men, belong naturally together – is a dualism offensive to all women, I think. I never felt comfortable with the term ‘homophobia’ – it implies an irrational fear, but feminists understood that fear of us may be rational: we can be a threat to patriarchal power.

There were such great experiences in GLF. New freedom and boldness and acts of kindness. New friendships and lots of sexual relationships, often overlapping. There were friendships created that have lasted until now and enmities as well, and there were hard experiences. 

Compulsory Heterosexuality

“It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other, which is at the heart of women’s liberation.” ~ Radicalesbians

Understanding this was part of developing an analysis of heterosexuality as an institution, not merely a sexual preference or natural norm, as in Adrienne Rich’s work e.g., which suggested ways of seeing lesbianism as a female experience and defied bifurcation of us into lesbian or heterosexual. She proposed a ‘lesbian continuum,’ which I thought an innovative way of re-imagining connections between women, rejecting that narrow dichotomy. (Some lesbians disagreed, feeling it erased the specificity of lesbianism; some heterosexual women were not comfortable with being so re-defined.) 

This was not lesbianism banalised as a lifestyle or personal preference but as an existence with huge ramifications for our understanding of women’s oppression, compulsory heterosexuality, economic exploitation – denaturalising relations usually seen as normal – a prism through which the world can be re-understood.

Women without men – being for ourselves, complete in ourselves, not existing in relation to men – still offends patriarchal control of women by men, families, religions and states; lesbians embody the challenge to that control.

Internationalism and solidarity

I never felt GLF was solely about this country or even Europe but that it must be internationalist in outlook and global in solidarity. Lesbians, as are gay men and trans people, are persecuted, imprisoned, attacked, raped and murdered in places as disparate as South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Iran, e.g., and of course within pockets of oppression in this country where these inhuman acts are sanctioned by religious or so-called cultural traditions. So we need to seize and defend all the legal human rights we can and be vigilant in working to protect and extend them, and uphold the principles of secularism and human rights that will develop them. 

Just as oppression crosses national boundaries so human solidarity must and can transcend them. We must stand against religious tyranny and cultural relativism to insist human rights are indivisible and universal. It is also important to oppose attempts to pinkwash oppression by states who present themselves as enlightened or liberal while committing heinous human rights abuses, such as Israel.

Marriage

I would not like lgbt people, especially feminist lesbians, in the future, to think that everyone who accepted civil partnerships/marriage equality had ‘sold out’, as they are sometimes accused, settling for a reform that gave us an equality rather than revolutionary change. 

The debate is interesting as marriage remains an area of greatly contested meaning. Many think that same-sex marriage is about respectability, but it may have a radical, challenging edge too. Feminist critiques of marriage are still valid, and in many places the institution is a site of struggle against male control of women, be it women resisting forced marriage, insisting on the right to choose their own partners or to remain unmarried. Visibly legalising lesbian relationships may be part of that struggle. I see it on a spectrum of activism against compulsory marriage, FGM, so-called ‘honour’ killings, domestic violence – everything that works to control women and keep us down. Also, we might see that legal rights acknowledging the legitimacy of same-sex partnerships validate all lesbians not only those in relationships. Not that we need the state to validate us – but the bottom line is that all citizens must have equality under the law. We need to be able to be each other’s legal next of kin, e.g. – to not face the possibility of losing children, homes, work, rights to hospital visitation etc, which becomes even more crucial as we age. It’s vital that those of us in a place and time where we can achieve civil rights do so to send a message to those in more oppressive situations that struggle can achieve goals. There are forms of pro-equality politics I feel far more opposition to where I oppose assimilation – gays in the military, e.g., when I believe militarism and patriotism should be campaigned against, or 50/50 gender parity in political organisations when it includes rightwing women.  I like the attitude of http://www.againstequality.org and their desire ‘to reinvigorate the queer political imagination with fantastic possibility!’

Maybe same-sex marriage is viewable rather as radical suffragettes saw the vote: a symbol of citizenship, not an end in itself but an insistence on the essential equality of all human beings and a refusal of and challenge to systems of patriarchal control. Not to mention an excuse for great parties.

Legacy achievements of GLF, and Clause 28

I’m glad we’re saying ‘forty years of GLF’ not ‘since’. The spirit of GLF lives on wherever that sparky defiant assertion of our rights exists, when we stand up against tyranny and refuse to tolerate discrimination, oppression, male supremacy and heterosexism. In groups like Palestinian lesbian group Aswat, or QUIT – Queers Undermining Israeli Terrorism – in the USA, etc.

One outcome of GLF and WLM was the development of a base from which to organise a national movement against the appalling clause 28, the draconian right-wing attempt in 1988 to legislate us back into the state of invisibility and invalidation out of which we had struggled. This was part of a backlash from the Thatcher government aimed at local governments. Many Labour councils had developed Equality Units, including Lesbian and Gay Units, which were publicly funded and pushing forward progressive agendas for the provision of housing, employment and education rights. They were of course ridiculed as the ‘loony left.’ 

Hackney Dykes banner in front of pro-clause 28 Conservatives at Haringey Town Hall with Angie and Diane Outwrite women’s newspaper, issue 65

The clause was put forward at the same time as an anti-abortion rights bill; it also drew on and perpetuated anti-gay prejudice during the HIV and AIDS crisis. This vicious backlash hit not only at progress made in terms of gay rights, but the WLM’s achievements of challenging patriarchal nuclear families and establishing collective ways of living and working. This was evidenced in the second part of the clause which attempted to ban the presenting in schools of  ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ 

The Sun, 16.12.87

Feminists organised against the clause in groups all over the country, such as Hackney Dykes, which I joined, and many others nationally. Lesbian activist protests included abseiling into the House of Lords, invading the BBC newsroom, being thrown out of the public gallery after the parliamentary debate (ref Hansard, 15 November 1987, and the above cutting), occupying a show house at the Ideal Home Exhibition, chaining themselves to railings at Buckingham Palace dressed as suffragettes, to name a few. Although as an organisation GLF had not continued in the original form, it had given people experience of organising and campaigning to draw on. A strong sense of civil rights meant a determination to never go backward. We had networks, resources, groups, communities, helplines, cafes, centres, national, parliamentary and international support enabling us to mount a campaign of great strength, passionately fought. Although we were unable at that point to stop the clause – despite our lobbying, demonstrations, picketing of Town Halls and parliament, and magnificent direct actions – the law was eventually repealed. 

Hackney Dykes banner on Manchester march against Clause 28

We can never be complacent. Anti-gay bullying in schools continues, religious denial of our human rights raises its ugly head regularly, and Britain is horrifically deporting lesbian and gay asylum seekers back to life-threatening situations – a shameful racist situation making a mockery of its supposed anti-discrimination stance. Human rights are indivisible and there is no pride in the fact that I can have a civil partnership while other lesbians are being denied safe refuge and forced out of the country into terrible danger. 

Subsequent governments continue to out-Thatcher Thatcher. Savage cuts, big lies. The continuation of the project: to expropriate the wealth of the world away from people and into the hands of the elite; ride roughshod over human rights; the privatisation of resources and enclosure of the commons.’

LGBT Pride London, July 3 2010 I went to Pride that year having been offered transport organised by Age Concern’s Older LGBT People’s Opening Doors project.

Three women with bright clothes, balloons and smiles, posing before Pride march in London 2010.
Pride, London, 2010, with Diane Langford and wonderful Opening Doors worker Stacey

I had not been to many Pride marches over the years, as they had became increasingly co-opted, commercialised, corporatised, de-politicised; I didn’t feel much connection with them. So this was an interesting experience. The younger LGBT people marching through London touched my heart. I felt the urgency of the need for the world to be different so that none of them would ever have to feel the way I did as a teenager and young woman – and rage that I had done so. As the bus arrived at Trafalgar Square I remembering standing on the plinth in 1972, a few hundred of us surrounded by masses of police. No crowds smiling, cheering and clapping then, when people jeered and threw stuff at us. This year I saw recognition on faces as we waved from the top deck: younger dykes acknowledging us, older gay people nodding. 

It’s not often enough that older people are recognised, activists acknowledged. I saw we’d been useful, made important changes, started a process, brought about change. I’d been just one of the many people who made a contribution to a mass movement – many of whom are no longer with us. I am interested in the long-term psychological effects that can last even when material factors have changed – the damage done by early experiences of stigmatisation, shaming, discrimination – the word ‘discrimination’ doesn’t go deep enough – scorn, derision, contempt, the instilling of fear of rejection, the hiding of one’s true feelings. The effects of pathologisation can go very deep and be long-lasting. Even when we feel great pride and strength, in the present, and have overcome so much, residual traces of previous oppression can co-exist within us and need to be taken into account in our later lives. We should not have to fear more bad treatment as older people, worrying that the good, positive part of our lives will be sandwiched between traumatic times. 

We know the bigots were wrong, there is nothing wrong with us – yet somehow their poison can creep inside, taking its toll on mental health. I recently met a woman in her 60s about to have a Civil Partnership yet dreading it – the exposure of being seen. She had been outed, shamed and sacked from her career when much younger, and despite subsequent success still had internalised negative feelings. I want to strive with others with similar commitment toward a society, a world, where this is no longer possible.

Personally I feel positive about growing older. It’s an opportunity, to grow, evolve, observe the changes in ourselves and others. And also to keep on developing as an activist and a person. It should be seen as a rich time. Yet I am angry that we live in a society of institutionalised ageism. I’m lucky enough to be in a place where some of us can benefit from an increased life expectancy, yet older people are constantly referred to as a problem, a burden upon limited resources. Another lie, another constructed scarcity, when the reality is as ever that if resources were used and distributed differently, priorities different, aging would be seen as the opportunity it is. All our experiences are mediated through the distortions of their capitalist, racialised and patriarchal context, and we have to create our own meanings for them rather than accept the constructed, received wisdom, trying to affirm the truth of what it means to us to be a woman, a lesbian, an old person, etc.

I saw a newspaper article en route to Pride 2010 about gay Tories. What a travesty for gay rights to be allied with the right wing – we were a movement that stood for social and economic justice and I believe we must go on with that, especially in this time of cuts to public services and basic human rights. Progressive movements are often in danger of being lost amidst a backlash of caricature, trivialization, misrepresentation, and co-optation. La lucha continua! There’s so much hope, in the energy manifested in activism all over the world

Wherever there is oppression there is resistance, which is never futile; the struggle for a better world, for social justice, always continues.

Frankie Green 2010

2012: Against Pinkwashing

I’m currently involved in anti-pinkwashing campaigning against Israeli attempts to hijack our cause. I helped draft the letter sent out to the media, as below, which several long-term activists including original GLF members signed: 

‘Dear Editor,

London will host this summer’s World Pride Festival, four decades on from the Gay Liberation Front’s first Gay Pride events. Simultaneous and overlapping with the civil rights, anti-apartheid and Women’s Liberation movements, GLF also drew inspiration from the national liberation struggles of people freeing themselves from colonialism.The LGBT rights we now celebrate originate in the groundbreaking work of that era.

How ironic it would be if, in an attempt to gain a veneer of respectability by promoting itself as a liberal, tolerant haven for gay people and a prime gay holiday destination, an oppressive regime which routinely violates human rights, practises institutional racism and dispossesses an indigenous population tried to co-opt that progress. 

As long-term advocates of LGBT and women’s rights, some of whom created the first Gay Pride events, we wish to express our concern at the cynical hijacking of those rights by Israel’s ‘pinkwashing’ PR campaign. The specious freedoms enjoyed by some Israeli gay people and visitors to Tel Aviv’s nightclubs bear no more relation to real equality than did the privileges accorded white people during South African apartheid. Pinkwashing tries to divert attention from the untold suffering caused by Israel’s subjection of the Palestinians to siege, bombardment, military occupation, ethnic cleansing, land theft, settler violence, killings (180 in 2011 alone), imprisonment, forced exile, the crushing of economic, educational and social infrastructure and denial of legitimate aspirations to self-determination. 

We write in solidarity with Palestinian LGBT and civil society organisations who initiated the burgeoning global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to bring pressure to bear upon Israel until it complies with international law, and endorse their insistence on the universality of human rights. We invite all who share our abhorrence of Israel’s persecution of the Palestinians to observe the boycott of Israeli tourism and goods, and hope that LGBT people encountering pinkwashing will take pride in remembering the roots of our campaigning history and support the Palestinian quest for justice.’

Pride 2105  For more re the right-wing and a controversy over UKIP at London’s Pride march, please see this letter, published in Pink News in June 2015: http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2015/06/15/comment-letting-ukip-march-at-pride-would-be-an-affront-to-our-history/

Dear Flo,

I was very lucky to be able to take part in the first Pride march in London during time within the Gay Liberation Front. In your article in Pink News asserting that your group had a right to march in this year’s Pride, you cite that original march as an historical precedent that your group is heir to. It seems to me that you have somewhat misunderstood the facts regarding that event, and I am therefore writing to provide some information that may be useful. In light of the welcome news of the decision that your group will be disallowed, I would like to add my comments to the debate.

Firstly, despite your thinking that the first march almost completely consisted of gay men, I assure you that many women were amongst those ‘few hundred men who marched, years before my birth,’ who faced ‘serious abuse and threats when they set off from Hyde Park. They were pioneers and must be celebrated for their courage.’

Those women, of whom I was one, went on to work in hundreds of organisations working for the rights of lesbians because of what we had experienced including losing custody of our children, our jobs and housing, being stigmatised and ostracised or incarcerated as mentally ill. Some of us have worked in coalitions with gay men and others and in Trades Unions against class exploitation, racism, ableism and sexism. We have also worked in the overlapping causes of justice for those, including LGBT people, seeking refuge after fleeing persecution elsewhere in the world (often as a result of British military intervention in their countries of origin) and combating racism in its myriad forms (also a direct legacy of British imperialism and colonialism) and the principles of human rights, feminist and anti-racist causes – and continue to do so. 

I’d like also to let you know those women and men in GLF came from and celebrated a variety of European and world-wide backgrounds. We were well-aware of the traditional practice of scapegoating immigrants, and anyone regarded as ‘other’ by racist mindsets (as if Britain was not a nation formed by migrants), by the political establishment, as a means of turning people against one another and diverting attention from real common enemies, such as unjust systems of power, economic greed and mean-minded notions of nationalism. In the current rightwing climate, we see the same old same old dynamic in the hate-mongering attempt to stir up resentment against involvement in Europe, immigrants and people in need of safety. Ironically, all the while – if national sovereignty were something you cared about – it should be obvious that the real threats to democracy actually come from the machinations of global corporate capitalism such as TTIP, e.g.

I remember clearly how our intentions back then were based on progressive principles of sharing, open-heartedness, internationalism and human solidarity. We were not simply about ‘equality’ – a much-misused term. Most of us were not seeking equality within an unjust system, but radical social transformation. The clue is in the names! Gay Liberation Front, Women’s Liberation Movement. If you are interested in history then you will see that at the time of our movements’ flowering, the world was undergoing huge changes brought about movements in countries throwing off colonialism, the Black Power movement, the civil rights movement … in that context we analysed the political situations of patriarchy, capitalism, white and male supremacy, and developed an understanding of the links between oppressions.  We felt ourselves part of a time in which the struggle for universal liberation from oppression was in ascendency. We were joyful and celebratory as part of that zeitgeist, not only because of developing a pride in being lesbian or gay. Our activism was carnivalesque in the sense of turning the world upside down, inverting and mocking the traditional power structures. I cannot speak for other women and men who formed that original contingent, or subsequent generations of activists (though if any of them read this they are welcome to add their names to mine), but I can say for myself that I believe most of us in that optimistic era never dreamt of a time when a group such as UKIP would co-opt our activism, our language and our cause in a specious attempt to give itself legitimacy. You misrepresent the notion of inclusivity and render it superficial at best if you think we could be connected in any way to the kind of narrow, xenophobic views espoused by UKIP. 

In 2012 I was again fortunate, being able to be amongst people at the front of the London march with the banner “Veterans of 1972,’ marking the fortieth anniversary of that first march. Simultaneously I was proud to be part of the anti-pinkwashing campaign, marching against the attempts by Israel’s government to hijack hard-won rights as a propaganda smokescreen for its oppression of the Palestinian people under the slogan: No Pride in Israeli Apartheid. (This follows a slogan adopted by an Israeli LGBT group opposing the ongoing theft of Palestinian land, ’No Pride in Occupation.’) I saw this as a continuation of GLF’s radical tradition of solidarity; standing opposite the South African embassy I recalled countless demonstrations in Trafalgar Square calling for an end to that previous vile apartheid system. With thousands of other people I’ve marched for that cause and many others, including subsequent Pride marches and anti-Clause 28 with my family and friends comprising a hugely diverse mixture of humanity. 

I didn’t march for this: a noxious political party representing an appeal to the basest elements: fear of others, ignorance, bigotry and repression. The presence of UKIP on a Pride march is an affront to those who took part in long struggles for justice. The racist and anti-democratic nature of UKIP cannot be disguised by its adopting a tactical veneer of respectability, and it is a travesty to present yourselves as victims bravely facing intolerance. 

I sincerely invite you to rethink your positioning of yourself in alliance with this party and to join the worldwide movements for justice and liberation.

Yours sincerely, Frankie 

GLF veterans marching in London on the 40th anniversary of the first Pride march

At a GLF reunion/revival at LSE, 2018, including lesbian activists Jane Trais, Lindsay River, Jamie Wildman. Thanks to Stuart Feather, Andrew Lumsden, Dan Glass and other organisers

Notes for a lesbian panel discussion event at Shropshire LGBT History Festival, February 2019: ‘Outing the 70s and 80s’ https://www.shrewsburylgbthistory.org.uk

Remembering the Gay Liberation Front

I thought I’d talk a bit about my experience of encountering GLF in 1971. GLF was a watershed moment – one of those Big Bangs of ideas and energy that turn the world upside down – an intense burst of activism which continues to expand. GLF was carnivalesque, took the piss out of the straight world, it was radical, outlaw, and the strand of it that most appealed to me didn’t want to just be accepted or assimilated into the world but to change it utterly! It was vibrant, exciting, anarchic, celebratory, irreverent, showing that life-affirming fun was not separate from serious politics and questioning and criticising and analysing institutions and practices: denaturalising the family, heterosexism, marriage, monogamy, repressive gender roles of masculinity and femininity, rejection of patriarchal and authoritarian structures. 

Before GLF

GLF‘s importance can only be understood in the historical context of what preceded it. Lesbians were pathologised, as were gay men, and deemed mentally ill perverts. There was some overlap of both experiences, but we did not have the legal prohibition which criminalised and imprisoned them. Our oppression was that of stigmatisation, shame, incarceration in mental institutions, the threat of losing homes, jobs or being unemployable, and the cruelty of being having children taken away – deemed by the courts unfit mothers.

When I was young you’d only be accepted if you took a particular path, living within heterosexual and capitalist career norms. School was authoritarian and harsh. There was no way of articulating unconventional feelings, and hiding what you felt seemed necessary to avoid ridicule or worse. Psychiatric services were to be avoided at all costs; there was no gay-friendly counselling. ‘You’ll end up in Sunnyside’ (the local institution) was the threat, and many did. 

As a child and teenager I felt increasingly unhappy, more so as the 60s wore on, and becoming a lesbian was difficult – like many people alienated by insular environments I began to dream of escape. I felt at odds with the conventional ethos of the society, in terms of the prevailing gender and racist conventions.I felt wrong, out of place, unhappy; I was uncomfortable in that type of society (NZ) and disliked its colonial settler relationship to the land and ownership/exploitation of it.

I don’t want to put a gloss on the past or view it through rose-tinted spectacles. There were divisions and conflicts within GLF; I confess much of that passed me by, as I was swept up in the excitement and wasn’t involved for long. Perhaps there is an advantage to that: these memories for me are a mostly positive overview. Some of the concerns of lesbians and gay men overlapped – job & housing discrimination; family rejection; being ridiculed; physical violence; coming out; but some diverged widely, with men concerned with age of consent, police harassment of cruising, but lesbians dealing with child custody issues, supporting women faced with husbands’ domestic violence and economic dependence upon men, childcare, housing, e.g. 

Context of GLF 

It was the era of inspiring movements for social justice: anti-colonialism; Civil Rights & Black Power movements; the Women’s Liberation Movement; the anti-apartheid movement. Its manifesto https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/pwh/glf-london.asp stated ‘The long-term goal of Gay Liberation, which inevitably brings us into conflict with the institutionalised sexism of this society, is to rid society of the gender-role system which is at the root of our oppression … We do not intend to ask for anything. We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights.’  

It recognised that overthrowing gender roles and heterosexism were the basis of our struggle. And it was not bounded by national boundaries but had a spirit of internationalism.

In GLF we weren’t after being equal within an unequal society through reforming it, but about throwing out the whole system that was based on and perpetuated inequality, injustice, capitalism, class, race, gender. Radical transformation of the social, political, economic order. We turned shame into Pride.

Clause 28

One outcome of GLF and WLM was the development of a base from which to organise a national movement against the appalling clause 28, the draconian right-wing attempt in 1988 to legislate us back into a state of invisibility and invalidation. The persecution of Gay’s The Word bookshop which Janet’s film documents so well came from the same reaction to gains we made. The clause was part of a backlash from the Thatcher government aimed at local governments. Many Labour councils had developed Equality Units, including Lesbian and Gay Units, which were publicly funded and pushing forward progressive agendas for the provision of housing, employment and education rights. They were ridiculed as the ‘loony left.’ 

It was no coincidence that the clause was put forward at the same time as an anti-abortion rights bill – all part of trying to quash women’s right to control our own bodies and lives. It also drew on and perpetuated anti-gay prejudice during the HIV and AIDS crisis. This vicious backlash hit not only at progress made in terms of gay rights, but the WLM’s achievements of challenging patriarchal nuclear families and establishing collective ways of living and working. This was evidenced in the second part of the clause which attempted to ban the presenting in schools of  ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.’ 

Feminists organised against the clause in groups, such as Hackney Dykes, which I joined, and many others nationally. Lesbian activist protests included abseiling into the House of Lords, invading the BBC newsroom, being thrown out of the public gallery after the parliamentary debate (ref Hansard, 15 November 1987), occupying a show house at the Ideal Home Exhibition, chaining themselves to railings at Buckingham Palace dressed as suffragettes, to name a few. Although as an organisation GLF had faltered, it had given people experience of organising and campaigning to draw on. A strong sense of civil rights meant a determination to never go backward. We had networks, resources, groups, communities, helplines, cafes, centres, national, parliamentary and international support enabling us to mount a campaign of great strength, passionately fought. Although we lost – despite our lobbying, demonstrations, picketing of Town Halls and parliament, and magnificent direct actions – the law was eventually repealed in 2003. 

With Diane Langford and Hackney Dykes marching through London against Clause 28, 1987

The Present:

We can never be complacent about any gains made. Anti-gay bullying in schools continues, religious denial of our human rights raises its ugly head regularly, and Britain is horrifically deporting lesbian and gay asylum seekers back to life-threatening situations – a shameful racist situation making a mockery of its supposed anti-discrimination stance. Human rights are indivisible and there is no pride in the fact that I can have a civil partnership while other lesbians are being denied safe refuge and forced out of the country into terrible danger. 

Pinkwashing

The spirit of solidarity both with other oppressed groups and lgbt people worldwide which was integral to GLF continues in the actions of anti-pinkwashing campaigns against Israeli apartheid and L&G Support the Migrants against deportations under the vile tory ‘hostile environment’ policy.

Political culture

I’ve always been interested in how music and other art is integral to political movements; WLM with its great burgeoning of cultural activism being no exception. There I met inspirational women such as Luchia (Fitzgerald) and Angela (Cooper) when they set up Women’s Aid in Manchester, and who are with us here today and are the subjects of the wonderful film Invisible Women. I met them again when they were in Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band which is featured in the Women’s Liberation Music Archive you have leaflets about. WLMA was set up to document and celebrate the feminist music-making of that time – I hope you’ll find it interesting: https://womensliberationmusicarchive.co.uk

© Frankie Green 2019

Various letters:

Whitstable Gazette, May 2019
Pink Paper, 1994
25 October 2005