The end of homophobic discrimination

Helena Pozniak looks at a movement that involved changing society rather than adapting to it

“We were just spectacular,” says Michael James, former drag queen and member of the 1970s’ Gay Liberation Front. “Visible, colourful, out loud, inventive, flamboyant and very, very funny.” It’s been 40 years since gay men and women put forward a radical notion – being gay wasn’t something to hide or apologise for, but rather something of which to be proud.

“We were just spectacular,” says Michael James, former drag queen and member of the 1970s’ Gay Liberation Front. “Visible, colourful, out loud, inventive, flamboyant and very, very funny.” It’s been 40 years since gay men and women put forward a radical notion – being gay wasn’t something to hide or apologise for, but rather something of which to be proud. This was revolutionary. In the preceding years, police had often turned a blind eye to violence against gay men or deliberately ensnared them. Lesbian, gay and transgender people could be sacked from jobs, arrested for kissing in the street, denied custody of their children and refused service in pubs. Medical experts still practised aversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality. Britain’s Gay Liberation Front, formed in the wake of a US movement after New York’s anti-homophobic Stonewall riots, was equally driven by ideals of freedom and innovation.

“Although GLF campaigned to end homophobic discrimination, equal rights were not our main focus,” says Peter Tatchell, former GLF member and human rights campaigner. He went on to help form OutRage!, which has attempted to continue the GLF radical tradition. “Equality was a far too limiting

agenda. We never wanted equal rights within the social status quo. We saw society as fundamentally unjust, and sought to change it, to end the oppression of queers – and of everyone else.”

Over the four years of its existence, many thousands of people attended the weekly GLF meetings held in the capital. “Hippies, activists, students,” recalls James, who brought along the urns from his Portobello Road cafe to provide tea at the meetings. “For me, it was a light coming on; as if the whole of my life had been leading to that moment. It cut me free from my last vestiges of guilt.”

While some pressure groups campaigned for legal reform, GLF veterans say they fought the battle for hearts and minds. Pioneers had a vision: a “live-and-let-live” sexual democracy.

“We didn’t believe changing the law was the answer. It could just as equally be taken away from us,” says GLF veteran Stuart Feather, who joined a London commune of drag queens and radical feminists during their nine-month squat in a London film studio. Members of this commune practised a new style of political protest against conformist gender roles – couched in humour and performance. “The commune was absolutely wonderful, something none of us had experienced before; it was bliss,” says Feather. “We were starting to explore sexism and did it through drag. We weren’t pretending to be women – we were men in frocks, working out what it meant to be gay men: no fake breasts. I found people’s liberalism went out the window when actually confronted by a man in drag. It was very empowering.”

Among the many subversive direct actions, or “zaps” as they were known, taken by the GLF, James remembers a sense of humour and invention. Protesters threw flour over Bob Hope at a Miss World competition, marched in upon a London radio station which broadcast anti-gay comments, organised sit-ins, locked London councillors overnight in a church hall, and performed impromptu acts of street theatre outside magistrates’ courts. The group organised telephone support, publications, awareness-raising groups. “We were right for our time,” says James. When “Have a gay day” became a nationwide catchphrase, the GLF chalked this up as a success – they’d organised “Gay days” in London parks.

The GLF disrupted a rally in 1971 organised by fundamentalist Christians campaigning for a more church-based morality. Backed by figures such as Mary Whitehouse, Cliff Richard, Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Longford, the Festival of Light held an opening meeting in Westminster, lobbying for an end to “moral evils”including openly gay lifestyles. Protesters switched off the electricity, released mice and planted kissing “nuns” into the audience, sounded horns and unfurled banners. At another protest, James recalls being herded by police towards Trafalgar Square’s lion statues. “There was nowhere to go but up.” Caught by the police, he was carried “like a pig on a stick through the crowd”. Right-wing papers were outraged.

The GLF published eight demands for freedom, acceptance and rights – an interim manifesto en route to revolutionary social change. “They’re still valid,” says former GLF campaigner Alan Wakeman, who’s arranging for the original publication to be reproduced in larger typeface to celebrate the anniversary. “We’re all 40 years older after all.”

The GLF leaves a weighty legacy – a liberated, self-aware community, say campaigners. “Personally, we stopped feeling an inferior species,” said Wakeman. “Until then, we’d spent our lives being told we were bad.”

But the battle for equality has not yet been won, says Tatchell. Sixty five per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have been bullied in Britain’s schools, according to a 2006 survey by the Schools Health Education Unit on behalf of Stonewall; while a 2008 survey found 38 per cent of the public believed homosexuality was “always” or “mostly” wrong. “Compared to GLF, most of today’s LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] campaign groups are conservative and reformist,” he says. “The core message of GLF was that genuine queer emancipation involves changing society, rather than adapting to it. This requires nothing less than a full-scale cultural revolution, to overturn centuries of male heterosexual domination. Then, and only then, will queers and women be truly free.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own