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Saturday, September 4, 2010

The origins of the Gay Liberation Front ... and disrupting the 'Festival of Light' - UK 1960s (1998)

An excerpt from "Days in the Life - Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971", p. 378-382, Pimlico, UK, 1998.
The 'Festival of Light ' was a short-lived UK right wing Christian campaign involving Cliff Richard, Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge and other 'concerned' religious bores. It was a lame attempt to counter the libertarian culture of the 1960s-70s by re-asserting traditional Christian values.
Including an amusing account of winding up the up-tight god squad...
The origins of the Gay Liberation Front
... and disrupting the 'Festival of Light'
DUNCAN FALLOWELL: Gay Lib started about '69. The wonderful thing about it was that it had nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Politicised gay life is not a sexual thing. Gay clubs actually came later. There were pubs from before the war, but not actual gay clubs, which took longer to develop. The first one of any size, any cohesion, was the Gigolo, in the King's Road. That was just coffee. Then there was the Catacombs in Earls Court and that just served coffee, and then the whole thing took off. But Gay Lib was nothing to do with sex, it was to do with political banners. It's even more true about the lesbian thing, which has nothing to do with the hunger of women to satisfy each other's lusts with each other's bodies - much more to do with trying to live a life in which they're not going to be eaten up by men.
ANDREW LUMSDEN: GLF was a very working-class movement, although there were a certain number of middle-class members, quite influential ones, through either their ideas or the work they did. I was never important in GLF, it was something I found a couple of weeks after it had started and began going to. All the ideas were created elsewhere, here and in the States. The first couple of meetings at the LSE attracted 30-40 people. I went to the second or third. Soon the lecture room was crowded out with 300 or more. By the time we moved to Middle Earth, after about four months, there were probably 1000 or so. But then attendance began to dwindle. People from all over the country had heard about it on the grapevine and came rushing to take part, but when they went back home they started up groups of their own.
In Britain the thinkers fed in gender politics right from the start. Most of the men who turned up for GLF meetings didn't know what the hell that was about. Sounded fine: any reasonably decent man could say, 'Yes, women shouldn't be put down,' but nothing deeper than that. It was very influential in the genesis of GLF, but a handful of people had to put it there. We had consciousness-raising exercises: coming-out experiences were common. The most gruelling thing was talking about what you personally liked to do sexually - one's fantasies.
RICHARD ADAMS: In 1971 the Festival of Light [an evangelical Christian movement promoting 'traditional family values'] had a big meeting in Westminster Hall and people from the GLF dressed up as nuns and let loose mice. And the Bethnal Green gay commune, comprised almost entirely of transvestites, were conducting this really bizarre form of street theatre, especially round Speakers' Corner. Things to do with both gay and women's liberation were coming very much to the fore. Spare Rib was in the making. There were also plans for starting Gay News. Jim Anderson introduced me to the people who were putting that out and I became the token het designer. Which I did for the first nine months of Gay News' life.
ANDREW LUMSDEN: Gay News started as a newspaper in November 1971. Dennis Lemon was a prime mover. I suggested at a meeting that we have a paper that just didn't give out propaganda. I pointed out that the movement was now countrywide, but people in Dundee didn't know what was happening in Manchester and so on. So we had to have a real newspaper. Dennis agreed, meetings were convened to discuss it and the paper came out in summer '72. The Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform subscription list was opened to us, so we could ask for advance subscriptions. Someone put up some money. Dennis and I went to see David Hockney. He said, `If you want to bring out a nice magazine with lots of pictures of men, then I might be interested, but I don't want anything to read.' Graham Chapman [of Monty Python] did send some money; Angus McGill at the Standard may have put some in too. But mainly we were scratching around, no substantial amounts were put up. Many monied gay men were appalled by GLF. They saw it as a socialist revolutionary enterprise and thought a connection with GLF would ruin them.
The first few issues of the paper were hand-distributed, taken round the pubs and so on. The first issue came out for Gay Pride Week, held in Hyde Park. And very good it was, the pace and energy of it. The early issues were nearly all editorial, that's why they looked so smashing. There was spot colour and a nice big format, like Frendz. It started off selling about 6000 and reached a ceiling by the blasphemy trial of 20-23,000 a fortnight. It was not just a GLF paper, but rather one that came out of GLF. It dealt mainly with what was going on in the straight world: what the police were doing, or the media, what somebody had said, what the Church was up to.
The Festival of Light: 'We all filed out and did a conga'
ANDREW LUMSDEN: Dennis Lemon erupted at GLF meetings in the autumn of 1971 demanding that we do something about the Festival of Light. GLF street theatre decided that they would.
Dennis was working in a music shop. He was a startling figure: the first time I met him he was thin as a rake, very tall, wearing stars-and-stripes bell bottoms. A very beautiful man. With others he successfully organised a raid on a Festival of Light meeting at the Westminster Hall. They went as nuns ...
SU SMALL: I was getting more interested in general politics and personal politics and I'd become involved with gay liberation. I found myself at this meeting to discuss how we could combat the Festival of Light. A guy from Monty Python, Graham Chapman, was there and he said, `I've got a bob or two, so if anyone's got any ideas . . .' and the plan was that we were going to do a whole series of things. The first was to infiltrate the first big Festival of Light rally at Westminster Hall. The plan was that A and B were going in full drag and they'd stand up and shout, `Say it out loud: I'm gay and I'm proud!' Then we'd leave it a few minutes and so-and-so would let out the white mice and they'd all scream and stand on the chairs ... We had about seventeen different things planned so that if some of us couldn't get in, something would still happen. We also had someone working inside the Festival of Light office keeping us abreast of things.
The evening started. The first trick was a bunch of people who at the end of every sentence burst into rapturous applause. For the first three or four times it happened everybody picked it up, and then they started realising, `Look, we're going to be here all night ...' Graham Chapman had put up the money for six nun's costumes, cos when he said he had some dosh I said, `I always wanted to dress up as a nun,' and I got Debbie and Cassandra from the INK office, two more girls and Russell Hunter. We all got in, but they sussed us; they sent some people to sit behind us and sussed that we might not be nuns. We thought we were doing very well ... We waited until our turn came - I think Malcolm Muggeridge was speaking at the time - and we all filed out and did a conga down the aisle of the Westminster Central Hall.
RUSSELL HUNTER: It was a time when Cliff Richard was giving out. And Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Longford and so on. They had this big rally for what they called the Festival of Light at the Central Hall, Westminster. Su Small, Rose, Sandy, Debbie Knight, and myself decided to dress up as nuns to infiltrate it. They'd certainly have never let us in dressed normally. Su Small was the Mother Superior, cos her habit was a different colour, and we passed straight through with no problems. They were vetting everybody at the door and they turned away a lot of people: obvious hippies who were there to make trouble. But we went straight through. At a certain point in the proceedings we all stood up, started heckling and throwing the cushions. Then we did a conga up the middle aisle. We all lifted our skirts and started making obscene gestures until the Christian bouncers turned up and beat us up, especially me, when they discovered I wasn't what they thought.

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