Lords Diary: a short journey through LGBT history
Representatives of the London Gay & Lesbian Centre take part in the annual Lesbian and Gay Pride March, London, 1983 | Alamy
One big change in my way of life since the beginning of the pandemic has been to ride my bike daily to get to Westminster. Not only do I feel fitter but I have been enjoying London’s streetscape, buildings and sights, missed by travelling underground.
Last week CycleOut – London’s LGBT+ cycling group – sent me information on rides through areas of London significant in LGBT+ history. This made me think about my journey to work, and the places that I passed, that either had a part in LGBT history or in my life as a gay man. At my age the two are linked!
Over the last 40 years the situation for LGBT+ people in Britain has changed significantly. Much of that progress was made, I am proud to say, under Labour governments. However I am also proud that across all political parties there is now a consensus that respects the rights of LGBT+ people.
So, taking a little more time than usual and with a few stops on my journey south from Highbury, these are some of my reflections on the way
At the bottom of Liverpool Road, I pass a house with a plaque indicating it was once lived in by filmmaker Derek Jarman whose 1976 film, Sebastiane, was one of the first mainstream films to feature positive images of gay sexuality. During the 1980s he was a leading campaigner for gay rights and against Clause 28, which sought to ban the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. He also worked to raise awareness of Aids having been diagnosed as HIV+ in 1986. Sadly, he died in 1994 of an Aids-related illness aged 52.
“I could occasionally be found on a Wednesday at the drag themed night hosted by Miss Kimberly”
Then travelling down Farringdon Road I cross Clerkenwell Road where on the corner of Turnmill St used to stand Turnmills. Originally a warehouse, the building became a nightclub, which closed in 2008 and was later demolished. Home to several gay club nights it was the first venue to obtain a 24-hour dance licence in the UK but most importantly it was where I met my husband 25 years ago!
Just round the corner from Turnmills in Cowcross St is the site of a venue I used in the late ‘80s. Established by the GLC in 1985 the London Lesbian and Gay Centre was one of the few such centres in the UK – often cited by the Thatcher government to justify the introduction of Clause 28 and for abolishing the GLC. It’s now offices with a bar called The Fence.
At Ludgate I pass near the Old Bailey, where Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison with hard labour in 1895 under the gross indecency law of 1885. Derek Jarman campaigned for a memorial to Wilde and after his death a committee called “A Statue for Oscar Wilde” was formed to bring a tribute to fruition. The result is an outdoor sculpture by Maggi Hambling unveiled in 1998 called the Conversation with Oscar Wilde. This is located at the final stage of my journey behind St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.
As I leave the Strand, I head down to the Embankment, passing by Heaven, where in the mid-90s I could occasionally be found on a Wednesday at the drag themed night called Fruit Machine hosted by Miss Kimberly.
The end of my journey is Parliament, the place where progressive change in the law began in 1967. However, homosexuality was only partly decriminalised by the 1967 Act and the remaining anti-gay laws were policed more aggressively than before. In his research Peter Tatchell estimated 15,000+ gay men were convicted in the decades that followed. Full reform did not happen in England and Wales until 2003. In Northern Ireland the ban on anal sex was not finally repealed until 2008. Scotland’s anti-gay laws were repealed in 2009 but, in the case of sodomy, did not take effect until 2013. From 1885 to 2013 nearly 100,000 men were arrested for same-sex acts.
My short ride highlighted a much longer journey.
Lord Collins of Highbury is a Labour peer and shadow FCDO spokesperson & opposition whip