Idealism, Pride & Anger- The Beginnings Of Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Britain

Peter Tatchell looks back with pride at the radical politics that inspired the London Gay Liberation Front, 1970-73.


A glorious chaotic enthusiasm. At times, shocking. Always unapologetic and defiant. An exhilarating mixture of idealism, pride, anger, bravado and imagination. That’s how I remember the early Gay Liberation Front in London in those heady days nearly 20 years ago.

In Britain, GLF was founded on 13th October 1970 at a meeting at the London School of Economics, called by Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellors. They had recently returned from visiting the New York gay liberation groups which had sprung up in the wake of the Stonewall Riots of June 1969.

Within weeks, the first meeting of nineteen people at the LSE had burgeoned into huge gatherings of hundreds of lesbians and gay men.

The atmosphere was electrifying. For the first time in the history of this country, large numbers of homosexuals had openly declared their sexuality and, rejecting the traditional conservatism of earlier homosexual law reformers, organised themselves into a self-proclaimed and militant movement for lesbian and gay freedom.

The marches and sit-ins which followed were unprecedented. So, too, was the new-found sense of self-worth and dignity. The GLF slogan, “gay is just as good as straight,” represented a revolution in consciousness. Never before had homosexuals so uncompromisingly asserted the equal validity of lesbian and gay sexuality and the demand for respect and acceptance, rather than mere tolerance and sympathy.

However, not everyone in the lesbian and gay community welcomed the advent of GLF. For many, it disrupted their cosy closeted world of discreet dinner parties, fashion shows and drag balls. As Aubrey Walter recalled in his history of GLF, Come Together (GMP, 1980): “Those gay men and lesbians who had constructed a comfortable niche for themselves in the conventional ‘straight gay’ closet, soon began to get very disturbed by all these out, militant gay liberationists. They really hated GLF for rocking their boat.”

Nor was GLF without its own inner tensions. The early gay movement was a volatile political cocktail which included people from the anarchistic counter-culture movement around 0Z and IT magazines; student radicals and socialist revolutionaries; and many others for whom lesbian and gay liberation was their first political involvement.

Out of this diverse mix of people, very different perspectives on lesbian and gay emancipation emerged. Some put more emphasis on “personal liberation” through consciousness-raising and coming-out groups.

These were a highly effective form of collective self-help and individual empowerment that enabled people to better understand their oppression, heightened gay awareness and self-esteem, and combated sexual guilt and hang-ups. Many GLF members were into a “lifestyle politics’ which rejected masculinity and the nuclear family in favour of alternative, non-oppressive ways of living based on radical drag and gay communes.

Others were proponents of ”political revolution” They saw lesbian and gay liberation as part of a wider movement for the abolition of all forms of oppression and sought GLF’s commitment to a rainbow alliance with the womens’, black and workers’ movements.

Often these different perspectives overlapped and some people supported all three with equal vigour. Perhaps it was these contradictions that gave GLF its extraordinary exuberance.

GLF’s originality and imagination was most clearly evident in the “political spectacles” pioneered by its Street Theatre and Action Groups.

Late 1971 was the heyday of GLF. During this period, to coincide with the Miss World contest, the womens’ and gay liberation movements staged a joint protest outside the Royal Albert Hall against the ‘sexploitation of women.” This included an extravagant alternative parade, starring “Miss Used” and ‘”Miss Conceived’, which savagely lampooned the official contest. It was brilliant satire and uproarious entertainment.

Around the same time, Mary Whitehouse inaugurated the “Festival of Light” against the “moral darkness” of “pornography, homosexuality and abortion.” GLF responded by mounting a counter-protest, code-named “Operation Rupert’ after the subversive and scandalous Rupert Bear cartoon strip in OZ magazine. Tickets were forged to gain entry to the Festival of Light’s opening rally in Westminster Central Hall.

On the night, mayhem erupted. When Malcolm Muggeridge, speaking out about homosexuals, declared: “I don’t like them.” The feeling was mutual. Mice were released into the audience; lesbian couples stood up and passionately embraced. A dozen GLF nuns in immaculate blue and white habits charged the platform shouting gay liberation slogans, and a GLF bishop began preaching an impromptu sermon which urged people to “keep on sinning.”

Later, on the occasion of the big Festival of Light march through London, twenty GLF “nuns” disrupted the main rally in Hyde Park. It was an unforgettable sight to see those nuns being dragged away, kicking and screaming, by the police and bundled into vans.

Another memorable event was the protest at the offices of Pan Books, following their publication of Dr. David Reuben’s homophobic book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. In response to Reuben’s allegation that gay mens’ idea of Saturday night fun was sticking cucumbers and light bulbs up their arses, a fifteen foot wood and papier-mache´ cucumber was delivered to the publisher’s offices and hundreds of light bulbs were dumped in the main foyer.

There were also a series of zaps against central London bookstores which involved knocking over display stands, ripping up copies of the book, and storming out of the shop before the staff could do anything (a sort of political version of ´”steaming”).

After the weekly GLF meetings moved to All Saints Hall, Notting Hill, several local landlords, with police encouragement, refused to serve homosexuals. This prompted a sit-in by fifty people at the most notoriously anti-gay pub, The Chepstow. Within fifteen minutes, van loads of police arrived, reputedly from the Flying Squad, and dragged people out into the street, strip-searching many on the pretext of looking for drugs. It was only after a series of these “gay freedom rides” that lesbians and gay men won the right to be served in local bars without discrimination.

Some of the other colourful “agit-props” staged by GLF in this period included the disruption of psychiatric conferences, and the mass spray-painting of Harley Street to protest against the medical profession’s definition of homosexuality as a sickness and it’s prescription of electric shock therapy as a cure. In Hyde and Battersea Parks there were regular “Gay Days” which involved big open-air picnics where GLF members had fun and defied social taboos by expressing their homosexuality through the very simple, but politically-charged, acts of kissing and holding hands.

Such open displays of lesbian and gay affection were unthinkable before GLF and, given the risk of abuse or attack, this public assertion of gayness took considerable courage. For those who made every day a “coming out” day, it resulted in many a bloodied nose and often dismissal by employers.

What did GLF achieve? Most importantly, it opened a new era of lesbian and gay self-awareness and self-confidence. It also marked the beginning of radical new sexual politics which extended our understanding of human sexuality and broadened the scope of sexual emancipation.

This year we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in the context of the AIDS backlash and a decade of attacks against us by the New Right and ‘Moral Majority” politicians. Within the lesbian and gay community, there’s a new sense of caution and conservatism. Many are now virtuously proclaiming that we are normal and ordinary people. GLF’s radical critique of masculinity and the family has been largely abandoned. Indeed, a section of the gay male community has enthusiastically adopted the “macho cult” of our heterosexual oppressors. Others have responded to the government’s dismissal of same-sex love as a “pretended family relationship” by calling for the right of lesbians and gay men to mimic the heterosexual family.

Simultaneously, the GLF demands for sexual choice and freedom are being pushed to the side of the lesbian and gay agenda. In their place, there is an almost exclusive concern with the pre-gay liberation demands of law reform and civil liberties. Important though these demands are, it would be a tragedy if we lost sight of GLF’s radical vision of lesbian and gay liberation. This involved much more than the mere assertion of “minority rights”. It’s objective was the dismantlement of all those homophobic, sex-hating social institutions and political ideologies that sustain heterosexual supremacism and deny erotic fulfilment to the mass of the population.

To echo the sentiments of the early gay liberationists: our ultimate goal must be a sexual revolution to enable everyoneto share the joy of same-sex desire and love.

That is the truly emancipatory vision of the GLF era. May we never forget it.

Capital Gay, 23 June 1989