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The Brixton Fairies: 1970s gay squat

editor

hiraethified
Thanks for the update. I've been meaning to add this to the Brixton history part of the site for ages.
 

Gramsci

Well-Known Member
My name is Felix Alvarez. In 1973 I'd just left University. I lived in the south London area and became involved in the early GLF group


I am sure that the more I think about that era the more will start to emerge from my unconscious. I am happy to enter into any further details with anyone interested in documenting this what I consider to have been important element in early 70s gay activism in order to address what is clearly a deficit in historical documentation (Bill Thorneycroft, by the way, was also a central figure in the life of the Gay Community Centre in Railton Road and it is only today when, prior to discovering this forum, I entered a few key searches that I discovered that Bill went on to co-authoring some interesting academic works on sexuality. I do not know if he still lives, but if so, Bill will similarly be a great source of reminiscences.)
Fascinating stuff. I have finally got back precious out of print book on squatting. I will check picture to see if Ive got any of GLF in Brixton.

I wasnt around in early 70s but I have been collecting Squatting and "Short Life" memorabilia. So I have some photos going back to late Seventies.

As the Council is liquidating Short Life and Sqautters its an important history to record.
 

OpalFruit

Active Member
Mallee - I am sure at least one of the people you list still lives there :)
But I am cautious of blowing anyone's anonimity.
 

Ian Townson

Active Member
Brixton Gay Community

I was part of the Brixton Gay Community from 1974 to the early '80s and have deposited masses of material about the period at the Hall-Carpenter archive based at the LSE (leaflets, photographs, play scripts, flyers, posters, manifestos, early videos, audio tape interviews from about 1970-1992). As mentioned previously it can all be found in the collection titled HCA/TOWNSON. There is also a lot of material written by me for an abortive attempt at a history. If you have any more material or memories to set down I am sure the Hall-Carpener archive would be more than pleased to hear from you. Alternatively you can email or post to me and I can deposit them in the collection. The collection has already been used several times already for different projects. To add to Mallee's comments about Mathew Jones and Chris Dobney - Jamie Dunbar, John Witte and Jeffrey Saynor (who sadly died recently) also returned to Oz. Peter Vetter is still around as is Bill Thornycroft, Julian Hows, Tony Smith, Peter Cross and John Lloyd. I have no idea where Anna Duhig or Sue Wakeling are now. The Gay Community Centre at 78 Railton Road acted as a magnet for other gay people to squat in the area and eventually there were about 12-14 back to back gay squats on Railton/Mayall Roads.

Kind Regards and Lots of love,

Ian Townson
 

Mrs Magpie

On a bit of break...
I love this thread :)
It may not be added to that often but practically every post is a pearl of local history.
 

Ian Townson

Active Member
Quite a lot more about Brixton Gays in two parts...I put this together for a forthcoming exhibition and publication in Berlin about Radical London in the 1970s.

South London Gay Liberation - Ian Townson 18/3/10



The South London Gay Community Centre at 78 Railton Road, Brixton, was squatted by people
who were determined to come out into the clear light of day with a public statement of gay
identity. It was the first of its kind and for two hectic years of 'fits and starts' the Centre
established an undeniable and irreversible presence of gay people in the area.

(Gay Centre Picture with John Lloyd, Malcolm Watson and Alistair Kerr to our right of the Centre entrance)

The Centre opened in March 1974 and was evicted in April 1976.

(Bailiffs and police evicting the Centre and one of the Women's Centres next door but we were
forewarned and moved stuff out before they arrived and moved back in again on the following
day. First photo is Jamie Hall folding carpet, "unidentified" and David Callow standing by the
Centre's front door. We hastily scrawled 'business as usual' at 207 Railton Road
(the other Women's Centre) on the boarded up Centre).

During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay
people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action. The
Centre also acted as a magnet attracting people into the area who squatted several back-to-back
houses on Railton and Mayall Roads with a shared garden in between them. This became the
nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time,
as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels
of success.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from
oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly
out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated. Some consciously saw this as an
opportunity to attack 'straight' society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged
the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property. There were many
visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and
gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine
women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious
invention.

(The boys in bed together. Left to right: Jamie Hall, Peter Vetter, "unidentified", Julian Hows,
"unidentified", Peter Cross + Julian Hows in full drag splendour)

The 'cultural desert' in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as
'out' gay people. The 'straight' gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off
(it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off). Brixton was one of the most
deprived inner city areas in London with high levels of unemployment and crime, a chronic
shortage of housing stock with many dilapidated buildings left empty, large-scale environmental
decay and blatant racism in an area with a large, young black population. Into this cauldron of
deprivation leapt a number of different groups in and around Railton Road to challenge the
poverty and decay in people's lives. There were two women's centres on Railton Road, an
Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants' Union for those on welfare benefits,
the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Race Today
Collective and a food cooperative in nearby Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road. The Gay
Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based
groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of
officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run
by Andreas Demetriou. There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the 'macho'
posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room
run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson. We participated in the local and general
elections in 1974 with Malcolm Greatbanks, Alistair Kerr and Michael Mason as the candidates.

(photo of two of the candidates in South London Press + newspaper account)

Being against Parlilamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were
just doing this for the free publicity. There were weekly discos in the basement, individual
counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre 'collective' to determine which campaigns and
social events we would support and be involved in. Discos were also organised at Lambeth
Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us. Besides
all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be
greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.

(photo of Bill Thornycroft making tea at the Centre/Alistair answering phone/people outside the Centre in drag on
open day/inside the Centre socialising/publicity shots inside centre for the London Programme, one of the first public
access TV shows (1975))

It is possible to convey some of the atmosphere of 'comunal' living in photographs of the gay
squats that sprang up around the Centre. With a common garden between the houses the back
doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.
The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play.

(photo of Alistair Kerr & Tony Smith in 146 Mayall Road kitchen/any of the 159 Railton Road kitchen scenes/hippie
photo in kitchen of 152 Mayall Road with Edwin Henshaw/John Lloyd/Ian Townson/Terry Stewart etc./Andreas
Demtriou's communal meal at 148 Mayall Road)

In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Freso or play music or even rehearse for
various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.

(photo of Colm Clifford, Jamie Hall, Miceal Kerrigan etc. playing musical instruments/people at table outside 159
Railton Road/'Queens are' tableau with Peter Vetter, Ian Townson, Julian Hows and Peter Cross).

The gay squats eventually became part of the the Brixton Housing Co-op in the early 80s
and were redveloped into single person units. While this made for more secure accommodation
and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more 'privatised' existence and some of the
original elan and spirit was lost as a result. However the gay households are all still there with
more or less permanent inhabitants.

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a
result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots
were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity
with the oppressed by joining them on the streets. We even took tables and chairs out onto
the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party - some people in drag - getting a
mixed reception from people on the steet. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.
Two of us were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters.
 

Ian Townson

Active Member
Here comes part 2 of Brixton Gays...

PART 2 OF SOUTH LONDON GAY LIBERATION


The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries,
produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly
unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and
plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to
perform sketches for local community groups.

(photo of us lot performing at pensioners/girl guides group with 'Increase Pensions Now' placards)

The first play, 'Mr Punch's Nuclear Family', was performed at the Centre and in a local school
playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the
devastating effects on the wife and gay son of 'rule by the father' and the collusion of the
male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

(photograph of the cast of this play standing outside the Centre with Union Jack 'Britannia')

Next came 'Out of it' (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism
and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was
followed by 'Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name'. A highly
topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As
leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover
intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).
'Tomorrow's too Late' was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist
groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile
group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ
and a Roman soldier (1977-80). 'Gents' told the story of 'cottaging', that is, the reasons why men
have sex with other men in public toilets. The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as
repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and
charged men with 'gross indecency' often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and
destroying relationships. Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police
entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to
suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to 'improve facilities' (1978-80).

(photographs - take your pick. There are quite a few of the actual performance of 'Gents' and some pubicity shots for the
play showing Peter Bradley, Colm Clifford and Ian Townson going in and out of Brixton Oval toilet outside the
Tate Library).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in
'Radio Gay' at the Oval House Community Centre.

(photograph of Ian Townson and Punk Maggie with Radio Gay tee shirts)

I WASN'T INVOLVED WITH THE CABARET AT OVAL HOUSE. MAYBE BILL CAN SAY
SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of
'Out of it' was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men
kissing on stage.

We picketed several pubs that we had been thrown out of in and around Railton Road for
kissing and cuddling two of which, The George Hotel and The Windsor Castle, were burned to
the ground during the Brixton riots in 1981. The George Hotel had previously been prosecuted
under the Race Relations Act for barring black people.

Queens in Furs refused to pay local rates because none of the rates were used to povide
amenities for gay people. The fur coat wearing was another way of gay men challenging rigid
masculine identities. Those who refused to pay rates were summoned to Camberwell
Magistrates' Court where the presiding judge had difficulty in persuading the plaintiffs that they
should 'know their place' and behave accordingly. Gary de Vere was thrown out for polemicsing
out loud and our arguments were rejected. We lost the case as we thought we would but publicity
was gained as a result.

(take your pick - there are several photos of Queens in Furs on their way to Camberwell Magistrates Court)

We insisted that the Centre should be publically funded as a right and applied to Lambeth
Council for a grant rather than scraping pittance money out of our pockets for general upkeep
and paying the rates. The grant was refused. It was argued that the Centre should be privately
funded despite the council granting money to other groups in the area. Many people who used
the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different
factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre. However the final blow
came when the Centre was evicted by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take
vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment. Thus
bringing to an end the first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this
closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.

The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then
moved to 157 Railton Road with Stephen Gee as one of the main organisers. The group was set
up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of
blasphemous libel for carrying the already mentioned poem by James Kirkup. This happened at
a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the
country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles. With the
successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists' Alliance and
continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups. Also
the fascist National Front was particualrly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black
people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by
them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London. In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League
march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully
supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across
Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists. Also there was Anita Bryant, the
Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase
was: 'God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve' and she became even more famous when
an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

(There should be a photo of the anti-fascist banner somewhere. Also there is a very good photo with a banner carrying the
pictures of Anita Bryant, Mary Whitehouse and Adolf Hitler. Take your pick of the many photos of other demonstrations).

A special mention should be made of the Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton
which encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for
our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and
Colm initiated 'Homosexual Posters' from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people
and even gay Christmas cards.




*Squatting (we need to define squatting otherwise people might not know what we mean by it).

**We ought to make it clear that by gay people we mean chieftly gay men. There were one or
two lesbians involved who stayed for a while.
 

editor

hiraethified
Ian cheers for the info: do you want the full article in the Brixton history part of this site? Be happy to oblige.
 

Ian Townson

Active Member
Brixton gay community

Yes, that will be fine. I am trying to copy and paste a few photos but without success so far.

Many thanks,

Ian Townson
 

ska invita

back on the other side
My name is Felix Alvarez[...]

One of the other problems that raised its head was the attempt by political ideologues external to the Centre attempting to 'infiltrate' the activism and energy of Centre members. One such group I remember well was the International Marxist Group (IMG) who advocated Marxist revolution and advocated an IMG-style approach to social campaigning.
does it never end? :facepalm:
 

Gramsci

Well-Known Member
Ian cheers for the info: do you want the full article in the Brixton history part of this site? Be happy to oblige.

That would be excellant idea.

Also someone from Lambeth archives has got in touch with me about squatting and short life history.

He would be interested I think in anyone with memories or photos etc that can be deposited in the Minet street archives.
 

stethoscope

Well-Known Member
Yes, that will be fine. I am trying to copy and paste a few photos but without success so far.
You need to use the attach (paperclip) icon when you write a post, Ian.

Either that, I'm sure Ed will have an email address you can send them too, or I'm happy to put them on my flickr account temporarily if that helps you in getting them to Ed?
 

Ian Townson

Active Member
Brixton Faeries

Dear Everyone,

A photo attached that can be included with the main stuff on the Brixton Gay Community Group in the 1970s.
 

dboy87

New Member
hey all,
Iain & Felix this history you both so elequantly describe is amazing, funny, moving and makes me proud of what i am today. Im currently doing a masters degree on queer commodities and its effects on gay culture and would love any visual texts you have if you wouldnt mind. thank you so much for your time and memories, so wish i could of been there but i wasnt even twich in my dads pants back then.
 

boohoo

No.
I saw a book in the Tate which had a section on the 70s Brixton gay scene.... bloody can't remember what it was called though...:(
 

Gramsci

Well-Known Member
This looks like an interesting book.

Notice its edited by Astrid Proll ex member of German "Red Army Faction"
 

ats

Well-Known Member
I was living in a squat in Railton Road in 1973, and knew quite a lot of the people mentioned by Felix through the local squatting scene. I was in a men's group which Gary de Vere, Colm and Alistair Kerr plus a number of straight men, me included.

I can attest to what Felix says about paedophiles trying to present it as a sexual liberation/child freedom issue. That was quite a strong trend at the time, with a lot of articles in Peace News, driven by one of the editors.

Gay Switchboard started in an office above a former Chemists on Railton Road, where the ground floor was squatted by People's News Service, a radical news co-operative (my own reason for being in south London). (Or maybe it started from the Community Centre and it was only when it moved into that office that I became aware of it. That's perfectly possible. Or perhaps it grew from something more informal and that's when they started using the name. You need someone more closely involved to answer that.)

It should not be assumed that all the people named lived in the set of squats named. Gary de Vere, for example, lived in Appach Road.

'Nighthawks ', the film mentioned, was directed by Ron Peck of Four Corner Films. See: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077993/
 

Gramsci

Well-Known Member
hey all,
Iain & Felix this history you both so elequantly describe is amazing, funny, moving and makes me proud of what i am today. Im currently doing a masters degree on queer commodities and its effects on gay culture and would love any visual texts you have if you wouldnt mind. thank you so much for your time and memories, so wish i could of been there but i wasnt even twich in my dads pants back then.
Squatting the real story contains a lot of photos and first hand info on squatting and the politics of the time. It does not contain much on gay culture but is good background reading. It contains an interesting section by Pat Moran on the sexual and anti consumerist communal politics of squatting of that era.

Its out of print but available on Amazon at a price. Got mine courtesy of Bookmongers.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Squatting-Real-Story-Nick-Wates/dp/toc/0950725900
 
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