Brief history of UK gay scene and my breaking into it

I was a complete virgin till I was 22. This was 1967, and the only reason I lost my virginity then was because that was the year the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed supposedly making male homosexuality legal. It actually did nothing of the sort, as will be seen from the following article. All it did was allow certain gay clubs/pubs to obtain legal status, and allow established gay male couples to live together on their own, provided nobody else was on the premises.

Before the 1967 Act all the above were also illegal. Male homosexuals were outside the law completely, and therefore liable to arrest and easy targets for blackmailers. Gay bars and clubs were likely to be raided by the police, and everyone inside arrested. Gay men were frequently made homeless, since landlords would not tolerate gay tenants. So bringing home a man to spend the night, if reported to the landlord, would lead to certain eviction, and of course living together with a gay life-partner was completely out of the question. It would lead to certain eviction and arrest for breaking the law of the land. Is it any wonder gay men became promiscuous, seeking quick, anonymous, casual gay sex in public toilets and cruising grounds? Society left them with no alternative. And old habits are hard to break.

Since I reached puberty in 1958, and my teenage ended in 1965, it is hardly surprising that I remained a virgin till the ripe old age of 22. How could I possibly meet another gay teenager or any other gay man when every way I could possibly meet was not only illegal, but so underground it would be very difficult for an outsider to stumble upon it?

In fact, before 1967, the most likely way a gay teenager like myself could discover the secret gay world would be to come across some gay activity, some gay graffiti or possibly a ‘glory hole’ in a public toilet. This never happened to me mainly because I’d been brainwashed by my mother a) never to talk to strange men and b) never, under any circumstances, to enter a public toilet. So thus any possibility of my losing my virginity was prevented, unless I broke these rules.

Of course with retrospect I wonder why I kept to these rules. I did break them occasionally I guess. I know my brother and I were on a short train journey in one of those old-fashioned compartments with no corridor, and a man kept talking to us and calling us ‘blessed’. I said to my brother afterwards: ‘I think he was one of those funny men mum told us about’. Another time whilst playing in the bushes as a teenager in Alexandra Park, behind our flats, my brother, myself and some other boys were approached by a man wanting to take photos of us ‘for a magazine’ so he said. He offered us a small amount of money, and I was so proud to be able to negotiate a better fee to be shared among us, I told mum when I got home. Of course I was scolded for talking to a strange man, allowing him to take photos of us (fully clothed it must be said), and especially for taking money off him. Definitely a downward slide to male prostitution in my mother’s eyes.

The only other incident I can recall is when I was older, in my late teens or early 20s, on my way home from my grandmother’s. We then lived in Welwyn Garden City. A handsome young man in a red sports car saw me walking down the road and stopped to ask if I’d like a lift. I so much wanted to say ‘yes’, but my conditioning stopped me and what came out was ‘No thank you’, so he sped off. All this conditioning may well have saved my life or it may just have stopped me losing my virginity much earlier than I did, who knows? All I do know is that I had a miserable teenage, full of sexual frustration, and since we moved the year I left college when I was 16, no friends at all of my own age.

My life-partner and his friends, on the other hand, discovered gay sex at a very early age, in their early teens or even earlier. Once ‘in the know’ the whole secret underground world was open to them. To naive outsiders like myself it remained firmly closed even in the first few years after the 1967 Act.

As far as I knew I was the only gay male living in London, or the world. Of course I’d heard about homosexuals, but how did you recognize them? Where did you meet them? I had not a clue.

It didn’t help that I’d had an operation forced upon me at the tender age of 13 to bring on puberty, this left both mental and physical scars which meant I completely retreated into my shell thruout the rest of my teens, and at college wouldn’t join in Games because it would mean showering with the other boys and I didn’t want them to see the operation scars in my genital area.

At this tender age I also became aware of my attraction to other males, and felt guilty about it. I was therefore also wrestling with my conscience. There was a certain amount of horseplay at college (which was largely made up of girls in the Commercial Course I was in), but I never joined in, far too shy, guilty and afraid they would see my scars and laugh. I already had to contend with a strange surname (Papadopoulos) which followed me to college despite shortening it to Papard in 1958, the scars from a hare lip/cleft palate and one leg shorter than the other due to a club foot and breaking my leg at age 6.

During my first job in a printers’ office in Welwyn Garden City from 1961-1962, my workmates were talking one day about an article in the local paper headlined ‘Queers in the Woods’. I pricked my ears up, and a day or so later cycled off to the woods in question the other side of town. In broad daylight I walked briskly thru these woods wheeling my bike, saw nobody at all, certainly no gay activity or men loitering about, and dismissed the newspaper article from my mind as pure fiction. It never once occurred to me to visit the woods at dusk or after dark, nor to walk thru slowly, hanging about.

So when, as a result of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and publicity surrounding it, the London Evening Standard newspaper published a series of articles about the rampant underground gay scene in London in early 1967, I learnt for the first time of the existence of the gay scene all around me. The frustrating thing was that the articles described woods, cinemas and other places where gay men met each other, but didn’t locate them. So now I was in the position of knowing the scene existed, but not knowing where it was or how to enter it.

There was no gay press in those days, no gay guides, and certainly no Internet. Eventually I happened to pass a magazine stall in a side road between Euston and St Pancras stations. Hardcore gay and straight pornography was on open display there (don’t ask me how the stall-holder got away with it) and after walking by the stall a number of times, I got up the courage to purchase a fairly respectable gay magazine, American of course since there were no British ones at that time. All we had were male physique magazines supposedly for the health conscious and bodybuilders.

This American magazine was not pornographic, but it did feature partly clothed male models, and had an address in California to which you could write for gay guides. I wrote off and eventually got one. It was full of errors – such as listing places in Kings Cross, London which were in fact located in Kings Cross, Sydney, Australia.

I visited some gay clubs thanks to this guide, but could not gain entry. I remember going down some dingy staircase in Soho, and being faced with a shutter. I rang the bell and the shutter slid open to reveal a camp looking face. He told me it was a private club, and I needed to be introduced by somebody who was already a member.

Pre-1967 this was the case, and it lingered on after the 1967 Act was passed. You had to know other gays before you could gain entry to the gay clubs, as you had to be introduced by another member. This was fine for my gay life-partner who I met 3 years later, and for his friends, but for outsiders like myself it was a brick wall preventing us from entering that secret underground gay world.

Eventually, thanks to the American gay guide, I stumbled across a cinema in Victoria, the one described but not located in the Evening Standard articles, and that was where I first met other gay men, including my first live-in gay partner, and my life-partner (we were together 21 years till his death).

But it was not easy. I’ve never been able to meet other men in gay bars, to read their body language or make eye contact. A work colleague once took me to such a gay bar, and said that I was absolutely clueless and that I’d never ever meet another gay man in that situation because I looked like a straight guy who’d wandered in by mistake. No other gay man would ever approach me because of my hairstyle, the way I dressed, etc. I feel this is still much the case today, as I never follow gay fashions and never intend to. And I still can’t make eye contact or read body language. If a stranger looks me in the eye I immediately look away, a reflex action I can’t control but which gives out the signal I’m not interested.

Apart from all this, the 1967 Act was so restrictive that most gay activity was still outside the law. The best way to describe it is to imagine these restrictions applied to heterosexuals. This is the kind of world they would have lived in between 1967 and the early 21st Century when, largely due to membership of the EU, Britain was forced to give gay men and women equality with heterosexuals.

If the 1967 Sexual Offences Act restrictions on gay men had applied to heterosexuals it would have meant that husbands and wives with children or elderly relatives living with them would have been breaking the law (gay men could not sleep together if another person was present anywhere in the domicile).

Men, or women, out ‘on the pull’ would also have been breaking the law, and liable to police entrapment. One of the reasons it was so difficult to enter a gay club, or to pick up in a gay bar, was fear of plainclothes police trying to entrap gay men. Just to approach another man in a gay club or bar was deemed ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’ even AFTER the 1967 Sexual Offences Act was passed. So heterosexuals trying to ‘pull’ members of the opposite sex would also have been ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’ and liable to police entrapment and arrest had the 1967 Act applied to them.

The restriction on any gay sex taking place when another person was present on the premises also put any gay clubs where sex took place on the premises, as existed most other places in the Western world,  strictly outside the law. Any which opened in London were soon raided and closed by the police, the owners prosecuted as was anyone caught inside. London became the laughing stock of the gay world between 1967 and the early 21st Century because, despite the 1967 Act, gays here were still living in the Victorian age. Even East Germany had more liberal gay laws, homosexuality being legalized there in 1968, the year I first visited it. There were gay clubs and bars, one of which was quite outrageous, and gays walked down one of the main streets of East Berlin hand-in-hand, which would have been an arrestable offense in London at the time, namely ‘outraging public decency’.

If gay men put contact ads in the gay press, when it emerged soon after the 1967 Act, these too were scrutinized by the authorities to insure they were not ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’. So had it applied to heterosexuals, dating agencies or contact ads to meet a partner would have also been deemed ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’. As with prostitutution, the act itself was not illegal, but every possible way of gay men meeting each other (or prostitutes linking up with prospective clients) was outside the law and an arrestable offense, and a target for police entrapment.

So thruout the 1960s, 70s and 80s the London gay scene still consisted largely of innocuous gay bars and clubs where even approaching other men could be deemed ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’ if the other guy turned out to be a plainclothes policeman or a straight guy who’d wandered in accidentally, or else cruising grounds and public toilets, also strictly illegal of course.

This made gay men especially vulnerable to queer bashers and murderers. There were several gay murders in cruising grounds like Hampstead Heath after dark. It was largely due to these dangers, and after visits to more liberated countries like USA, Australia and the Netherlands, that in 1991 I wrote an article which was published in the gay ‘Him’ magazine arguing for ‘safe space’ for gay men to cruise and even have sex as existed in other Western countries. Not all gay men were in a position to take others home, and even this was a great risk, since you might be going home with a homophobic serial killer. Gay men especially, because of the promiscuous lifestyle forced on them for centuries by restrictive laws which prevented them settling down with a steady life-partner, needed safe spaces where queerbashers, murderers and homophobic serial killers could not get at them.

In the 1990s illegal gay backrooms started springing up all over London and other big cities in the UK. This time they were largely tolerated by the police, since it tended to get gay men out of the public toilets and cruising grounds, and reduced the risk of queerbashing and gay murders.

Eventually in the early 21st Century, various laws were passed which finally removed the discriminatory laws for gay men and women. We now have almost complete liberation and equality in the eyes of the law, with the opportunity to even enter a ‘civil partnership’ which amounts to gay marriage in all but name.

Prejudice and homophobia still exist of course, especially in certain trades, professions and among certain interest groups. If you’re a teenager growing up in a rural community, you will still have great problems meeting other gays and gaining acceptance. But with the current laws and the possibility of civil partnerships for the first time gays are not only allowed, but encouraged to live together and settle down with one steady partner. This does not mean we have to ape heterosexual marriage, but whatever lifestyle we choose, be it casual relationships, an ‘open relationship’ or monogamy, the choice is ours for the first time, provided we can find a suitable partner or suitable partners.

In the long-term this may lead to a change in the gay lifestyle. Already it seems, while heterosexual marriage is becoming increasingly unfashionable, with more and more straight couples choosing to live together and raise families without getting married, gay ‘civil partnerships’ are becoming ever more popular. What straight couples should realize is, like gay men living together without a civil partnership, unmarried couples have very few rights. If one gets ill and ends up in intensive care, the unmarried partner can be denied visiting rights. If one partner dies, the other can be excluded from the funeral, lose their home, and (unless there is a Will, which could be contested by relatives) lose most or all of their shared wealth and property.

Gay men and women, being very well aware of these dangers thru centuries of experience, therefore tend to jump at the chance of civil partnerships, thus for the first time giving them recognition for their partnership both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of their relatives and the public at large.

Gay ‘widowers’, i.e. people like myself whose partners died before civil partnerships came into being or before they had a chance to conduct one, remain totally unrecognized. My life-partner and I would most certainly have had a civil partnership for all the legal reasons explained above, and so our union would be recognized by friends and relatives alike. Luckily his nieces and nephews still regard me as their ‘uncle’, but in law I am nothing, our relationship never existed. This hurts me so much, that I always tick the box describing myself as ‘widowed’ when filling in forms. To do otherwise would be to deny 21 wonderful years shared with my life-partner, George, and this I refuse to do.

7 thoughts on “Brief history of UK gay scene and my breaking into it

  1. I am 18 and a gay male who lives in Yorkshire. I know so little about gay history. This truely supprised me. I am dismayed at how long and how late it has taken to make progress. Thank you for such an interesting and sincere account.

    1. Thank you James. I know I was naive, and my upbringing and medical/psychological scars as a teenager didn’t exactly help. But yes, it was difficult for gay men in the UK until the more liberal laws of the early 21st Century.

      We were far behind much of the rest of the world in gay liberation.

      Most police entrapment occurred in public conveniences and cruising grounds, but as I wrote even approaching another guy for sex in a bar or thru contact ads was strictly illegal as it could be deemed ‘importuning for an immoral purpose’ by the police, and any public show of affection between two men such as holding hands was described legally as ‘outraging public decency’.

      So furtive, underground ‘quicky’ sex between men was the norm for those who knew the scene, celibacy for those who didn’t.

      Thank goodness things have at last changed for the better in the UK.

      1. Left school around 1965, went to work at Harrods, my dad said “if you work at Harrods, youll be gay in 6 months” little did he know, we lived in Leicester Place, Leicester Square, I started working at Leduce Gay Disco/coffee bar/club, I wonder how many remember that?? Me(Martin) and my sister Christine worked there together, on a busy night there would be Brian Epstein, John Baldry and many of the famous dancing away a Saturday night til the early hours (it closed at 7am !!) some years later I worked in drag, as Martin Russell, if anybody sees this, and can remember, and would like a trip down memory lane, drop me a line, I now live with my partner of 21 years in Thailand.

  2. Thank you so much for posting this. Such a massive eye openener. I want to/have started to write a story for a screenplay set in Bristol in the 1960s and centered around secretive gay (male) lives and am very eager to contact anyone who can shed some light on the topic. It seems to me that young British LGBT folk lack an understanding of the incredible struggle just barely passed that led to the freedom we avail ourselves of today and I think that that lack of a sense of history manifests itself as a lack of Pride in who we are and a lack of the sense of community which has been our strength in the past. If you or anyone who reads this would be willing to be in contact I would be incredibly grateful and promise to try and bring a little bit of that history to the fore.

  3. Hi Christine, I’m willing to be contacted but could contribute little as I was outside the gay scene, as you read, till over halfway thru 1967. Then only on the fringes. I only know from my deceased partner and his friends what the scene was like before the 1967 Act was passed.

    But I do feel this lack of community and support, which is why I never join Pride events. Gay Shame would be my description because of the exhibitionists who are out to shock the general public and flaunt things in their faces. Also what about single gays, widows and widowers like myself for instance, who don’t want to see happy young couples kissing and doing goodness knows what else in public? There’s no support for older gays or those who have lost their partners.

    No gay care homes, no gay carers for older or disabled gays that I know of. It is a hedonistic scene in which you’re over the hill at 30 let alone 40 or older. So the ones who fought for the rights enjoyed today feel rejected. I suppose we were similar when we were young, but anyway my partner and I even in the 1980s stopped going on gay marches because of exhibitionists shouting out obscenities to shock passers-by and even little kids about what we do in bed. They were shouting on one march: ‘We lick labia, we suck dick!’ That’s nothing to be proud of, nor is going on the Tube with bare arses hanging out of trousers because it’s Gay Pride Day. I stay well clear of it!

  4. This is an appeal to anyone out there that used to go to the Embassy club in london in the early 80’s and know of a guy called ROB who worked at the club. Rob was in his late 20’s at the time which would make him in his 60’s today. Rob was originally from solihull and moved to london. At the time he was considering moving on to brighton and may have done so. Its a needle in a haystack situation and may be an impossible task with so little information. However if it is possible that anyone that used to go to the embassy club knows Rob please get in contact. A friend from many years ago would dearly love to see him again.

    Thank you for your help

  5. My regards to Martin (Jasper) Lumley. You were mentioned on the school facebook page and I googled you. I remember visiting you in Leicester Place with Johnny Haines I think and others.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/wyrefarmsurvivor/

    best wishes

    david

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