Gay West: Civil Society, Community and Lgbt History in Bristol and Bath, 1970 to 2010 – Robert Howes

This was a ‘first’: we discussed this book with the author present and it was one of the longest sessions we have had. It was generally agreed that there was a good balance between the local and the national in terms of movements and events.

For me, this book was a walk down memory lane, covering most of the time I have lived in this city. I knew/know several of the people mentioned in it and was present at many of the events it describes. I greatly enjoyed it, couldn’t put it down (I know people often say that but I mean it.)

As well as being a social history, the book sets out to explore the relevance of social groups such as GayWest. The organisation started up because the Campaign for Homosexual Equality was deemed to be ‘too political.’ As someone on the left of the political spectrum, I tend to agree with those who say that ‘the personal is the political’ and with someone in the book who said that ‘However good your Victoria sponge, that in itself won’t achieve equality.’ However, my politics have mellowed over the years and I accept that many of the men, as the book points out, who attend earnest GayLib meetings in the 1970s were really there for the companionship so GayWest performed a very important function. Indeed, meeting in a public space is itself a political act; for some it requires considerable bravery. And it is unfair to write them of as ‘Tupperware queens’ or to call them ‘Grey West’, given that older men aren’t made to feel particularly welcome on the commercial scene.

It is an oddity of history that GayWest flourishes in Bath, even though a majority of members live in Bristol. (Maybe the MacArthur’s Warehouse had something to do with it – it was Bristol’s attempt at a Gay Centre in the 1970s, which was well-run by a hard working band of volunteers but which was set in an out of the way place with little street lighting – not the place to walk to after dark unless you enjoy the sense of frisson of thinking you might get mugged.)  There was an exception in the 1980s when a particularly gifted woman chairperson and her committee put on a diary of almost daily events, many of which were in Bristol and attracted large umbers of women in what has tended to be a mainly male group. Many of these meetings were active: a Sunday morning walk to pick wild mushrooms, ten pin bowling: an antidote to the Saturday coffee shop with its seemingly endless discussion of house prices in the South West.

One sadness: that Ernie Everest should be honoured to be invited to a royal garden party but get snubbed by Prince Philip on account of his representing gay people.

I learned a few things. Margaret Thatcher voted for homosexual law reform in the 1960s; Bristol’s fairly conservative Evening post carried GayWest adverts at a time when most newspapers wouldn’t for fear of alienating their straight readers and outraging public decency; Bristol’s Gay Switchboard, now sadly closed, was the first of its kind outside London;  the first NUS conference on gay rights was in Bristol (though our Russell Group university attracts students predominantly from public schools who are, thus, likely to be conservative in politics and, therefore not likely to support gay rights (at least not until the new-look ‘nice toryism’ of David Cameron.)

A fitting subtitle for this book might be a quotation from inside its pages: ‘Communities of fate versus communities of choice’. Even in large cities, many people feel imprisoned within their own geographical communities and families. Groups such as GayWest provided an opportunity for people to discover that they weren’t ‘the only gay in the village’ long before the internet became a source of liberation for the isolated. For that, it deserves praise. After all, to forsake my lefty purism and to invert its slogan, ‘The political is the personal.’

Who needs to live in London when you’ve got Bath and Bristol? (And the house prices in the South West are slightly more affordable.)

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