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Jean Turley

Jean Turley, born 1935

Jean describes her early life, her political activism in the NUT and the Communist Party, her involvement in the women’s liberation movement and her late recognition of her sexuality. She talks about the 1978 Women’s Liberation Conference and the Council’s Women’s Unit in the 1980s. She talks about being a teacher during Clause 28 and how this led her to come out in Trade Union meetings. She refers to the lack of venues for women in the 70s and 80s and describes a small number of venues. She talks about the ageism of the current scene. She refers to the lack of awareness of the activism involved in achieving where we are today and the decline in political activism.


Terminology 10 30
Pressure to get married 20
Forces 30 40
Celibacy 50
Communist Party 60 70 150 160 170
Meeting partners 50 60
Men and politics 60 70
Trade Unions / Kill the Bill 60 70 170 180 190
Womens movement / feminism 70 80 100 250 340
Coming out at work or not 90 180
Gay Teacher in school 90 180 210
Rev Rads / political lesbians 100 120 140 340
Bisexuality 140
Lesbians in the women’s movement 110 340
Communes / communal living 130
Transvestites 150
Star Club discos 150
Women only events 150
NUT 170
Working with men 170 190
Coming out 180
Clause 28 180 190 200
Birmingham Localities 220
Kings Heath / Moseley 220
Silver Web 230
Politics of bars 240
Women’s access to bars 240
Butch and femme 250 260
Grosvenor 260
Women’s venues 270
Greyhound 270
Old Mo 270
Ageism on the gay scene 280
Nightingale (4) 280 290
Meeting lesbians in old days 300
Politics behind gay liberation – awareness/demise 310 350
Investment in gay village 320
International womens day / 330
Council BCC womens unit 330
Womens Liberation Conference 1978 340

10 Terminology

Jean was born in 1935 so was 15 in 1950. "I was a teenager in the fifties; all the words that we use now all the time - lesbian, homosexual, homophobe - I wouldn’t have known them, they were not in my vocabulary. They may have been in some peoples’ but definitely not in mine and so all I can tell you is I just knew I wasn’t like other girls of my age.

20 Not wanting to get married

"I grew up in very deprived circumstances, very working class home, back streets of Birmingham and I should say that all of my peer group girls were married by about sixteen because they were pregnant. That’s why people got married then because they were pregnant, it wasn’t much to do with love or anything else, and I knew that I didn’t want do any of that. I didn’t want to be married and I didn’t want to have children. I used to think to myself “I’d quite like to be a widow” without any of the stuff in between. All the kudos about being a young woman then was about marriage and that was the expectation. So I wouldn’t have thought I was gay".

30 In the Navy

"I went in the Navy and I was in the Wrens when I was eighteen and I have to say, hand on heart, there were no gay relationships that I was aware of. I joined up because I wanted to get out of Birmingham, I wanted to get away from that deprivation which, again, wouldn’t have been a word in my vocabulary, I’ve learned that since. There was a period when I went on a joint services exercise in Gibraltar and met some Army girls and, of course, they’re notorious for gays and I was just gob smacked. I watched these women and even then I wouldn’t have said ‘lesbian’, I would have said they were ‘tom boys’. I think ‘tom boy’ about weighs it up but you were only allowed to be a tom boy until you were about thirteen. I thought it was something innocent but it wasn’t at all".

40 Work and college for 13 years

“When I came out of the Navy I got a good job working shifts, really good money, bought a car, did all sorts. I was in telecommunications with the Airports Authority so I worked at Birmingham Airport because I’d been a radio operator in the Wrens. I gave up working at the Airport and went to college in the early seventies and there was a lot happening in society then. I went to college and that was enough, it was just brilliant, I loved it. After thinking all those years that you’re thick you’re suddenly at college”.

50 First relationship when nearly 40

“I did nothing for thirteen years (in terms of sexuality). While at college, I got involved doing some youth work and met my first love when I was coming up to forty. She more or less seduced me but I have to say I didn’t take a lot of seducing and that was brilliant. It went on for about a year, then my first affair went off to Australia to be a nun. I was desolate really, heartbroken".

60 Joining the Communist Party

"I finished college and went to night school to do a Sociology A level, where I met a woman was in the Communist party and I just liked the things she was talking about politically. I obviously came from a Labour voting family, a Trade Union family, but I’d always been aware that the Labour Party didn’t do a lot for people. I joined the Communist Party in Birmingham which is relevant because it was through them that I got interested in and became part of the Women’s Liberation Movement”.

“The Communist Party was very top heavy, blokes ran it but the women were giving them a lot of stick at that time and a lot of arguing went on. It was the only place really that a socialist feminist would feel comfortable. The trade union movement then was still very very dominated by white working class politics, miners, engineering workers, all of that, every industry worker. You’d have never got away with calling people Chairwoman or Chairperson in those situations but you did in the Communist Party, they adjusted to fit the membership which was in their interests because hundreds of women joined”.

70 Communist Party lead on women’s rights

“The Communist Party was years ahead in acknowledging the fight for women and were all for abortion, there were always huge contingents of communists on the news talking about women’s rights in one way or another. My first march was ‘Kill the Bill’, Barbara Castle’s attempt to bring the Unions to heel in the late 70s when everybody thought the Trade Unions had too much power. The Unions were laying down the law and Jim Callaghan came in step with them and so did Barbara Castle. The funny thing about that demo was that we were marching down Park Lane in London, a huge ‘Kill the Bill’ demo and there were all these Rolls Royces parked and people were scratching them with their ‘Kill the Bill’ pens. People were leaning out of the windows at the Park Lane Hotel, because you had all those posh hotels then, and they must have been feeling really threatened. A bit like the storming of the Winter Palace. Little did we know it was all going to crumble”.

80 Awareness of sexual politics in the 70s

That growing awareness of sexual politics, and things like Germaine Greer’s book, ‘The Female Eunuch’, was very important in moving women towards fighting. Also, some American stuff, I’ve forgotten the titles, it was everywhere. If you read the Daily Mail you were absolutely bound to join the Women’s Movement because it was such rubbish.

90 Hiding sexuality as a teacher

When all that was happening in 1973 I got my first job in teaching as a primary school teacher and that’s when I went off and became this radical feminist in the Communist Party. At school I was just this woman that wasn’t married, there were almost two sides to me, which makes gay people unhappy. I was in this work situation with people I knew really well and was seen as this asexual unmarried woman, it strips your personality. All of my whole life really didn’t exist for them. I don’t think I’ve had got the sack but I don’t know. I think the Gay Liberation Movement did such a lot to help people. The first school I taught in was a very good school in Chelmsley Wood and I made a lot of good friends who I still see from all those years ago. It was in a big working class suburb and I loved the Deputy Head, he was a really sensitive, great bloke. They knew but you didn’t say so; ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ just in case it comes back and you can make enemies in staff rooms like you can in any situation, there are people who would use that against you. They knew I was in the Communist Party, a Gay Activist”.

100 Getting involved in the women’s movement

“I entered the Women’s Movement and got to know people because we went on demos. People find it very hard to understand the women’s movement because you didn’t join, you didn’t have a card, you didn’t have membership, you just went to things. There was a group of women in Birmingham who are radical revolutionary feminists who spent hours churning out newsletters which were shoved through the letterbox, that’s how you knew what was happening.

110 Dykes leading activists in Women’s Movement

I think what caused most of the problems really in the Women’s Movement was that a lot of the activism, printed newsletters and all the rest was done by dykes, gay women, and although there were married women with children, and single women who were going to get married, in the Women’s Movement, really the dykes were the ones I think who pushed and pulled, changed it all to fit the bill. There was a lot of resentment from straight women who would say ‘I didn’t join because it was full of dykes’ or whatever but that wasn’t strictly true. People were passionate about it, all those dykes at work fed into the Gab Lib movement.”

120 Political lesbians (late 70s)

Some of the dyke’s sexuality was questioned sometimes and there was a big thing going on in the movement then about Women’s Movement activists who became gay as a political end because it was a political statement to be gay. There were all these little things going on with the movement which culminated in Birmingham (at the Conference in 1978). I didn’t go to the Bristol (conference) but I went to the one in Birmingham and that’s when it all fell apart really. Well, it didn’t fall apart because we’re all feminists within ourselves which makes it a very dangerous movement. I know who my friends are politically.

130 Experimenting with communal living (1970s)

“There were a lot of experiments going on. I went to a Women’s Lib conference in Manchester and stayed in an all woman house and they were really trying hard to come to terms with a different way of living, so they all looked after all the children, it was outrageous really. It was the first time ever in my life I’d seen anybody go to the lavatory without shutting the door. There were still edges on me that were being knocked off all the time. Communal living experiments went on all over the place and straight women tried it as well but it didn’t work with them because they got jealous of one another’s blokes. The blokes must have been besides themselves with joy, ‘I’ve had to sleep with her and then sleep with her’, they got a lot of licence, I never thought the women got much out of that but they may have.”

140 Sleeping with women as a political statement/ bisexuality (1970s)

It’s quite hard to explain, as I don’t want to name names. There were quite famous political women who would come to the conferences and hang out with dykes and sleep with women but then go home. Perhaps I’m not being fair because perhaps that’s bisexuality which I’ve never totally understood and in those days you wouldn’t have. For Gods sake, we were having enough problems coming to terms with it, it’s not within my consciousness.

150 Transvestites trying to get into women’s discos (about 1975)

The first time anything other than man on man, woman on woman that I became conscious of was at a fund raising gay thing in the city centre and there was some transvestites there. I couldn’t understand why they were all wearing the sorts of fussy clothing that we’d flung off and they sort of danced round their handbags, we just couldn’t understand why they wanted to take on that subjugation. That was my first experience of that. The Communist Party’s headquarters in Birmingham was called the Star Club which we wanted to be a bit different so any (women) could come but no men which was totally different to the other gay clubs which were the other way round. We ran this disco which was alright, we had one or two good nights but a transvestite turned up at that and nobody knew what to do because this guy was all in drag and was arguing ‘you should let me in because I’m a woman’. We had to be politically correct so this guy went into this meeting with these women, it was hilarious, you’ve got to laugh because people were feeling their way.”

160 Not involved in the GLF

“(The guys in the communist party) would be aware of the impact of the Gay Liberation Front, because these guys weren’t middle class educated guys, they were proletariats like we were, working class guys which took guts. I wasn’t in it.”

170 Working with men in the NUT

My emphasis was on NUT (National Union of Teachers) politics as much as anything because by then I was well into the NUT which made me enemies in the Women’s Movement because radical revolutionary feminists believe that you shouldn’t have any truck with men. I don’t mean sexually, I mean socially, politically. They thought it was very important that women set up new structures for working. You got frustrated in the NUT because it was male dominated and most of the teachers were women which didn’t make sense to me at all. You’ve got to learn but you were frightened to say anything when you were sat around the table in case it was wrong but I thought it was worth pursuing. I was teaching at the time and that was a heavy job. I used to take the kids away every Easter so there’s only so much of you you can give to things”.

180 Coming out through the NUT in 1988

“I came out through the NUT which was really strange because these days it’s all male dominated. People knew but I wasn’t out. When Clause 28 came out it just made me so angry. I was a good teacher and what I felt that was doing was stripping away my authenticity as a person. It was a local government thing about not promoted homosexuality, not discussing it. Piss off, it’s my life you’re talking about here. So I went to an NUT meeting not with the intention of coming out but people were very sympathetic because it’s a good Union, the NUT was red hot then and I just thought I’m going to do it so I stood up and said ‘I want to speak as a gay woman’. ‘As I lesbian’, I think I said and told them what I felt that Clause 28 meant to gay teachers not to mention gay pupils. I was a primary school teacher so really, although we did have children who we thought were possibly going to be gay, what the government was trying to do was stop a gay teacher interacting with a gay pupil and saying ‘If you ever need to talk to me just come and see me’. I thought it was dreadful that they should do that. I got a very good response, people came up afterwards and said it needed a gay person to do it really. As far as I knew, nobody had come out at an NUT meeting at the time. You have to remember this is the 80s we’re talking about and (Union) membership had fallen off drastically, I was in a small room in the city centre with about forty people.

190 Coming out at the TGWU

The one I’m most proud of is coming out at the Transport and General Workers Union, same thing, Clause 28, and that’s where it needed saying. A straight woman that was on the NUT Executive with me in Solihull was part of the Militant Tendency said ‘Have you heard that the Transport and General have put Clause 28 on the agenda’. It was an ordinary, straightforward Union meeting, they have one every six weeks, and they’d put Clause 28 on the agenda and got nobody to talk on it. She said ‘I thought I might go, how would you feel?’ and, of course, I was feeling full of it because I’d done this other meeting. So I said ‘Yeah, okay, I’ll do it,’ and so we both went. I was so nervous, but I said it. All those big blokes and I can assure you they didn’t come up and congratulate me, they were very polite, they never heckled me but they didn’t connect. I bet they still don’t to this day, it wouldn’t occur to them that a bloke in a factory that’s gay isn’t going to join the T&G because he’s just going to feel threatened”.

200 Lots of people coming out around Clause 28

“You’ve got to remember that at the time there were lots of people coming out publicly, all quite famous people so that’s where I would have got the nerve from. There was a kind of movement, there were political people, a lot of people on the left coming out; it wouldn’t be people on the right. I never felt it was a terribly brave thing to do, I felt able to do it because of the political consciousness of the times”.

210 Changing schools (Late 80s)

“By then I was teaching in Birmingham and I wasn’t happy, I’d left a very happy school and was in a school that I didn’t like at all much really so I gave that up and me and my partner went travelling for seven months. When I came back I got a new job and there another gay woman on the staff which was good. We came out to one another but you didn’t dwell on it. She would come in and I’d be sitting there and she’d say ‘Morning, how’s Jean?’, my partner, that sort of thing which felt comfortable and was OK, something acknowledged, that you’d got a life.

220 Kings Heath/Moseley

I’ve always lived in a very politically conscious area of Birmingham, I’ve lived in Moseley. We live in Kings Heath now because we’ve downsized but Moseley was fantastic in the 70s. The pubs were terrific, there was poetry and jazz and theatre, the Gay Sweatshop Theatre came which was just terrific. I don’t think we’ll ever see those days again, little scruffy back street pubs.

230 The Silver Web

Apart from the Star Club which was really the one the communist women had started, the first gay club I ever went to was called the Silver Web in Wolverhampton, loads of gay women from Birmingham would have gone there. Me and my partner at the time were taken there by another gay woman who was a very outgoing sort of person. She said ‘I’ll take you to the Silver Web because it’s really good, you can have a good bop’. They had celebrity stars on and stuff like that. We were driving there in her car and as we were getting nearer she’s saying things like ‘When we get there it’s best really if we all go in one at a time because you get a lot of hassle’ and she really worked on this. I was terrified and, of course, it wasn’t true, she was just teasing. You’d got images of all the literature and all this stuff in the 70s about gay clubs being difficult to get into, places in London. I had no idea that there were gay clubs in Birmingham but there were. We went to the Silver Web about four times a year if there was somebody good on, a good singer, and it was good. What I remember about it is that you could have a really good dance there, there was a big dance floor and people were really friendly, men and women, it was good fun. I met some really nice people there.

240 The politics of gay clubs

I’ve no idea about the politics of the (Silver Web) because we didn’t go there often enough to get to know the hierarchy but there was a lot of politics with a small ‘p’ at gay clubs about who they would let in because they were all privately owned like they are now. Different to working men’s clubs although of course they do kick black people out but the origins of it all were very democratic but that’s the last thing gay clubs wanted. They’ve probably changed a lot now, I don’t go clubbing any more, I'm too old. The old Nightingale was up a back street and like the top floor of a terraced house, you went up these stairs and you had to sign in and be a member. I can’t remember where it was, in town somewhere. I think I went there about three times”.

250 Butch and femme

“What struck us, being politicos, and still does really because it still happens and I can’t bear it, was the butch and femme women’s relationships. There were butch women who’d beat up their femme partners, copied directly from straight society which I found really hard to come to terms with. The Women’s Movement was a very open thing and it wouldn’t occur to you to punch somebody when you’d had a few drinks. Now I don’t know because I don’t go to gay clubs any more but then it was more obvious”.

260 The Grosvenor

“The Grosvenor was a big hotel on the Hagley Road with a swimming pool out the back, it was a beautiful privately owned club and they had a women’s night and you could go for Sunday lunch because they had a really nice restaurant. The gay blokes who owned it did it beautifully, the food was terrific and a lot of gay blokes would take their mum there for Sunday lunch. It was very contained, very male, but it would be because that was the consciousness of gay men. We didn’t go clubbing all the time, we were too busy changing the world, but if you went there on women’s night it would be obvious from the ambience of that group, the butch women would be wearing Foster Brothers suits and clothing and you’d be afraid to ask anybody for a dance in case you got your head punched. Now I don’t know, I’ve been to pubs in the (gay) village a few times and it looks different to me. I don’t think women would stand for that now”.

270 Very little for women (in the 70s and 80s)

“There wasn’t anything specific specifically except women did try to set up stuff. They (women’s events) all came and went like they do in London. The Greyhound Pub had a night for dykes and then that closed. The one that did work was the Old Moseley Arms in Balsall Heath which is still there now, it had a pool room That was in the late seventies, early eighties and it was terrific, all dykes although now and again some poor unfortunate bloke would wander in and their faces would change. Not many people would have drunk there, young couples wouldn’t have gone there. That’s what I hate most about gay venues, they’re always in dirty backstreets”.

280 Ageism on the scene

“When I had my seventieth birthday I thought it would be really good to have it in a gay club so I went to the Nightingale and they showed me the room upstairs which they wanted a fortune for, I didn’t want to ask all my friends there because the streets all around are quite threatening and the stairs to the back room were dirty. The front is lovely but I didn’t feel that welcome because I was a woman and it was going to be a birthday party for someone who was seventy. There’s a lot of ageism. I’ve got a very wide circle of friends, most of them younger than me, but the owner didn’t know that when I tried to book it”.

290 “I’m sure there is ageism (within the LGB community), it’s the society we live in, other societies value old people and know that they’ve got experiences that might be useful to share. You’ve got to be 35 to really matter. It doesn’t bother me, my friends are mostly dykes and we’ve got some gay male friends as well and Jean’s family aren’t like that. I was in hospital a few weeks ago and I resented the staff treating me like a seventy year old. I’m very fit, I work out three times a week and I swim. I want to enjoy my life and that’s what you do but I’d much rather be sitting with a glass of red wine and a fag. In the hospital they went ‘Alright, dear, alright this morning?’ I’d got a very bad leg and their assumption was that it wasn’t going to get better and that I just sat around all day watching daytime telly. It didn’t matter how many times I told them I worked out and I’m in my third year of an OU degree, it went over their heads”.

300 Where did lesbians used to meet?

“I just hope there’s a nice wide range of people interviewed for the Gay Birmingham Remembered Project. I put on my form that I was interested in interviewing older lesbians, I’d just like to know where they met. There must have been secret venues that you went in carrying a copy of the Daily Mirror”.

310 The politics behind gay liberation

“I can’t help being a political animal and I think people should be aware of the politics behind gay liberation. This could all fold because the money sources could be taken over by right wing politicians and that always worries me about the gay movements and the other allied movements such as in places like Chile. I think people should be aware that they got to where they are because of all this stuff that went before, it wasn’t handed out on a plate”.

320 Investment in the gay village

“The gay scene might be very nice and the pink pound is important but behind that is a political will to make it happen. In Manchester the Council provided the money and built the gay village. I get disappointed that the gay movement in Birmingham doesn’t get some money to get a proper gay village underway because ours is awful. I have a sense of being part of the gay community being built, yes. I still see women who are involved and there is a sense of interaction with people from the seventies.

330 International Women’s’ Day and the Council’s Women’s Unit

International Women’s Day is an interesting one, this ties in with what I was saying about why it’s important for people to be politically aware. Gay people must be aware of where the money comes from, who controls the coffers. Birmingham City Council had a Women’s Unit and the IWD celebrations were always really good. The best one we went to was at the Moseley Dance Centre where they had top line acts, a disco, Claire Short was there and Theresa Stuart who was one of the Labour councillors. It was absolutely super, we had a great time but it never happened again. We assumed that the funding was withdrawn, the Women’s Unit closed and perhaps that was the beginning of the end”.

340 The Birmingham Women’s Liberation Conference 1978

The split happened in Birmingham at the Women’s Liberation Conference between the radical revolutionary feminists, the dyke arm, and the socialist feminists, the political arm. One of the main beliefs of the radical revolutionary feminists was that you shouldn’t be involved with men in union or political activity, anything to do with that, they were separatists and the socialist feminists thought that was nonsense, you were living in a patriarchal society so you had to go along with that and work within it to change it. At the Birmingham conference there was a big row with people fighting and the big split up occurred. It weakened the movement and separatists left even though there was still a movement. They were the ones doing all the graffiti disfiguring advertisements around the city. We called them the ‘Rad Rev Fems’”.

350 The demise of political activism?

“The eighties was the coming of Thatcher and now I’m just so despondent at the way women seem to be buying into the notion of being beautiful and marriage is the be all and end all although that isn’t strictly true. There’s stuff in the papers that twenty years ago people would have been howling in rage at, national politics really, much more centred than they’ve ever been which is a shame. I like to think there’s people kicking against it. I went on the anti war march against the Iraq war and there were women united against which was nice to see, little pockets of resistance”.