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Caroline Hutton

Caroline Hutton, born 1956


Caroline Hutton moved to Birmingham to study in the mid seventies. In this interview she talks about discovering her sexuality. She also talks about volunteering at the first Gay Centre in Bordesley Street, volunteering with Gay Switchboard and the 1978 Women’s Liberation Conference. Later she discusses her pivotal role within the women’s music scene in the UK, and her thoughts on being gay today.


Women’s movement – 10 20 40
Purple Room/Greyhound Cider House - 20
Women’s Liberation Conference 1977 – 80 90 91 92
First woman 30 40
International women’s day - 40
GLF – 40
Police - 40
Identifying as lesbian – 30 50
Political lesbianism 50
Switchboard - 70
Jewish lesbians group – 60
Gay Centre – 70 100 110
HIV/AIDS – 110 120
Women’s music scene – 30 140 150 160 170 180
Homophobia in schools - 210
Kings Heath & Moseley - 190
Gay history course 1986 - 230
Thoughts on being gay today - 200
Lesbian books - 250
Fashion – 135
Non-monogamy 120
Women’s Revolutions Per Minute 130
Outpost 180
Birmingham localities 190
Young scene 190

10 Women's Movement

Aged 51, born 1956, in North London, Caroline came to Birmingham for University in 1974. “The purpose of university was to get away from home and do all the things that 18 year olds need to do – sex, drugs and rock and roll, away from parents. I wasn’t aware that the sex could include being lesbian, at that time, though the idea of a sexual connection with women had floated in and out of my brain, but for me what was fundamental was the Women’s Movement. The Women’s Movement was a very natural place for me to be so when I came to University, I found this small women’s group at Aston University (then Birmingham Poly) and it was mostly full of women from the IMG (International Marxist Group). It was an immensely exciting time, we got to be wonderfully radical and transgressive in a very political way, my mother was in the Communist party and I was brought up with a strong political ethic”.

20 The Greyhound Cider House late 1970s

Gradually some lesbian women joined the women’s group and one suggested that after our group meeting on Tuesday evening, we went to the Purple Room, a private room in the Greyhound Cider House on Holloway Head. The woman was very specific, she said ‘There’s a lot of lesbians there, but you don’t have to be lesbian to go”. It was a very pleasant and welcoming place, we would make cakes for one another’s birthdays, I’d been to places like the Viking which was horrid and this was very laid back and you got to meet all kinds of very different women there”.

30 First sexual encounter with a woman 1977

Gradually I started considering the possibility of women as partners but took my time working it out and didn’t want to tell anyone until I’d actually had sex with a woman (laughter).I was also interested in music and had travelled to Liverpool from London to a womens’ music festival with a bunch of women, mostly lesbians, with spiky hair cuts and terribly terrifying, and I discovered that most of them were vegetarians and somehow that made them less terrifying!!!! It gradually moved on, I got to know a deeply unsuitable woman and we talked each other into bed and went off from a friend’s party in Moseley to Jane’s flat, now knocked down, where Fivelands vet is, it had black and white gates, it was March 1977”.

40 International Women’s Day + GLF

“The morning after this first night, which was deeply disappointing in many ways, but I’d had my rite of passage, I was part of a group of women doing an International Women’s Day event (March 77) and we had a rehearsal in Chamberlain Square that Sunday morning, so I was going straight there and didn’t know whether to tell anyone or not. It was a very exciting time; I was the person who had arranged with the police that we were going to have this march. We were doing street theatre and I was doing the singing, so I was doing all these things I’d never done before, seeing the police and negotiating with them, they said they didn’t want the GLF on the march, this was a ladies liberation march and what are these gay men doing here, and it was well, they come as our allies and so we’re quite happy, and singing, I always had this very loud voice and helped make up some songs, and we did them in Chamberlain Square and the Bull Ring, and it was all great fun – the next weekend was the actual event”.

50 Identifying as lesbian 1977

After the one night, Caroline decided it was a sensible thing to do to define as a lesbian, the sense of being part of the vanguard, and everyone wants to be on the vanguard. “I’m sure that in a different political time I would not have been a lesbian – I’d have done the normal thing, got married, I don’t regret it, - I’m not comfortable with the phrase ‘political lesbian’, that was so much of a particular time, that I don’t use it at all, it had so much (sucking of teeth sound). A friend said, ‘Caroline, it’s all right, you became a lesbian before it was fashionable’”- !!

60 Jewish lesbians group 1980s

“I was in a Jewish Lesbian Group in Birmingham when it existed in the eighties – (before we tore each other apart at the seams. (laughter) I was involved with a lot of Jewish women who put together a lot of thinking about Israel and Palestine, so in the years after 1982 it was the same bunch of women, an opportunity to hang out and deal with issues of identity, which everyone was obsessed with in the 80s. A large proportion of my best and closest friends are Jewish lesbians that I’ve kept in contact with for thirty years or so, but not in any organised sense, not even friendship circles, they don’t even know each other, they live all over Britain, but I’ve kept those connections up”.

70 First Gay Centre Committee and Gay Switchboard 1970s

“I’m someone who gets involved in things so after coming out, I was involved with various groups. I was on the committee of the first Gay Centre, on the corner of Allison Street and Bordesley Street and that was extremely good fun. I was the second woman on Gay Switchboard, from 1977 – 1983. That was a great learning experience, because we knew nothing (stressed). We were hopeless and terribly unprofessional, luckily a woman called Anna Durell joined and decided to make us more professional, which she did very effectively, and that improved things”.

Caroline didn’t see a conflict in working with gay men in both groups; “I was never separatist in the slightest, and was deeply pragmatic, it was a matter of luck where I ended up - I returned from a trip to the United States and got involved with selling women’s music, and spent 20 years selling women’s music.”

80 Women’s Liberation Conference 1978

“I helped organise the Women’s’ Liberation Conference in 1978 - Oh GOD that was awful” (stress and peals of laughter). Oh god, and some of it was my fault that it was awful. (More laughter). I was 22, and I did all these things that if I met a woman of that age now, I would offer a little mentoring! I gave the impression of enormous self-confidence so people said ‘all right’. Again, Anna Durell had put some semblance of order into organising the bookings so at least one aspect worked really well, and Pat Sale organised for it to be in a local street (a school in Ladywood).

85 Women’s’ Liberation Conference disco 1978

“I was working in a pub called the Ivy Bush, so I arranged that we would have the Friday night disco there but it was far too small a room, and we didn’t organise someone with a disco, a few of us brought along a few records, and it was just hopeless! (laughter). There was this major fight afterwards, because there was a football club met there as well and they decided that a bunch of lesbians (whether we were or not was irrelevant) was a perfect opportunity for a fight! Fortunately my boss was looking for an opportunity to ban the team, so this was an excellent opportunity to ban them for fighting so he was saying to the women, ‘There’s more of you, just go outside and beat the shit out of them, but just not in my pub’. It was an absolute cock-up!”

86 Women’s’ Liberation Conference 1978 music

“I’d also taken responsibility for organising the music (for Saturday night social), I hadn’t got the right music, fortunately, Fran Rayner whose sister was in ‘Jam Today’, turned up and knew how to mix. I’d booked some groups who we paid for almost nothing, so there was a folk event and the rock music, and it just about happened, but was rubbish, really incompetently done, so I learnt a lot after that, and after that in my life, did organise a few concerts but it was never that bad”.

90 Women’s’ Liberation Conference 1978 plenary

“The plenary at the end was nothing to do with me, but was deeply upsetting because everyone had reached the stage of upsettness which very often everyone gets to when they haven’t slept enough and everyone is trying to get everything they want and this is our great hope, and you can’t because you have to compromise and listen and spend time getting to know one another and you can’t. It was a great learning experience and please may I apologise in full for all of my cock-ups, which I don’t think I’ve ever done, so I am publicly apologising for the inexperience of youth and I know now it was hopelessly unprofessional and I’m sorry – never mind, I don’t think anyone got too badly hurt as a result, but I would do it differently now!

100 Gay Centre Committee – keeping order/teen queens

Gay Centre Committee – “I was very young, but they knew they needed women, and big mouth, appearance of self-confidence, and willingness to say ‘yes’ – it was enormously exciting, my first experience of working at that level of organisation, and fortunately there were a number of guys involved who did know how to, I joined in the great good fun of being on the committee.

“One of my jobs, as for all on the committee, was to ‘be responsible’ and one of the things that meant, was when there was an event, was to go round and stop men from having sex. There was this great big rabbit warren of a tall thin building with lots of rooms and I only once had to. Fortunately, they hadn’t got very far and I knew one of the guys and embarrassed him by saying, you should know better”.

“Another of the jobs was to keep an eye on the ‘Teen Queens’, young guys way under the age of consent, for whom it was a very safe place to hang out, so they would run around being teenage young men, I do remember one of the jobs was to involve them in the jobs that had to be done. One of them said, ‘Why should I, I’m not a woman’ – I sort of picked him up by his collar and can’t remember what I said, but I was fairly firm, and things like that helped me maintain my reputation for being fierce. I’d worked out very early on that gay men’s views of lesbians, was either to dismiss them as not interesting, and ignore them, or else we terrified them, and I decided I’d rather terrify them. Occasionally I still bump into them and I can see them thinking, is she going to bite my head off and I’m really laid back actually (peals of laughter) so very fond memories of that time, of course lots of them are dead, which is really sad. A lot of them became very good mates”.

“Having had a Gay Centre I think was quite important for us, but thereafter, I had nothing to do with the second gay centre, which was a Lesbian and Gay Centre

110 Catering for events

“I was in the Woodcraft Folk as a child which taught you useful things like how to cook for a hundred people, so when we had events I was one of the people that cooked the lunch. I’d go down the market and make something, it wasn’t great, I can’t remember what! Vegetarian food is cheap and I’ve always lived with vegetarians but never been strictly vegetarian, but it’s cheap, so I’d cook the food.”

120 Sleeping around before the AIDS crisis
“It was the era of non-monogamy (snort) – this was when a lot of us didn’t have jobs, you couldn’t have a job and have time to be non-monogamous, maybe as a guy because they don’t do all that relationship stuff; this is the time after the sexual revolution, and before AIDS so men were having a lovely time screwing around, and we were doing that too, we just had a lot more emotional stuff going on. One man got scabies, so we sat in the coffee room, saying, ‘He’s sleeping with so-and-so who’s also sleeping with so-and-so, the guys, and he is sleeping with her as well, and she’s sleeping with me…… and I’m sleeping with so-and-so….’. So we went to the guy and said, ‘We’ve made this connect contact list, so will you sort this out very quickly because if any of us get this your life is not going to be worth living’ – (mimics guy whispering) ‘It’s OK, I’ll sort it out, it’s in hand…….’ “(laughter)

130 Going to America

“I was known to some people for going off to the States, I’d been there in ‘77 and ‘78, and had a relationship with someone over there, but being young, had sex with quite a lot of women over there, that was what you did, but I stayed connected with some of them so would go back to the states so I became known to some people as ‘the woman who went off to the States’, even though there was a 12 or 14 year gap. Some people, if they’ve not seen you for a while ‘That’s Caroline – she goes off to the States’ (whispers) - I haven’t done it for a very long time”.

“I used to wear jeans, dungarees, collarless shirts, rainbow braces – my hair has gone up and down over the years, - I had quite short hair from about 1979, then grew it, cut it, but never particularly spiky - I couldn’t stand using gel!”

140 Women’s Revolutions Per Minute (WRPM)

“Music was my main occupation even though it didn’t make me any money. That happened because having been to the States I’d come back with some music, I’d been to the Michigan Music festival, and met the women who were then running WRPM (Women’s Revolutions Per Minute) – Nicolle Freny (an American, living here) and Teal Thompson – and then I got a phone call from my friend Mary McDonald who told me that it was my duty to take over WRPM as Nicolle had cancer and they were looking for someone to take it over and had decided that I was the person to do it. I chatted to Nicolle and Teal and ‘OVA’ who were a two woman band, and some other people, and discovered that ‘Wholesome Trucking’ took wholefoods from London up to Manchester and Leeds and Liverpool via Birmingham, so there was a ready made transport system for moving things around. It then went back to London, stopping off at Friends of the Earth in Birmingham, so I would go there with these boxes of records, which were then taken to radical bookshops which I was selling them to, so I was in Birmingham which was the centre, so this is networking ,making coalitions where appropriate. So I took on WRPM and expanded it a lot and ran it for 20 years and went from mainly serving radical bookshops, to mainly running a mail order service as gradually radical bookshops began to die, and Waterstones came in and went with the top 10% of the radical books and not bother with the rest”.

“That was a lot of fun, it was called ‘Women’s Music’, but most of it was lesbian, and I expanded to include classical music when available, and folk music because I liked it, it’s much easier to sell things you like. Whenever there was a festival I would go along, and women’s Trade Union Conferences, so a lot of people knew me as ‘that women who stood behind a stall and played music’. I was fortunate to be there when there was a big upsurge in choirs, and women making music etc. so it was a good time to be part of that. What I always struggled with was getting music into the mainstream, so I went round bookshops and Virgin Records, trying to push stuff in”. I did WRPM for 20 years and very much enjoyed being self-employed, that was pretty hard, I had a little while of having someone work for me but I wasn’t making enough money! I’ve now discovered that I prefer being in an organisation. I would periodically experience the loneliness of having no-one else to make a difficult decision with, now I have a Board of Trustees to make the final decision.”

150 Women’s Music: Touring

“Oh and tours! The Chris Williamson tour, Alex Dobkin, Holly Near, Sweet Honey in the Rock tour! Meg Christian, and Kay Gardener and Judy Small (who is Australian, and the rest are American). I don’t drive and constantly had to find nice friends to take me. Oh God, and fortunately I could always find someone at a loose end who was happy to do it for no money but the excitement of getting into the concert, some free albums, a tour sweatshirt, I’d buy them meals, and we stayed in people’s houses so it was all gloriously make-shift. The sheer adrenalin from when everyone pours out of a concert fired up with this wonderful time they’ve had and desperate to take it away with them, half of them will probably never play the album again, it doesn’t matter, they want to buy something to take away with them. Being able to do that at that sort of speed, and if the money and the stock-take added up at the end of the day – it was very intense and great fun”.

160 Women’s Music: British women

“British women never toured enough and that was always complete frustration to me, partly I cursed the musicians but we are quite a small country, so their idea of a tour was three dates and it wasn’t worth going along with them, they would sell their own stuff, they might want to buy from me later on. Selling at a concert is how musicians made their money, but I was frustrated that they weren’t performing enough, that’s how you build your audience, by performing till you can’t stand it any more”.

“There were some British women (lesbians): Ova (carried on for years and produced 4 albums, always a bit obscure but interesting, one (Jana Runnols???) went to Glastonbury, Rosemary stayed in London, the Fabulous Dirt Sisters (Nottingham) were huge fun, I really liked them, the Bradford Women’s Singers (started late 80s), and heaps of folky people that I picked up, the Frankie Armstrong, Janet Russell and Shelass, people like that. The Guest Stars were this wonderful jazz band. Alison Rayner, and Deidre Cartwright, were at the centre of Jam Today (70s) and then the Guest Stars and made things happen around jazz mainly in London and they were brilliantly professional and knew about performing”.

170 Performing in Birmingham

“Ova and the Guest Stars and Frankie Armstrong all played in Birmingham and I got Holly Near in the Great Hall at Aston University and Chris Williamson at Digbeth Civic Hall, and Alex Dobkin, I can’t remember where, all to play in Birmingham. Sometimes I organised them, or with other people, or sometimes just made bloody sure that it happened. I hated organising events! I got Judy Small started at the Graycock Folk Club then I got her to the Triangle, that was the pinnacle of my achievement, and she did a joint concert with Leon Rosselsohn and somewhere else and we ended up at the Irish Centre. Kay Gardener, I put on at the MAC (Midlands Art Centre). The concerts were publicised through a bit of everything, I could also get Judy Small a mention in ‘What’s On’ because Mike Davis at ‘What’s On’ thought she was brilliant and always did a plug, otherwise a lot of word of mouth, it’s trying to get it to the level of news and get it to the right people, the media was always a slight difficulty.

180 Outpost

‘Outpost’ was a free lesbian and gay newspaper which was out in the late nineties, I was working as a counsellor and for a while got lots of lesbian and gay clients, and when that fell apart there was no longer anywhere that everybody got, people would pick it up and if they were looking for something it was there. Finding regular media, was always a bit of a struggle, something that everyone would read. No-one quite cracked that, because whatever did everyone would have a go at, at Spare Rib, at Gay News, this thing that it’s not exactly as you want it so you say it’s crap, but it’s the best that people can manage to do! Write something better!” (yuck noise)

190 Suburbs and growing older

“I’ve mostly lived in the Moseley, Kings Heath, Balsall Heath corridor for 20 years and I really liked being part of the furniture of an area, and part of a community, not necessarily part of a lesbian community. Now I’ve moved in with my partner in Kings Heath, and it’s fine. It’s not the same as living in the neighbourhood where everyone knew me. I know who I know, the old hags from my era, but we’ve settled down into suburban life as you do when you grow up, I am remembering when I went to a bar in town and looked at all these young women and thought, ‘I don’t know any of them, I’m not particularly interested in talking to any of them, I’ve moved on, I’ve grown up’”. (laughter).

200 Comparing being gay today with earlier

“What’s difficult, is one woman I was counselling told me that she’d rung Gay Switchboard and was told there was either Rainbow Voices or Boot Women. She said ‘I don’t want to walk and I don’t want to be in a choir, what do I do?’. She was middle aged and I felt for her, because I’ve got my nice life and my nice friends but how do you build that? People have found ways of doing that, you have to have people who are prepared to put into, continuity, leadership, tolerance, being prepared to deal with people who are being difficult, of whom our community has a fair number. Having community around politics was great, there was stuff to do and we did it and the world has transformed since then, I never dreamt there would be a legal form like marriage and we’d have all those rights, that’s terrific, great, and I was always happy to be out and not fussed about who knew but I still know people for whom it would be difficult to be out at work. The law is one thing but how people interact with you is another, and now, I rarely tell people I’m a lesbian; they know my partner and I make it clear - I talk about ‘she’ and no-one is fussed because of the way I do it. I’m very laid back, I will jump up and down on anybody who is being obnoxious, but it’s no longer such a big deal. I think that has changed, the world has changed, and I get better at being more relaxed, but there were still people who were uncomfortable about it, but now, they are quiet. I don’t ask people to be warmly welcoming, I expect courtesy, but mostly they’re not interested. I’m fairly active in the Labour Party and no-one is interested in my private life, only, whether I am a good Labour Party member.”

210 Homophobic school head 1995

“I was a chair of governors of a school and wasn’t in a relationship at the time and decided not to come out. That was the first time I’d not been out for years, and it was interesting, no-one was interested in my private life, all they were interested in was I a good chair of governors?” I discovered later that the Head Teacher was doing his best to get rid of a lesbian member of staff and discovered too late to do anything about it, I wish I’d known, I don’t know whether being out would have made any difference, but if I’d known about it as Chair of Governors, I could have acted as I would if there had been racist bullying. I had a rubbish relationship with the Head which is why I stopped being Chair of Governors, he was a bully…… that was around 1995-6 (clause 28 was still operational)”.

220 Birmingham comparisons

“Every city is different because of who’s there, there’ll be differences because of the makeup by ethnicity or class, Manchester and Leeds and Bradford had their own atmospheres within the lesbian community because of the kind of ‘fuss’ that was made at various stages, it takes these small things that happened”.

230 Gay History Course - Richard Dyer 1986

“I was in a lesbian and gay history class in 1986 in Birmingham, led by Richard Dyer (Warwick University) and Jackie Stacy (later Lancaster University). Everyone knew Richard. They’d never taught it before, so it was an experiment in putting it together for a WEA course, run at the Lesbian and Gay Centre (Aston). The Workers Education Association (WEA) did the paperwork. There were a dozen of us, but an interesting opportunity to think, and the great thought I had, was that our search for lesbian and gay role models in history is a hard one because if someone was lesbian and gay it was in a very different way from now, it was something very transgressive and they would have done their damnest to cover their tracks, so let's not get wound up about it, but it was interesting to think about it, rather than think ‘Were they or weren’t they?’”.

240 Current work

“Apart from the Labour Party, I am the Manager of Metamorphosis at the Martineau Gardens, which is very political, we do therapeutic horticulture and educational projects, it’s very socially inclusive. Gardening together doesn’t have the stigma of going to a mental health day centre etc. Mostly it’s making trouble where trouble needs to be made”.