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Malcolm Gibb

Malcolm Gibb, born 1950


Malcolm Gibb moved to Birmingham in 1973 and was a leading member of the city’s Gay Liberation Front. He talks about this and helping to set up the first gay community centre in the UK. Later he discusses the impact of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 90s.


Coming out/ being out – 20 40 41 80
GLF before Birmingham – 30
GLF Birmingham – 50 52 54 55 56 150
Transgender issues – 53
CHE – 70
Gay Education Group – 55 100 110 120 130 180
‘Growing up Homosexual’ - 110
Gladrag – 140
Letter Writing – 120 130
Commune Living : Why – 90
Birmingham ‘Gay’ Suburbs - 170
The gay centre – 160 161 162 163 164
Section 28 – 180
HIV/AIDS – 190 191 192 193
London gay prides – 200
Final Thoughts, gay life now - 210
The personal is political 55
Sexual politics 52 53
Appearance and fashion 80
Challenging the status quo 80 90 193
Friend 162
MCC 162
Switchboard 162
Marxist group 162
Non-monogamy 193

10 Early Life

“My father was born and raised in Birmingham, but I grew up in Hampshire. My brother is also gay. My father worked in the timber treatment industry.”

20 Accepting his sexuality 1968

“I knew I was gay from 13 years but had great difficulty adjusting to that. At Keele University I had some counselling which was extremely helpful and began to accept myself more, it changed my self esteem. I had been very depressed and suicidal whilst trying to come to terms with it.”

30 GLF getting involved 1971

“Les, another student at Keele University, went to the first meeting of London GLF (Gay Liberation Front) at LSE (London School of Economics). I hardly knew him but he had identified me as gay. He came straight up to me and said, ‘You’re gay aren’t you?’ and said that we must start a Gay Liberation Front group at the university. So I sort of took the plunge really, a few of us started leafleting the refectories and halls of residence. This was at the end of 1971 when GLF was taking off; lots of universities had groups starting in them. I read the GLF manifesto, which Les gave me and it blew my mind. It seemed so undeniable, true and obvious, from then on I was radicalised. I had been a socialist from an early age and it (GLF) fitted in with that, I had left for university in 1968 and it was an exciting time in left politics.”

40 Coming Out 1972

“There was no gay scene as in Keele/Stafford, such so I pretty much came out into GLF”.

41 Coming Out on Radio 1972

“My brother is also gay; he had also been to the first meeting of GLF at LSE (London School of Economics) and came up to see me at University to tell me that he was gay. I said, ‘Well so am I’. He would not believe me at first. I did some radio things and I came out rather thoughtlessly to my parents on Radio Four. They were accepting in the end.”

50 Birmingham GLF 1973

“After Keele, I lived in a commune in Bristol then came to Birmingham in 1973 to do a post graduate course for a year. I knew there was a Birmingham GLF as we’d had various conferences at Lancaster University and such places where groups had met up, to form a national network. I’d visited Birmingham for a conference the previous year (1972) so as soon as I arrived here I immediately went and made contact with GLF here. GLF in Birmingham was running out of the Quaker Peace Centre, so I went straight there and ended up at the disco on the following Friday. I met someone who became my partner at that GLF disco in the second week I was here and I never left Birmingham.”

52 GLF meetings in the Peace Centre 1973

“GLF then was a very lively group, there were meetings in the Peace Centre, where there were between twelve and twenty-five people, men and women, mostly who did not have jobs or were students and then people coming to meetings as their first contact with other gay people. There were interminable meetings arguing out points on what was a burgeoning sexual politics; we had close contacts with women’s groups”.

53 Transgender 1973

“GLF was also very open to transgender people then, there was a fair sprinkling of them too. We had a lot of internal debates about the place of transgendered people. Whilst we welcomed them challenging the notions of masculinity, some of the older ones did so in a way that stereotyped women. We had endless debates about that and all sorts of things.”

54 Advertising 1973

“We advertised in the Peace Centre window and sympathetic newsletters. We had a subsequent battle with the Council to get advertised in what was then ‘What’s On’. We had quite a long battle as they thought we were unsuitable. We advertised through word of mouth and at the gay pubs and clubs who were initially quite unsympathetic and thought groups like GLF were ‘rocking the boat’.”

55 GLF Campaigns 1973

“GLF were concerned with the representations of gay people. Certainly the Gay Education Group responded to any remark published or broadcast that we heard. We certainly picketed some films which we thought portrayed gay people in a derogatory way. The central theme about GLF was personal coming out, as the only way to effectively challenge stereotypes was to show the diversity of gay people. It was about bringing it to the front of your lived life and challenging people’s perceptions.”

56 GLF discos 1973

“We were having weekly discos and occasionally large dances in Digbeth Civic Hall. A group of us organised the discos, which depended on a sympathetic landlord. They moved about firstly at the ‘Eagle & Tun’ (Digbeth), which was the first one I went to. They were fantastic; they attracted people for whom it was their first excursion, we had flashing lights and thumping music, it was perhaps easier for some people to go to a GLF disco than to a gay pub or club.”

70 CHE 1973

“There was also at that time in Birmingham a CHE group, we had sort of contacts with them but there was a bit of antagonism as we thought they were overly closeted. There was a certain overlap of personnel as some people went to both groups. I never went, I had been to CHE meetings in Bristol but had nothing to do with them in Birmingham, apart from telling them to be more radical. They (CHE) were much more a social group whereas we (GLF) were much more a campaigning group.”

80 Being visible, out

“It was the end of Glam Rock and I remember wearing makeup, we were liberally dressed, held hands and kissed in public. Not because you wanted to kiss the man but because it would get attention, we also festooned ourselves with badges. Later on we did a lot of leafleting in the Bull Ring on a Saturday afternoon, which was quite scary, shouting things like: ‘How do you know your father isn’t gay?’ We were rather bold.”

90 Living in a Commune

“Quite a lot of people in GLF and gay people ended up living in groups, I guess from a belief that gay people needed to make new living arrangements. We had a strong Marxist analysis, that capitalism relied on atomised families and allowed no place for gay people. I think we were subsequently proved wrong by the way gay people have so successfully been incorporated into society, there was no Pink Pound then. For instance The Nightingale started off as a group of gay people organising themselves out of a small premises on Camphill, it was pretty discreet. There were other pubs but they certainly did not advertise themselves as gay, you had to find out. We were pretty sure there couldn’t be a Pink Pound, as gay people represented such a challenge to capitalism that the whole system would collapse if enough gay people pulled out.”

100 Gay Education Group

“GLF had various sub-groups, one of which was the Gay Education Group. It was the longest lasting and later on as GLF petered out the Gay Education Group continued. Its main function was to educate. It did an awful lot over the years, we did talks at colleges, anywhere we could get into in fact. Also remarkably given the subsequent hysteria about Clause 28 we got into schools, unofficially the headmasters would let us in and we would talk to fifth and sixth formers about being gay. We would just turn up and say, ‘We are gay.’ We had some challenging questions. We also talked to social workers or trainee teachers. An awful of people had not met a gay person who did not feel utterly miserable or sick and we were out and proud. It was quite revelatory to people. The gay Education group took over campaigning from GLF when this petered out in 1977.”

110 ‘Growing Up Homosexual’ pamphlet

“The Gay Education Group also produced a sex education pamphlet called ‘Growing Up Homosexual’, which we then sold, we sold quite a lot nationally. We had help from Martin Cole who was a biologist who gave us some rather frightening photographs (of genitalia) to include in there…and we spent months writing it and thinking over the political implications of every word, practically. That was aimed at young people; if they thought they were gay this was what it was about really.”

120 Letter writing, ‘What’s On’ 1978

“Through the Gay Education Group we kept up the campaigning by writing letters whenever we were outraged by any comment we had seen on television or whatever and also we challenged the local authority (Birmingham City Council), about not allowing us to put our disco meetings in the ‘What’s On’. It went to a full council meeting in the end and was quite embarrassing moment for the Tories on the council who had taken executive decision to exclude us. We were quite close to Theresa Stuart, who later became leader of the council. She was very helpful and sympathetic.”

130 Letter writing Hughie Green

“The response we got was usually quite dismissive when we challenged media coverage. Hughie Green from ‘Opportunity Knocks’ once made some remark about ‘puffs’ and we challenged that. He wrote a very brushing off letter, which we published in one of the newsletters. We were quite tenacious and never let anything drop, we wrote quite a few sarcastic letters to Jeremy Isaacs, head of ITV at the time and he was quite good. He reprimanded Hughie Green.”

140 Gladrag

“GLF produced a newsletter for a number of years called ‘Gladrag’, it started out as a duplicated number of sheets, we sent it out to people all over the country and we sold it around town, at gay clubs too if they would let us. Gay News had also started and it kind of petered out, there was a feeling that things had started.”

150 Why GLF ended

“Most of us were students and moved into jobs, the commercial scene was also expanding and opening up, it was less closeted, the Nightingale had moved to Witton Lane to more purpose-built premises. There is a moment for those sorts of movements, although it was revived again in a sort of way with the Gay Centre.”

Gay Centre

160 Getting the Gay Centre started

“The Gay Centre arose though one person called Glen who was frustrated by the fact there was no alternative gay activity going on. He got us together and said, ‘Why don’t we run a gay centre?’ I think we were before the London one, we were the first one in the UK. He had read something about a centre in Amsterdam or San Francisco. It was slightly the same group (as GLF) and some people from CHE got involved and we took a lease on three enormous Victorian buildings in Allison Street in Digbeth. We threw ourselves into it not sure exactly what it was going to be but a ‘friendly space for all gay people’, which was non-commercial.”

161 Funding

“We got people to sign up to monthly standing orders of two or three pounds. Over a year that was quite a lot of money. I think one or two people lent some money and the lease had been on the market for quite along time, it was a depressed period (economically), so we persuaded the landlords to let us have it at a fairly low rent. It was not derelict; it had an enormous warehouse at the side, which we sublet to Friends of the Earth to start their wholefood warehouse, they are still there. We had a committee who gave a clear policy that we would only ask people to give donations, so the coffee bar, which was quite nice, we never priced and still made quite a good amount of money from. People felt connected so they gave more generously. In the first year we had a fantastic treasurer who was very, very assiduous about retaining a sink fund and we built up quite a lot of savings.”

162 Groups

“We took the three five storey buildings fronting Bordesley Street and did an awful lot of work, we made a suite at the back on the ground floor with a separate entrance for Friend, which was up and running by then. We had Switchboard who had accommodation upstairs. Then we had a coffee lounge and meeting rooms, and we cleared out the cellars and made a disco area in them. It became a very lively place. It also hosted national conferences of various sexual political groups, such as gay Marxist or gay Socialist groups. We had five floors and three enormous buildings and hosted anything that was vaguely related to gay politics, we had the MCC church meet there.”

“The BBC made a documentary about the Gay Centre, for the Access series [he doesn’t have a copy]. It was called Open File or Open book and they did a half hour documentary on the Birmingham Gay Centre.”

163 Why the Gay Centre closed

“The Gay Centre ran for about three years, until the lease came to an end, there were problem with dilapidations and whether we would be stung to repair the premises. We closed it there so it would not peter out.”

“There are six terraced houses nearby and there was a little problem with one of the occupants who complained about the noise but this was not the reason for closure which was more to do with not wanting to take on another lease as they didn’t want to be responsible for the repairs. We had an astute treasurer who built up a good reserve. When a new Lesbian and Gay Community Centre was opened in Aston, mostly taken on by a group of lesbians, (thinking that if women were more involved in organising it then it may take a different direction), most of this money went into taking on the lease. It wasn’t in an ideal position and failed to do well and subsequently closed. It had its time.”

164 Council Funding, Edwina Curry

“We tried to get funding from the Council, I remember Edwina Curry came down, before she became an MP, she was chair of Birmingham Social Services. We thought we deserved money as we were providing a social service, she was a very smart politician and outwitted us really. She was very impressed with the place and had a coffee, she said we should not put in a formal application as if it was turned down we would never get funding. We never got any.”

170 Birmingham Suburbs

“A lot of the political gay men lived in Selly Oak, Kings Heath and Moseley, Birmingham does have a north/south divide.”

180 Section 28

“Section 28 (Clause 28) did not impact on my work in the youth service, but it hit schools. When I think about the Gay Education Group we were blithely going into schools with our badges and talking about anal sex, then there was a retreat. The Thatcher years were so repressive, those years seemed very odd.”


Malcolm talks about the devastating affect HIV AIDS had on the gay community and him personally. He is HIV positive himself and he lost his partner, whom he had been with for 25 years.

“One lost a lot of other friends as well, it was before anti-retrovirals and they were giving them large doses of AZT which was killing them, it was a very difficult period. I’m not alone in having lost a lot of friends and acquaintances.”

191 Health Services being HIV

(Talking about his own and his partner’s treatment for HIV): “He had a very difficult time, it was at a time when there was very distinct hysteria about medical staff with HIV. I think he delayed diagnosing because of that, although I don’t think it would have been different. When he did get sufficiently ill there was some unpleasant press coverage of him which was difficult. There were about four or five doctors and nurses who had been identified as being HIV, he was a hospital consultant. He had as good care as a patient as you could get but there was not much they could do at that time, it was a dreadful period for the doctors. There was nothing they could do for them, they just had AZT and that was pretty toxic.”

192 Devastating impact of HIV before the anti-retrovirals

“My partner died a year before the anti-retrovirals became available, a year later and he probably would have still been alive. I had another very close friend who died six months later. It was a terrible period. I was expecting to die within a couple of years but combination therapy kept me alive, but without those people in my life, (I wouldn’t have survived).

“I’ve just had another close friend die because he diagnosed late, and I think that’s a big problem for the gay community now, people need to know their status as it’s a treatable disease.”

193 Open Relationships pre HIV

“There had always been a strong feeling in GLF about challenging perceived patterns, and there were a lot of open relationships. Sex and sexuality were important and it was liberation. Then there was a reining back when HIV/AIDS loomed, my behaviour had changed by then, although I had been promiscuous when I was in GLF as it was part of it, almost a resurgence of the free love movement. I get the impression there is still a lot.”

200 London Gay Prides

“They were wonderfully exciting, we would march through the side streets protected by the police with people cat calling.”

210 The gay scene now

“A lot of us felt lost after the Gay Centre closed, I’m still friends with a lot of the people I met there, there is a kind of regret as those days were wonderfully exciting, we were making it up as we went along. With the burgeoning of the commercial gay scene and the reduction of gay world to pictures of pecs and commercialism, products and the gay pound is depressing to an ageing radical who had hoped there would be something more human, flexible and creative.”

“I think it’s been an enormous benefit though as younger people can come out onto a much more developed scene which in many ways is more supportive, but there is a slight sadness that nothing carried on that gave us that buzz, a slight regret that a lot of the notions we were trying to challenge are still around, i.e. women still earn less. I notice a slight resurgence of a casual anti-gay humour, it’s almost acceptable to call someone a ‘puff’, as if those battles have been won and gay people are sufficiently high profile to take that sort of thing, but then in Iran there are still gay people who live appalling lives because of their homosexuality.”