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Lyn David Thomas

Lyn David Thomas, born 1960

10 Cardiff to Birmingham and back
Lyn was brought up in Cardiff, but moved around a bit, and ended up back at secondary school in Cardiff. He came to West Midlands in 1978 to go to Wolverhampton Polytechnic, stayed there till 1985, then moved to Wednesbury, back to Wolverhampton, then to Birmingham. He left Birmingham in 2000 and went back to Cardiff.

20 Gay policy for Plaid Cymru
Lyn had been out on the scene in Cardiff, and visited a gay pub at 14. He’d been involved in local politics with Plaid Cymru which was very gay friendly, and come out to various friends as gay in Cardiff. The liberals by then had some gay policies but the old Labour trade union base was anti-gay and Tories were publicly anti-gay. The Plaid Cymru party president wrote a letter stating that sexual liberation is on a par with national liberation and a fundamental right, and sexuality is an inherent part of individual makeup. He was involved in shaping the policy at a young age.

30 The gay scene in Wolverhampton in 1978
Lyn said Wolverhampton had a very visible gay society. He didn’t get involved in local politics but joined the gay society at the Poly and had friends in Wolverhampton Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) and went out to the pubs and clubs in Wolverhampton.

40 The Silver Web, Wolverhampton
“Wolverhampton was fairly unique in having an openly gay nightclub before Birmingham, the Silver Web, since the 60s. It was run by a flamboyant gay brother and sister, Norman and Betty Webb, who’d previously run the staff bar on the Canberra. Norman retired in the late 60s at a young age, and bought the Silver Web with funding from a string of chip shops. It was directly opposite the Poly, and I was introduced to the surrounding area, as ‘There’s the Polish club, the queer club, and the brothel’”.

“The Silver Web was an amazing melange of stuff they’d picked up over time, seats from a disused cinema, odd tables, an accretion of last year’s decorations that had never been taken down, just added to from different theme nights, the absolute opposite to high tech gay club, very kitsch. You went up some precarious steps, it was split into a large dance floor, and an area at the back with seating. There was seating around the dance floor, which was also very precarious, people would frequently bump into the DJ console and the record would go flying across the room. They had a web that span round with fairy lights on it, and some of those portable disco lights at the front, and after a year and a half of build up they put a rope light on the ceiling! At the start they used to throw a thunder flash on the floor and say ‘The disco is now open’, and end it with ‘The show is now over’, at 2.00 a.m. It opened Friday and Saturday and later, also Tuesday and Thursday and it was always packed solid. It was the largest club in the Midlands, and people came from Birmingham, Telford, Nottingham, all over.”

50 Birmingham scene in the 70s/80s

“In the late seventies, early eighties, there was no gay club as such in the centre of Birmingham. The Nightingale was in Witton Lane in Aston, and was a very small club - two floors, downstairs a little bar and restaurant and upstairs a tiny disco. The Grosvenor Hotel on Hagley Road ran a club, other than that the only disco was organised at the Gay Community Centre, and later at the Matador Pub.” Lyn never went to the original Gay Community Centre, but did go to the Nightingale in Aston, sometimes missing the last train at 2.15 a.m. by minutes and being stuck at New St station till 6.00 a.m.

60 London Pride March 1980

“My first contact with the Birmingham gay community was in 1980 when the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre group organised a minibus trip to the Pride March in London. It was a great experience, my first Pride march, very different from today, the route went past Downing Street to the University Union in Mallett St. The police were marching two deep either side of us, completely hemming us in from the public, there were maybe a total five thousand. It was memorable because there was some trouble and they arrested someone in a drag costume including a hat which had a machete amongst the flowers and fruit. There was some dispute whether the cleaver was real or plastic but certainly couldn’t be used being glued into the confection. However they arrested him for carrying an offensive weapon then arrested anyone who tried to tell the march that someone had been arrested. When we got to Malet Street they told us to disperse, the crowd got very ugly and we marched on Bow St. The individual, Julian Howes, was released and we carried on partying at the University of London Students Union. Julian Howes was a survivor from the Radical Fairies group, which was involved with the Brixton Gay Liberation Collective who espoused the use of Radical Drag to break down gender and sexuality distinctions. He won a landmark case a few years later when he won the right to wear a skirt while working as a London Underground Guard.”

70 The Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston

Lyn said, “I started socialising, but didn’t become involved in the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston management until 1985. By 1980, the original Gay Centre in Digbeth had closed, being faced with huge repair costs they’d decided not to renew the lease, and were in the wilderness for four years trying to find premises. When I joined they had moved to new premises in 291 Corporation St opposite Aston University, and I was involved from that point onwards with the committee. I’d got involved with the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard the previous year (1984), but prior to that the main involvement was the Gay Society at Wolverhampton Poly. It faced some hostility, a number of groups weren’t very keen on us, e.g. the rugby club was notoriously homophobic but we were one of the high profile societies, though small in number, and effectively campaigned with the Union’s support though not enthusiasm. There were power struggles between people related to the Rugby Club and minority groups over use of funds and political control of the Union. It was good fun, the Gay Society met weekly and organised a range of film showings, discos and other events. We had a gay liberation disco every year which was always brilliant though hardly attended, but our principal fund-raiser was a showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show which we did twice a year. That raised hundreds of pounds which enabled us to hire films which weren’t on general release; dramas, short films e.g. ‘A Comedy in six unnatural acts’ which was mainly lesbian, taking the piss out of gay politics; ‘Witches, dykes, poofters and faggots’, a story of the Sydney Mardi Gras from the days when there were riot police sent in to break it up, quite different from the vast event it is now.”

“When the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston reopened in 1985 its main focus was to provide an alternative social space free from the pressures of the commercial gay scene, where alcohol wouldn’t be a major focus, where people could feel safe from sexual predators, where people could come out in a social environment and a supportive space. The heart of the centre was the coffee bar and Saturday was its busiest day. It was essentially a drop in place with cheap coffee and cheap food, and also housed an extensive library of lesbian and gay novels and publications and organised a range of social evenings, video evenings, and provided a space for use by a range of community groups, possibly the most successful was the Youth Group. It was a resource, a building which could be used for a variety of functions. It was open Wednesdays, Friday nights, Saturday and Sundays. It was quite a large building, that comprised a large coffee bar, large lounge, smaller meeting rooms, that doubled as a library and further large space to be used for concerts or theatre, but otherwise had a table tennis table. In the previous Gay Centre, the Drama Group was a major group involved in producing their own material and inviting other gay theatre groups in. Initially the Centre was self-funded, when we first moved we’d been fund-raising ever since the old premises closed, in conjunction with Friend, Lesbian Line and West Midlands Lesbian and Gay Switchboard. The Centre used to organise events at The Matador, and Saturday discos, which was for many years the main disco in the centre of Birmingham. Over five years we had built up a fair amount of money, enough for the deposit and conversion.”

80 Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston, opened 1984

“We opened the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston in 1984 (with the official opening in 1985), once we secured the building and started decorating, some money was secured from the West Midlands County Council – a small grant which paid for some equipment, £500 for some second hand sinks and a cooker and another £250 for furniture, but the major funding came from ourselves. The County Council’s donation created sensational headlines in the press in early 1985. We had two further grants, towards the end of 85/early 86 which paid for a full time and part time worker, amounting to around £10K which also created consternation. The Evening Mail was outraged, a lot of people said it was morally wrong that any money should go to a lesbian or gay organisation, that we were not a community that was deprived in any way and that this was discriminatory because money was not given to heterosexuals. Also homosexuality was morally wrong therefore the Council was supporting immorality. The opinion and letters columns were amazing – ‘even dogs in the street don’t do what homosexuals do’. We were just filthy disgusting perverts out to corrupt their children. There were some letters of support and columnists like Maureen Messents were supportive and came down to the Centre and wrote a supportive piece, but three quarters of the letters were foaming at the mouth!”

90 Poor Location and high running costs

“The Lesbian and Gay Community Centre tried very hard to find a central location near the gay village even to the point of almost exchanging contracts. But when they discovered that the holding company ‘Lamda Limited’, was a gay organisation, people pulled out and were unwilling to sell to us. In desperation we took up the premises opposite Aston University and a thriving Arts Centre, the Triangle but its location was against it, it was just outside the ring road and people didn’t like having to navigate subways at night.” Although it had its high points, it had events that were packed, and it was well used on a number of nights, Lyn reports further problems in that the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston was unable to meet the cost of the mortgage and of heating such a large building, it was one storey with a leaking roof.

100 West Midlands County Council comes to the rescue
“The financial problems began fairly soon after it opened and by the end of ‘86 it was clear that it was in deep trouble. The County Council commissioned a feasibility study into the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston which concluded there was a need, that it could be sustainable, and that it was a valid project to support, hence they decided to give us a grant. However at that point the West Midlands County Council was facing abolition and was being wound up. It was the final item on the final agenda of its last ever meeting, their final act was to give a grant of £29.5K to the Centre which would have paid off its mortgage. They gave grants to ten other organisations, all perceived as marginal causes, such as disability and sickle cell anaemia, it was a legacy to the city and the region. By this time we had two County Councillors, one openly gay and one not initially openly, sitting on the committee, one from Coventry and one from Birmingham, and dealing with the officers was through this, it was standard practice to have some councillors sitting on the committee when any grant was given”.

110 Homophobic response to County Council grant

“However there was again absolute outrage, this was depriving other worthy organisations such as the Boy Scouts, of funds. At that time we were just starting to get the hysteria about AIDS and it fed on the prejudices of people, so again the letters pages were overwhelmingly hostile and the editorials weren’t sympathetic at all, there were so many other worthy causes, ‘Why should this group of degenerates get it?’. There were local elections in 1984 including condemnation of gay issues and the Tories were running a homophobic line. By the time the Centre was reaching it’s end, local Conservatives, including Jill Knight, were getting hysterical about gay issues, Section 28 was looming, there was a lot of opposition to anything seen as promoting homosexuality. You had the example of other cities like Manchester, Stoke on Trent and London which had financed lesbian and gay community centres and the belief that Birmingham should not go down that route. The City Council was not very sympathetic, although the County Council was.”

120 The County Council grant was never paid1987/88

Following the media hysteria, there was a legal challenge to the West Midlands Residuary Body, the legal body charged with winding up the affairs of the County Council, and we got into the position where we were paying for the other running costs, we couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments, so we had to hand the keys over to the bank and the centre closed. For a while The Lesbian and Gay Community Centre used the Star Club’s premises (the Communist Party Social Club with bar and meeting rooms and downstairs and the Socialist Bookshop), but it looked bleak, we were trying desperately to get the money. In the end the Residuary Body gave the money to the City Council who ensured the payments were made to all the other organisations except ours. The Residuary Body had also run out of money, so we now had to deal with the City Council, now end 87/beginning 88”.

130 Looking for premises again

“Armed with the County Council’s feasibility study we talked to the City Estates Department who maintained the portfolio of properties that the city owned. At the same time that the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston had closed, the Peace Centre was also made homeless, they had been displaced by the Pavilion shopping centre redevelopment and they were looking for a new location for their bookshop. By coincidence there was a large overlap of the management committees of the two organisations, so negotiations with the Peace Centre resulted in the proposition that we would take over premises jointly, that they would run the bookshop and coffee bar during the week and get the profits, and at night and weekends, we’d run it as a gay centre and get the proceeds”.

“The Communist Party bookshop was also looking to move to larger premises in Digbeth, and it was suggested we took over their premises on Essex Street, near to the Nightingale, the Jester and Partners, the beginnings of the commercial gay village. It would have been ideal, and we were being asked for £28K for the remainder of the ten year lease which fitted perfectly with the money promised from the County Council. Peter Kirby, the secretary of the Gay Centre was in negotiations, and I was a trustee of Lamda the holding company. I was fully aware of the negotiations and Peter still had the good offices of the two ex county councillors and Rob Dungate, the chair of the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston, who had a lot of political connection. Initially it went well and the Estates Department authorised us to commence negotiations in a fairly short period, then they would take on the lease and pay for it themselves and lease it to us at a peppercorn rent, so effectively they would still hold the equity in the building but sublet it to us for a pound and use the grant to pay for it. This would have been good for the Council. It would also house the Peace Centre, a pacifist bookshop, which was THE gay bookshop in Birmingham at the time if you wanted Gay News (or Gay Times as it became), gay novels, or a range of radical alternative ecological books. It was part of the social fabric of Birmingham and it had been displaced as a result of redevelopment at the behest of the City Council. They had a sum they could invest in doing up the building. It would have been a great solution for the City Council. Unfortunately the political climate was getting fraught. You had local elections looming, you had the conservatives going berserk over gay issues, there was the redevelopment of some buildings near the Nightingale on Thorp St at the back of Albany House, and some buildings were demolished and converted into a car park for the use of Albany house, and because it was near the Nightingale the story went round that the city was constructing an exclusively gay car park! You had the local Conservatives condemning this, it was a time when you had a myriad of scare stories about loony left councils spending money on worthless lesbian and gay schemes. It was only a few years after it had been Tory controlled, with Edwina Curry as Chair of Housing, so the Labour Party had memories of this and might be a bit more sensitive to accusations”.

140 Dick Knowles refused to aid the Gay Centre

“The final straw was when a deputation of fundamentalist Christian Churches went to see the Council and got a pledge off the Leader Sir Richard (Dick) Knowles that ‘no gay organisation would get any funding except over his dead body!’ (Sir Dick is an interesting character who pushed through the redevelopment of the city centre that has made it what it is today, credit for that, but, he was pretty much an authoritarian figure, what he said went.) There was a bit of a fight-back, Albert Bore was seen as being very much a left winger in those days, and there were a group of labour councillors in opposition to him, he feared for his position and for the Labour Party maintaining control of the City Council, so, at that point, the Council ceased to respond to us by letter, phone or in person. We tried on numerous occasions to contact them, the Communist Party Star Club was moving, and needed the money to pay for their new premises, which is now Birmingham Voluntary Services Council in Digbeth. There was just silence, even though the last letter seemed to be telling us to go ahead and exchange contracts, and it just fizzled out”.

After that it was very frustrating. We wrote to every Labour Councillor, got a few letters of support and an angry letter from Dick Knowles accusing us of jeopardising all the good work the Council had done, and it was clear from that point that the money had gone. The Pentecostal Church were then grant aided some money from the City Council to set up a Christian Resource Centre on Summer Row, supposedly to look after their elders, now known as the Birmingham Christian Centre, which was suspected to be the money intended for the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston. The Centre’s Committee members tried for a while holding socials at the Star Club, but by then the individuals were exhausted and it fell apart, and to this day Birmingham doesn’t have a gay social facility. It’s questionable whether it could now be set up, given that most of the other community centres round the country have folded, but I still think there’s a use for a non-threatening relaxed space for people to go, meet, mix. Unfortunately any sort of group is seen as political”.

150 Picketing Sandwell Council in 1986
“The Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston tried very hard to avoid politics even going so far as to set up a political sub-committee so it was semi-detached, to act as a political lobbying group separate from the main part, with which I was involved. Sandwell Council, around 1986, had an equal opportunities policy which they then amended to exclude lesbian and gay people who might have contact with the elderly, disabled, vulnerable or young which is just about every Council worker! We went along to picket and that was quite interesting, in West Bromwich Town Hall, it embarrassed Sandwell Council sufficiently that the trade union group NALGO, which was very pro-gay, managed to embarrass them into rescinding that particular policy.”

160 The Nightingale, Thorp Street 1981

“The Nightingale moved to Thorp Street in 1981, the opening night they had an evening with Quentin Crisp which was quite dramatic. It was very ambitious to move from a small two roomed club in Witton Lane in Aston, with water running down the wall of the disco, to a building that was quite substantial and themed throughout. It was a large establishment, and the idea was to create an image of a gay village so you walked in on a cobbled street and on one side, was the Ian Pemberton Arms, named after the first Chairman of the club, and on the other side you had the Arthur Tuckery Restaurant, another Chairman; then you went through into a village square which was the disco, lined with Georgian bay-fronted display windows, (Munchkin Tudor) and a bar fitted into it. It was one of the first attempts at a concept club and looked very dated within a few years. The Georgian dance floor went with the first refurb and it came very high tech, then the Ian Pemberton Arms with its tudor beams and half beer barrels as seats became an upmarket Mykonos type bar with white washed walls and lots of UV light. However the Arthur Tuckery Restaurant remained for many years.”

170 Gay Community Centre Discos at the Matador

“Prior to the Nightingale moving into town (Thorp St) in 1981 there was nothing in the city centre other than the original Gay Community Centre discos in Allison Street, bring your own booze, and 25p for a baked potato, that sort of fund-raising. So there was a gap from when the Centre closed, but the Centre tried to continue to hold social events, including socials at the Matador which the Centre organised. These were very relaxed, over time it became 60 – 70% women and the number of men declined. But the Saturday night discos that Friend, Switchboard and the Centre organised were mainly men, the Lesbian Line disco was women only. The discos had an extension but only till midnight, as was quite common with pubs that had late licences.”

“The Matador was in the old Bull Ring and directly opposite the entrance to St Martins Church, where Wagamanas is now, there used to be a spiral ramp which went to the Matador entrance, right in the centre of the markets area, it was quite busy, they opened at 3:00 -4:00 a.m. and had a markets’ licence allowing them to trade with the wholesale market and stall holders. Most of their trade was early in the morning, anything at night was a bonus, they were very quiet in the evenings so they started hiring out to the community groups. The Centre approached them and they were happy to have us and it turned out to be quite a money-spinner for them. The Gay Community Centre group collected money on the door for the Saturday disco, £1 and 50p unwaged. You could have over a hundred, it was very popular. For the socials we didn’t charge but held raffles.“

180 Venus

“A club called the Venus opened at the end of 1980 where the Hippodrome is now on Inge Street. Its décor could best be described as ‘late nineteenth century French brothel’ – lots of red plush and octagonal fish tank, and at one point in its history it had been a gentleman’s club with that sort of repute, and it opened very briefly as a gay club.”

190 The Wombourne 12 December 1986

“The South Staffordshire Council Health Committee were debating some AIDS related item and the Leader said ‘I would shoot 90% of them or gas the bloody lot of them’, and the Labour leader then said ‘I can understand your sentiments and I share them’. As a result, a group of young people from the National Lesbian and Gay Youth Movement, a national campaigning group, who heard about this, travelled over in a minibus at the end of a conference in Nottingham in December 1986, and picketed outside his house. Twelve of them were arrested and held locked up on remand for two weeks over Christmas and New Year at Winson Green Prison and Risley Remand Centre, claiming that they couldn’t identify them. One person was threatened with attempted murder, when she saw her girlfriend being manhandled into the police van and having her head knocked against the side, she spat at the policeman who regarded that as attempted murder: she was a lesbian, therefore must have AIDS, therefore that was an attempt to kill them!”

“I heard about it and arranged a civil rights lawyer called Louise Christian, to contact them and they managed to get some legal representation. They first appeared in Wombourne Court and we got Ivor Geffin, a Walsall solicitor, well known for his involvement in the National Council for Civil Liberties, as it was then, to defend them, and he was amazed. They were kept hand-cuffed in the dock, and as he said, he’s defended rapists and murderers but never had his clients hand-cuffed in the dock before. You just couldn’t believe the degree of hysteria from the police!”

191 Wombourne Protest

In February 1987 “We held a protest march in Wombourne which staggered the local community; attended by 300 people. The Police filmed the whole event, everyone was photographed, definitely overkill! In the end all the charges were dropped, the Chair of the bench trying the case denied knowing the Leader of the Council even though they lived in the same street and must have worked in the same circles. It was pretty much common knowledge that Norman and Betty Webb who owned the Silver Web and also lived in Wombourne, had collected their two boxes of dog shit for a fortnight and dumped it on the Leader of the Council’s doorstep and also stole a water feature from his garden which they auctioned off to raise money for the cause. I believe ultimately, a number of the twelve sued the Staffordshire Police and were awarded something like £70K in compensation for false imprisonment and wrongful arrest!”

“The police in Wombourne had a reputation as being incredibly backwards; the year before they’d brought a man to trial in Wolverhampton who was HIV+ and had worn space suits to bring him into court. The Magistrate had the sense to stop the trial there and then and say that this man can’t expect a fair trial while he’s being treated like this. The year after the protests, the police put out a leaflet asking for a sighting of any black people to be reported to them as there’d been a robbery recently!”

200 Section 28 picketing Jill Knight’s office 1988

“People involved in the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston also became involved with the Anti Section 28 campaign for lesbian and gay rights. It has been said that the Birmingham LGB community was three people and a set of mirrors and it certainly felt like that at times! You’d go to a Centre meeting and it would be the same people you’d seen at Switchboard, or Friend. I remember being in a large group of about 50 picketing Dame Jill Knight’s office in Five Ways (Edgbaston MP and author of Section 28) in 1987-88, and opposite her office a group of workers put pages of the Sun in the windows. She told the paper that her constituents were terrified of coming to see her because she was barricaded in the building by these militant homosexuals – how right she was. A couple of chants, a couple of banners and slogans like ‘Get your Clause out of our lives’”.

210 ‘In the Pink’ 1987 - 1990
Lyn became involved in producing the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre’s newsletters. “They published a newsletter to update members about fundraising and so on and they used to have a Roneo duplicator, to run off a thousand or so copies - some were distributed around the scene. When the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre Aston moved to 291 Corporation Street in 1984 it started to produce a printed newsletter, it was typed and hand pasted and it was quite laborious to produce. When the Centre folded in 1987 the newsletter continued in the name of ‘In the Pink’ with a hardcore of 6 or 7 individuals and 10 or so others. This monthly newsletter was sent to all gay venues in the West Midlands with a print run of 2,500 paid for by advertising of the commercial venues and some of the social groups. It varied from 4 pages to 12 pages, contained listings of pubs & clubs and social organisations. The ‘In the Pink’ people were running out of steam so in 1987 I tried to take up an Enterprise scheme and get it out fortnightly. We produced In the Pink on a BBC B computer – the first major home computer. We would paste it up in A3 size and take it to a reprographic bureau to get it reduced to A4 size and we got it printed at a trade union resource centre in Digbeth. Switchboard operators would then collate the printed pages and fold it. I managed to do this on and off for about 3 years (until around 1990) before being finally driven out of business as it simply wasn’t profitable.”

220 Other Lesbian and Gay publications
There were no other commercial or non commercial publications in Birmingham in the mid 1980s although the The Pink Paper started shortly after. Birmingham Friend and CHE had each produced newsletters as had the Metropolitan Community Church but these weren’t for wider circulation. The Nightingale produced a publication called ‘The Voice’ for many years which was sent to all its members and available in the club. There was an attempt in the early 1980s to start a Gay Publication that lasted for 6 editions called The Gay Midlander, covering the area from The Wash to Aberystwyth - the only other attempt at a community based publication. Prior to the 1980s the only people who tried to produce newsletters were the group of people in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) which survived in Birmingham long after it disappeared elsewhere and the GLF people were the core of the people who became involved in the first Gay Community Centre and the Switchboard. In the mid 1970s they produced Zap and Gladrag. These were not available on newsstands but you could get them in places like the Peace Centre and various venues. The GLF used to go to a pub that was dying on its feet called The Jester and which stocked publications intermittently.

230 Gay Switchboard volunteer from 1983 - 2000

Lyn became involved with Switchboard from 1983 to 2000. “I started training on the first Saturday after New Year in 1984. It was a fairly successful organisation with 20 or so regular operators. There was a separate Lesbian Line on Wednesdays but still part of same organisation although shortly after the women became separate and most of the women left Switchboard and joined Lesbian line. This loss of members coincided with a loss of other members who were burned out, leaving 3 regular operators. So going from 20 or more regular operators there were only 3 or 4 so I found myself going to Switchboard 4 or 5 nights week. There were easily 20 calls a night at its peak. There were a lot of regular callers who called with the same issues and some needed long term support. There were a lot of information calls such as people visiting the area and wanting to know the best bars and if there were any events on. People would call if having difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality. Switchboard was involved with the Matador socials on a Wednesday. There was a befriending service where the caller was befriended and taken to a venue. It was open 7 nights a week from 7 till 10. It operated from someone’s house back in 1975 and then from the Gay Community Centre in Digbeth, when that closed in 1980 Switchboard moved to the Peace Centre, Digbeth for a year.”

240 Switchboard at the Nightingale Thorp St 1981 - 1995

“When the Nightingale opened in Thorp Street (in 1981) Switchboard was invited along with Friend to take rooms there for a peppercorn rent for something like £100 a year. There was a stretch for about 3 years when the Nightingale declined to ask for the rent – they saw that as part of their social remit. The Nightingale was unique. They never saw themselves as a commercial venue, they saw themselves as a social organisation that provided a safe space with alcohol. A gay working men’s club! It’s hard to imagine that given the glitz and glamour of the current Nightingale. There were originally some women members at the Nightingale but not many. The need for a woman to be signed into the Nightingale by a male member only came about in the 1980s. There was a growing sense of political pressure for gay rights and a reaction from more established gay men that they didn’t want to be associated with anything political, and a lot of lesbians were seen to be political. The women at Switchboard were fairly philosophical about the move to the Nightingale because of the low rent. Switchboard remained above the Nightingale in Thorp Street until it moved to its new premises in Kent Street in 1995. Switchboard then moved just further down to an office block on Hurst Street. The Nightingale gave Switchboard a golden handshake that set us up for about 2 years. I was secretary to Switchboard for about 3 years. The old offices at the Nightingale could hear the disco come 10 O’clock and the rain came in. There was a labyrinth of stairwells and little rooms above the Nightingale some of which were used and some weren’t. It wasn’t decorated but it was almost free and there was enough room for 3 operators. By the time we moved in 1995 we had built up again to 20 or so operators, the highest we ever got to was 29. There was a minimum of one line open every night but on most nights we had two lines open or on occasions we had three. We secured a lottery grant for about 3 years that enabled us to pay for a 3rd line and some training – we did some joint work with a local GUM clinic, and it enabled us to pay for some publicity. It was quite a good period in the mid to late 1990s”.

250 HIV Crisis, conservatism and the media in the 1980s

“Birmingham didn’t seem to be so highly affected by the HIV crisis as London or Manchester partly because we didn’t have such a vibrant gay scene as places like at that time. There wasn’t a lot of money going into outreach work with gay men. There was an incident when the Regional health Authority banned a poster because it showed a scene of two men who were baring their nipples. They were gay nipples! The AIDS crisis gave an excuse to a lot of bigots to be extra bigoted. For instance the statue of Lucifer that was for many years in the tea room at Birmingham Art Gallery was removed because there had been a complaint from a Christian pressure group to get it moved. It was a work by Epstein and it was quite a beautiful statue. It wasn’t removed from public view but it was removed from the tea rooms! People used to call the Evening Mail the ‘Meaning Evil’ and the Wolverhampton Express and Star was called the ‘Suppress and Slur’. It’s easy to be sensationalist if you are moralistic and it sells papers. The Evening Mail condemned Birmingham Pride for clashing with the Lord Mayor’s show. Now they are noticeably more supportive.”

260 Thoughts on Birmingham

“I left Birmingham in 2000 having been in the West Midlands for 22 years. I left because I am from Cardiff and Cardiff was going through a renaissance; there was a new optimism. I felt comfortable in Birmingham, I still do. Every major city needs a lesbian and gay community resource centre, something that the community collectively owns. It’s important to connect people to their history. A lot of people don’t know where they’ve come from, don’t know history of lesbian and gay life. There is a need for a non-threatening space that is not associated with alcohol. Birmingham is seeing a growth of luxury housing in the centre and it’s good that people are moving back into the centre. But it seems that Birmingham’s gay village is threatened by this and the community was there first. Over-development is a great scurge in a number of cities, driven by greedy developers. Birmingham has got some things right, such a series of set piece public squares.

270 Bars and cottages in the 1940s
“One source of information was Laurie Williams who would tell me about gay sex during the blackout in Birmingham in the war; there was active cottaging and cruising; a circuit of notorious toilets to visit; clubs that were accessed by going up the back stairwell of an Indian restaurant; all sorts of illicit events and parties, big house parties most weekends. That was the gay social life that people had.”

“The gay village in Birmingham in the 1940s was at Temple Street such as the Imperial Hotel that had a gay bar. Apparently W H Auden used to drink in The Temple Bar in the 1940s. There have always been gay pubs even if they didn’t officially say that they were gay. There were some notorious cottages in the 1940s and during the war the black out gave opportunity for all sorts of sexual licence. The American soldiers were lined up at the ‘Silver Slipper’ – a subterranean toilet, half moon in shape, at the junction of Hill Street and Stephenson Street. It was called the Silver Slipper because there was a ballet supply shop opposite whose window display had a pair of silver slippers. From what Laurie Williams and others had said there was a ring of toilets that were active. There was another one called ‘The Bovril’ at the other end of New Street Station - there was a large hoarding with a permanent Bovril advert on it hence the name. Just before they demolished the Silver Slipper they removed two partition walls that uncovered two cubicles with gay graffiti on the walls from the 1950s. It was exactly the same as the graffiti from the 1980s and 90s… men searching for sex or men writing stories of what they had got up to. Transvestites looking to meet - there’s always a Sandra looking for a Tracy!

280 Laurie Williams

Laurie Williams was unique; an interesting and complex figure. He was an openly gay man from the 1940s, a pioneer. He was involved in gay life in World War II in Birmingham. He survived the 1950s because he was so out. That gave him a degree of protection. You can’t blackmail someone if they have nothing to hide. He was very sharp and acid tongued at times. I believe he was the only person in Birmingham who gave evidence to the Wolfenden commission”.

“Laurie ran gay bars and clubs in the 1960s in Birmingham, often illegal ones, and was the first manager of The Nightingale when it first opened at Camp Hill in 1969. He was a mover and a shaker and without him I don’t think The Nightingale would have survived the first 2 years. His experience of running parties and illicit gay clubs served them well. One of the illicit clubs was above an Indian restaurant by Steelhouse Lane police station - you had to go through the kitchen and up a spiral staircase, way before my time. There was one right next to Digbeth police station. These places were unlicenced, run by Laurie and a few other people. The sound system was a ‘Dancette’ (a type of record player). I am told that the first sound system at The Silver Web was two orange boxes and a Dancette!”

290 Laurie and the Jug
“Laurie Williams was later the owner of The Jug, first in a central area (Water Street) now redeveloped, and then it moved to Livery Street. Laurie was involved in politics and was a lifelong humanist. He was a good friend and agent of Roy Jenkins (the former Home Secretary). The Jug was officially opened by Roy Jenkins! You would see the cast of Crossroads who used it as their after hours club so you would see Noelle Gordon there. He maintained that it wasn’t actually a gay club he would say that it was an Equity club, which is something that Norman and Betty at The Silver Web would also claim. If you were an Equity member (the actors’ union) you got in free. The Jug was an amazing club. It wasn’t upmarket in any sense, a case of all life is here”.

300 Laurie Williams Funeral

“Laurie Williams died in 2002 or 2003, after I had moved back to Cardiff. His funeral was amazing; it was a humanist funeral, it was packed solid with several hundred people; anyone who was anyone that was involved in the pubs and clubs of Birmingham was there. There were lots of anecdotes about him at the funeral, most of them about him being very waspish. He was a generous man and at the same time quite penny pinching. I have never laughed so much at a funeral before – it was a great send off. When we went from his house to go to the crematorium there were about 200 people on his estate lining the road. He died penniless and the pub and club owners led by Bill Gavan paid for his funeral. After he died I went to his home and he had a keen interest in 1950s design. The Jug was famous for its water grotto and sculptures made out of the bottom of gin bottles. His back garden at home was a series of sculptures made out of concrete and glass – Gaudi style.”