The University of Birmingham’s first Gay Society,
(GaySoc) was set up in 1974 by Chris Stevens and me. There had been an
un-official group of gay students (mainly boys) at the university
since around 1968, but this was one was the first to be officially recognised,
and funded by the University Guild of Students, (Student’s Union).
At the time membership of the various gay groups in Birmingham overlapped a lot and Chris and I and other GaySoc members were also active in GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and the Gay Education Group. (The latter met every Monday evening at a house in Exeter Road. Selly Oak at the home of a guy called Ray J.) The idea of a GaySoc for the local University came from the Gay Education Group, of which I was a member before becoming a student at the university.
The Guild of Students gave us about £50 and one notice board-which we had to protect under a sheet of thick Perspex because it was constantly being defaced with homophobic vandalism. We arranged weekly meetings at the university’s St. Francis Hall, next to the Guild building. It was a good, quiet place for us to meet and for newcomers. At the time most of the alternative gay, social activity (in other words non-commercial) was being organised by GLF and the Education Group, (which by this time was more-or-less the same group of people), and it was as GLF that we did most of our socialising.
The membership of GaySoc was wonderfully
varied-there were physicists, a medical student, (just the one), arts graduates
and undergraduates, biologists and the occasional lecturer. Today it warms my
heart when I read of ex-GaySoc member, Professor “so-and-so’s “latest book or
ex-GaySoc member, Professor “ some other so-and-so’s” latest
paper. One day all of these names will be known, but at this time many still
prefer to remain anonymous. Apart from one; Richard Dyer. Everyone
knew Richard, and although he was never a GaySoc member, he was a constant
inspiration to the group from its outset. (I first met Richard at the Gay
The GaySoc was a good place to meet other gay students.
I don’t know what it is like today, but being gay at university in the early
1970s was often a cause of loneliness. Gay students often thought
of themselves as outsiders and the some of the social activities organised by
the Guild of Students didn’t help. They used to have an annual “Drag Queen
Ball”, which was organised by the medical students. Now you’d think that gay
students would have loved this sort of thing, but you would be wrong; the Balls
were a manifestation of the worst hardcore homophobia and sexism
imaginable. GaySoc got together with
the university’s feminist activists with a view to getting such “sexist events”
banned from the Guild’s social calendar. After many ugly protests
outside and inside the Guild building the issue was finally debated by a
The hall was packed and a few heterosexual liberals and socialists, (no sarcasm intended, they were good supporters of us), gave speeches on sexism and why it was bad and so forth. Now, it must be borne in mind that the words “sexist” and “homophobia” were new at the time and, I think most of what they said at the meeting was lost on the other students. We needed someone to stand up and say, “I’m gay, I’m a student and I don’t like these events.” But no-one did, until I put my hand up. The chairman of the meeting, (a nice straight lad who had always shown respect towards us), recognised me and invited me to speak. I had nothing prepared. It was a "long" walk to the front of that hall packed with about 400 other students. I stood on the stage and in front of me were a green, amber, and a red light. The green light was lit and I remember thinking that they wouldn’t need the other two as I was not planning to stay long!. I said , “Hello everyone, my name is Graham and I am a member of GaySoc”—stunned silence—“University can be a lonely place for me at times”—more silence – After a few seconds more thought ,I said “You guys”, looking at the contingent of medical students, “think holding these events is your right, but it’s not; it’s a privilege and a privilege that this Guild cannot afford” – applause.
It was a terrible “speech” and I knew this at the time. My face was bright red as a descended the small staircase at the side of the stage. I remember thinking how on earth I was going to be able to face the other students on my course; I hadn’t even told my parents that I was gay. The following day they invited me to appear on Guild TV, (the Guild had a CCTV network that broadcasted from the Great Hall every Thursday). It was all very civilised. They interviewed me and the then Guild Chairman, (Steve Moon) and eventually, the Guild passed a “law” banning sexist events which is still on their statutes today.
My university days flew by and the running of GaySoc was passed on. Twenty-five years later, during one of regular teaching-visits to the University, I was admiring a student who was standing outside the book-shop next to the campus bank. He was a good-looking lad and he was wearing a beaded necklace. “What’s that you’re wearing”, another male student said in a very loud voice, “are you going gay?” It was not said in a friendly tone. I thought, had it all been worth it all those years ago? Then again, at least he said “gay”….
Contributed by: Graham 2, 55