LGBTQIA+ History Month – Gay Birmingham Remembered

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To continue shedding light on LGBTQIA+ histories and experiences, I wanted to share a fantastic project for the local area, called ‘Gay Birmingham Remembered’, led by the Birmingham LGBT community trust. In honour of LGBTQIA+ History month 2006, the project was established with the collaboration of Birmingham Libraries and funded by a Heritage Lottery fund Grant. It collects and compiles a stunning database of documents, photographs, interviews and other memorabilia to commemorate and preserve LGBTQIA+ experiences in Birmingham, stretching back to the early twentieth century.

Here is the trust’s aims, in their own words:

“By ensuring that a diverse range of LGBT individuals, community groups and commercial ventures have contributed to the project, we have recorded the process of transition from a time when homosexual acts were illegal and people met behind unmarked doors in back streets, to the current vibrant and open gay community in Birmingham. From a time when gay men and lesbians lived in fear of hostility and reprisals from the police, in the workplace and on the streets, to a city in which hundreds of residents have registered their civil partnership and thousands take to the streets during the Gay Pride Festival. Where once, statutory and commercial agencies didn’t even acknowledge the existence of lesbians and gay service users or recognise that they might have particular needs, to a position where Birmingham LGBT Community Trust and its Forum of 35+ LGB groups are routinely asked to participate in consultations or contribute to strategic developments.”

The project is really set apart by its rich wealth of ‘memories’, contributions from real people recalling times both good and bad spent in the city, which are so personal and real that they are a joy to read. I would fully encourage anyone who is interested in queer histories to fully immerse yourself in this collection!

Here are some great entries I’ve found:

The Peace Centre, a gay gathering place (Belinda, 60), 1981

Belinda was employed at the Peace Centre near Moor Street, next to Reddington’s Rare Records, from 1981 until 1985 when it closed. The core of its clientele were anarchists, anti-nuclear activists and gay people. “At the time there weren’t many ‘gay gathering places’ and the ones there were tended to be short-lived or without a fixed venue so the Peace Centre provided a focal point. The gay boys from a teenage group would come on Saturday afternoon to do each other’s hair”. A small group of fascists came to harass people at the Peace Centre because they were left wing and because they knew there were gay people there. “They came in once and threw paint over a woman who was behind the stall and then they used to write things in the underpass. One of my treasured memories is of one of the gay men who was rather tall, the partner of the man who ran the place, was sitting behind the counter and these three young lads came in shouting something hugely imaginative like, you know ‘communist faggot’ and this man then quietly got up and rose to his full height of six foot five and you never saw anybody run out of the door so fast, that’s all he had to do!”

 

Memories, (Graham, 55), 1977

“I first met Laurie Williams and his partner Lionel Strawbridge in 1977. I was a student at Birmingham University where, during term time I helped run the Birmingham University Gay Society, (GaySoc). In the 1970s The Nightingale Club, at Witton Lane, was often very quiet during the week and only got going at the weekend. Some gay friends introduced me to The Jug, then at 8a Albert Street and now demolished. I was greeted at the door by a man who called everybody ‘bab’ and who wore two wigs at the same time – Laurie Williams. The Jug was a dive, and everyone knew it. It was in the basement of a tacky wine bar and was entered via a narrow twisting staircase. The whole ceiling was adorned with a complex array of bamboo canes, some of which had tiny jugs dangling from them. The bar was a hole in a wall no bigger than a couple of cash points and decorated with empty wine bottles submerged in plaster. The barman would go into a room at the back to pour the drinks. There was a small stage with a dressing room at the left. The brown vinyl floor was not carpeted and there were about ten plastic tables with chairs and gingham tablecloths. There was a persistent musty smell of stale smoke and beer. It reminded me of a scene from Cabaret.

On my second or third visit, I asked Laurie for a temporary job, and over the course of that summer, I was his barman, DJ, cleaner, doorman, cloakroom attendant – depending who turned-up for work on the night. His partner Lionel, ran a small café on John Bright St. On the other side of town, and it was a condition of my continued employment at the Jug that I had to work at the café during the day for 50p an hour!

Laurie was a complex character – he was often charming, outrageously funny and camp. But if you crossed him he would lash out with a tongue that was acidic and venomous enough to kill an elephant. He was a very trusting man, possibly too trusting and although the Jug opened at 9.00 p.m. , he would rarely arrive before 10.30. I remember his grand entrances always with a smile, second wig firmly in place, (he only wore one during the day), and a raised arm, not to greet his fans, but to check that the single overworked air conditioner was still managing to pump out a little warm stale air.

It was after closing time that I got to know Laurie well. He liked to sit in a corner and drink and smoke with us , often till dawn, when would drive us home. His tales of gay life in Birmingham in the 1950s and 1960s fascinated me. He was often scathing of the Nightingale Club saying that he opened it and one day he would close it for good. I did not know why at the time. At these after- hour’s sessions he would entertain prostitutes, rent boys and anyone else that he had taken a liking to. Lionel was never there.

The Jug and Laurie were always in financial difficulties ; to save money he would refill empty Schweppes mixer bottles with cheap tonic and lemonade bought by the litre from his local supermarket. He used to reseal the bottles with little plastic caps that were also recycled. At the time his takings were around £200 a night and the café rarely made more than £100 a day, (not very much even 30 years ago).

On Friday Laurie often hired a drag mime artist and Tony Page was a regular. On other nights he would often ask a staff member to mime to a song. His favourite at the time was Julie Covington’s ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ for which he would dress the barman has an old ragged hag, complete with hideous mask and then make him mime to the record while dribbling blackcurrant juice. It was a shocking spectacle at the end of which Laurie would shout ‘that’s the truth – she was a thief and a whore!’

I left The Jug in September 1977 and returned to university, but continued to work part time for a few years as a DJ at the Nightingale, (the pay was better). I saw Laurie rarely after that summer, but one summer with Laurie Williams was like a lifetime with other mortals.”

 

Gay Flamingo, (Peter, 68), 1964

I remember it well! George, the owner, had no idea how to run a club, but he was a nice old guy. Not gay, though – he just saw a good way to make some money, as in those days there was no competition. This was before even the Nightingale. I was there on the last night of its existence, when it was raided by at least two dozen uniformed police. Most of the customers were scared silly about possible consequences of the publicity, but I think only two were charged with drinking after hours. A cop asked me “Is this your drink?” I said yes, and he asked what my explanation for drinking after hours. I took out my membership card and read the back, which said that the Supper Licence permitted consumption of alcohol until 2am. (Actually this was only with a meal, but it did not specify that). Who was I to question the owners licence? I heard no more about it. George was found guilty of serving drinks after hours, and “keeping a bawdy house”. Where the Law got this one I shall never know – I went there almost every weekend, and never saw anything remotely bawdy! But it was good while it lasted.

 

Do see Gay Birmingham Remembered – The Gay Birmingham History Project for more!

 

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