The East End women who fought for gay rights

Muriel and Doris Lester, founders of Kingsley Hall, a community centre in Bromley-by-Bow
Sisters Muriel and Doris Lester, founders of Kingsley Hall, a community centre in Bromley-by-Bow

Esther Freeman on the discoveries made while researching for her project about female-led activism in East London

Fifty years ago the fight for gay rights came to London, as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed in the capital.

While this radical movement allowed gay men to come together and come out, women’s voices were drowned out. Yet queer women in East London fought on.

On a cold January evening, Anny Brackx found herself in a damp and dingy basement in Soho. It was packed with hundreds of smiling, chatting and kissing men, some flamboyantly dressed. Anny knew that in her “Woolworths skirt and tights” she looked out of place. Not to mention that she was only one of about 20 women there.

This was Anny’s first GLF London meeting, and she swore she would never go back. But despite this new world feeling so overwhelming, she did return the next month. Over the next few years she would find herself at the heart of London’s gay rights movement. The GLF had formed in New York following the Stonewall Riots. By 1970 a London group had formed. Taking inspiration from the black civil rights movement, the GLF were loud and proud, taking gay rights into a new era.

Challenging stereotypes about gender roles was at the core of GLF’s ethos. Anny was keen to explore the idea of communal living, where “children are the shared responsibility of the group [and] no gender-role system would operate”. There was a GLF commune in Bethnal Green, but this was all-male terrain. For lesbians, the Hackney squatting scene would become their haven.

Squatting suited lesbians for many practical purposes. There was a general lack of housing, plus they were far more likely to be rejected by landlords; vilified or even beaten up in their quest for a home. In Hackney, lesbians gained a reputation for doing up derelict homes, and people would alert them to empty houses in their street; they didn’t want a neglected property next door that would become overrun with rats! By the late 1970s London Fields had become a haven of lesbian communes, with an estimated 50 women-only households.

Despite this coming together, women still felt swamped within the GLF. Men dominated in terms of numbers and issues discussed. Some older gay men did not feel the women belonged, as they did not face criminal prosecution, and so in their view were less oppressed. The women also found that GLF meetings had turned into little more than cruising opportunities for some men.

An East London Federation of Suffragettes procession to Westminster Abbey, believed to be from 1914
An East London Federation of Suffragettes procession to Westminster Abbey, believed to be from 1914

Anny describes their next move as “predictable, but the right thing to do”. In 1971, the women split away from GLF. Many joined the Women’s Liberation Movement, but didn’t find themselves any more welcome there. At a 1971 conference in Skegness, when they tried to get the subject of lesbianism on the agenda, they were charged with being “red herrings” and “private issues”. It would take another five years, and much antagonism and debate, until lesbianism was no longer an issue that divided the women’s movement.

While these were the first queer women activists to come out, they were not the first queer women activists. There is evidence that Emily Davidson had a more than platonic relationship with East London suffragette Mary Leigh. It’s also been suggested that socialist May Morris was in a lesbian relationship with Mary Lobb. While both these relationships were clearly profound, none of them openly described their relationship as queer, and the evidence to suggest they were is thin.

The nearest we get to clearly identifying East London lesbians in this era is with Ewa Slawson, a socialist and suffragette from Leytonstone. In 1911 she met Minna Simmons; a close friendship developed that would have a huge impact on Eva’s life. After the death of Minna’s husband, Eva moved into her home in Walthamstow. Through her diaries she describes how this new physical proximity unleashed an erotic dimension to their relationship.

Minna’s letters also suggest she saw their relationship in sexual terms. None of these women openly self-identified as queer, partly because the word ‘lesbian’ hadn’t yet been coined. The risk of doing so was also huge and social boundaries for women were strict. But they rejected gender norms by shunning marriage and children – it was in itself a revolutionary act.

Stories of queer women activists are included in a new exhibition open from Tuesday 31st March, in the window gallery at 1B Coppermill Lane. It will tour around Walthamstow later this year.

For more information about In Her Footsteps:
Visit herfootsteps.org.uk