Harrow Gay Unity: A Case History
In the last few months there have been a number of gay groups emerging with their own local identity. For example, there is London University’s GAYSOC, a merger between CHE and GLF, and Reading’s Gay Alliance. These have been based on the very reasonable feeling that, where the territory is limited, like in a university or an isolated town, it makes more sense to get together a united gay scene, responsive to local needs, rather than to play up the differences between nationwide bodies in a smaller arena. This is GAY UNITY’S position too, even though we are in a London Borough. We hope that this brief account of our history, aims, achievements and failures will help others to develop their own schemes, just as we have learned and adapted through hearing about others’ experiences.
We started in November 1971, as very much GLF, highly motivated to protest and take political action as a result of a spate of gay cottage arrests in Harrow. This was a time of writing letters, but in personal fear and trepidation, because we were so few, and actually operating in our home area. We eventually got ourselves a fairly satisfactory place to meet regularly, and managed to place a regular advertisement in our local paper. Then we expanded fairly slowly, and there was a constant dialogue between two points of view within the group: “We must never concede to the straight system, and if newcomers can’t accept GLF ideology we are better off without them”, versus “We are all gay, and the needs of individuals for a local social scene are more important than their political beliefs”.
About this time too, the Central London GLF meetings came to an end, and we began to feel more that we must look after ourselves since no-one else would. As an experiment, and as a result of the newcomers’ desire for structure in the group and their right to have a democratic say in how things developed, we set up a committee or co-ordinating group (5 elected, 3 to be replaced every month) to deal with the business of letters, money and arrangements. Some GLF-oriented people felt that this was too much and withdrew, while others decided to stay and keep the GLF viewpoint going. In the event, the committee never really worked, and action was still mostly taken by committed individuals and small groups. But socially we were getting more together, and public appearances in pubs and on the streets happened more often. Some of the fear about police and public hostility disappeared and a personal social network of friendship and support developed – the beginnings of a real local alternative scene.
We then decided to call ourselves GAY UNITY to appeal more to all gays in the area and because we felt we had a genuine local identity and were not just an outpost of GLF in the suburbs. But the GLF link was still there, particularly in the belief in the importance of public action and the search for a genuinely different way of life, rather than accepting the status quo of straight society.
The Present Situation
We still meet regularly on Mondays in the same pub. The search for better premises which we can advertise publicly is still on, but there are fewer suitable places in the suburbs. Pub rooms to let are rare, since they are either converted into more lucrative lounges, or new pubs are built without them. Church halls are unsatisfactory anyway, and only one of the many clergymen we wrote to even bothered to reply. Other halls like those belonging to political parties tend to be expensive or to lay down too many conditions.
At our meetings we report and discuss actions and then socialise downstairs in the pub lounge. Recent actions include sniping at the local Festival of Light operations and arranging a confrontation with them. We are on good terms with the Womens Lib, and with the Harrow Youth Movement, and supported HYM with a car and loudspeaker for their candidate in a recent ward by-election. Our main effort now is a series of organised visits to all the pubs in the area. In a group of aboul 8-10, wearing badges, we just go in and have a drink and be ourselves. People stare, and some come up and talk to us, and pass remarks. Without our being aggressive or provocative, the populace is getting to know that “queers” aren’t just the funny people to be found in squalid pubs in the centre of London. We also want to reach the isolated gays in this way, apart from our regular local newspaper and library ads. We want to use leaflets more too, but the experience of other groups has suggested that street handouts don’t seem to have much effect in relation to the effort put in.
In all, this may not seem a lot to be doing, but with our numbers still fairly low, about 25 regular attenders on Mondays (more for parties) it gives us enough to be busy, without putting too much onto individuals. We have kept away from formal organisation, although volunteers can be found for most of the jobs to be done. Without formality, it is admittedly harder to organise things. But when they do happen, everyone feels much more personally involved, and there is a great sense of unity and committment.
For the future, there are a lot of possibilities and hazards. In one of the pubs we went to we were refused service. If it happens more, or again in the same pub, we are ready to make a public issue out of it. Also it looks like some locals want to get at us. for reasons best known to themselves. A confrontation with active hostility, so far avoided, will have to be faced. Also we want to get in touch with more of the gays outside the usual scene. There are the kids still living at home who need to get more acquainted with gayness, and come out more. Then at the other end, there are the older men who haunt the cottages. For them at the moment, this is often the best way to see or take part in sex. But any group that really means what it says about treating people as individuals must evolve ways of bringing all gays into a better personal and social scene. Ideas from others are welcome.
Gay Unity and GLF
Like we said before, we feel that our real affinity remains with the GLF, as the source of ideas and principles, even though we do adapt to our surroundings, and assert our own identity. We try at least to attend GLF co-ordinating group regularly, to make a financial contribution, and to help in the office. Sometimes in the past we have felt over-criticised by individuals who didn’t seem to appreciate our problems. Now there seems to be a good understanding with central GLF. Also we feel that, through our own experience (which is the only way to find out) that many of the GLF approaches are the best ways of working towards a real change in society, especially openness.
Gay Unity and Gay News
Despite the fact that two of Harrow’s original members are in the Gay News collective, in Issue 2 it was reported by someone who knew the real situation, to the effect that Gay Unity had broken off from GLF.
This ‘fact’ was then used in the Editorial of the same issue as evidence of widespread disenchantment with GLF. Gay News then failed to correct the error, partly because the collective felt that an apology to individuals they knew personally would be enough. This was unfortunate, for it was not then a purely local matter. GLF had first reacted to the ‘news’, then reacted even more against Gay News for being deliberately misleading for the sake of journalistic effect.
Other groups got all gleeful about our ‘defection’, and Harrow had to spend a lot of time making the position clear again. Now we hope that we are back on good terms with Gay News. But other groups should take heed. They should be as clear as possible about their decisions and actions when they might be reported. Also they should not rely on any of the media, however sympathetic, to get facts across accurately. Gay News is the best available attempt to provide a national alternative to the straight press. But we should still make some allowance for the pressures on Gay News to be lively, topical and accurate all at the same time – usually at 4.00 am when they finally paste up what will be printed.
Love and peace from all of us at Harrow. Do let us know what you are doing, via Gay News or Come Together or directly by phone or visit our meetings. (Alex – 422-7890 or Janie – 863-1184).
ED. Gay News welcomes articles and news from other small gay groups, whether they be affiliated to CHE, GLF, SMG or independent.