1971, Burnley Library
A meeting was called by Alan Horsfall and Ray Gosling of the CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality) in cooperation with the Gay Liberation Front based in Islington. They joined forces wanting to open a social club for gay people, to have a safe place for them, somewhere they would not be subject to police raids (as those were happening frequently all over the country).
The meeting was named ‘Homosexuals and Civil Liberty’. The CHE was inspired by the COC movement in the Netherlands and wanted a space for gay and lesbian people in Burnley to come together, much like the Working Man’s Clubs that were common in the area. The club was to be in the Co-Op cafe, which had closed recently.
The meeting gave a voice to gay people, they stood up to the establishment and at the end of the meeting, all people present who identified as gay were asked to stand up, and most (all?) did so proudly. The club, which would have been called an ‘esquire club’, never came into existence, but the meeting was reported in the national press, and this occasion is seen by many as the beginning of the gay rights movement in the UK.
Burnley still remembers
A plaque has been placed on Burnley Library in 2021, to commemorate the event that took place there and became so important for human rights in the whole country for a significant part of our society (see the picture at the top of this article).
I recently spoke to a lady from Burnley whose father, at that time a devout Catholic, is 92 years old. He went to that meeting, and he told her he remembers feeling strongly that, “no one has any right to interfere in anyone else’s life, not even the priest.” He was absolutely right, of course.
She did not remember the event herself as she was too young then, but she was very interested to learn more when her children started to delve into Burnley’s history of gay rights.
Her brother, who was 17 then, told her he wrote a letter to the Burnley Express in support of the social club that the gay community wanted to set up, but the letter was never published.
And now her children are involved in the ongoing dream to ensure everyone is accepted by everyone else, regardless of any perceived differences. One of them was part of the Inkbrew Production Buggers Ball play, along with others from Burnley Youth Theatre, who had a small part in the performance in 2017. Her youngest now is one of the young producers in Stand Out.
The Burnley productions from 2017
Burnley’s Buggers Ball
This is a play that commemorates the events of 1971, especially the meeting in the Library.
The play was written by Stephen M Hornby , Playwright in Residence to LGBTQ+ History Month. The name was chosen after the exclamation of a councillor during the original meeting, who voiced his opposition to what he called a ‘buggers ball’ in Burnley. It was a sold-out event, and even the Burnley MP attended.
One of the most poignant moments for me is when the blind lady talks about her son, Russell, is what he is called in the play. Russell fell in love with another man but felt he could not talk about his feelings to anyone and ended up taking his own life. His mother pleads in favour of a gay club, so there will be no more feeling as lonely and isolated as he did. She wants the church to protect all children, not just those who are born straight.
The theatre show was written and produced in 2017, the 50-year anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which legalised consensual homosexual activity in private for men over 21. Lesbians were not mentioned and women were not important enough it seemed.
Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator
Another event from the 1970s in Burnley is remembered in the play Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator. This play was written by Abi Hynes.
It is the story of a woman bus driver, Mary Winter, who was sacked in 1978 in Burnley for wearing a badge saying, ‘Lesbian Liberation’. Mary Winter then started a campaign to get reinstated, with a demonstration outside Burnley Bus Station of women’s groups from around the country.
Neither of these two events led to victory at that moment in time, but they were the start of a battle that would be victorious for human rights and especially LGBTQ+ rights in years to come.
That is why these events were recreated, to show present generations how groups of people have had to fight for rights that should have been automatically theirs to start off with.
In 2022, a group of teens and young adults in Burnley delved into the history of LGBTQ+ rights in the town and put together an exhibition to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the meeting in the library.
The group that made this possible and helped the young people was Blazearts, a charity run for and by young producers.
The first thing they did was the ‘Find Out More’ event. This was arranged to recruit like-minded young people but also attracted the attention of a lot of older people, who wanted to know what it was about.
Then started the research: visiting archives, reading documents, talking to people who were present in the 70s and remembered the library meeting, the bus driver’s protest or just what things were like then.
When they had collected all the information available, they arranged it into an exhibition they called ‘Stand Out’. The Stand Out project was funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, “to support young people in exploring the lesser known but extremely important LGBT+ heritage of Burnley”.
It explains the history of the meeting, why it was necessary, and the impact it had. These youngsters (the Young Producers) want to educate people and change attitudes and increase tolerance in the country. They want to bring the past struggles to the attention of as many as possible and hope to prevent history from repeating itself.
The exhibition travelled to several libraries in Lancashire and was a big success. So much so, that the collaboration between Blaze, the Young Producers, and Lancashire County Council Library services was continued, with the aim to produce a second Stand Out zine.
The ideal we should all work towards
But Stand Out is about more than LGBTQ+, it is about young and old people connecting, learning from each other and from history, and avoiding the mistakes of the past to create a safer environment for all people.
Some of the young people produced a video recently to explain their goals.
They want to create a safe(r) environment for LGBTQ+ people and bring the history of the fight for LGBTQ+ people, their rights, and the problems they faced in life to the surface, rather than that history being hidden away as it has been.
And by working hard to achieve that goal, they are setting an example to us all.