Stuart Feather by Amelia Abraham
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Amelia Abraham (b. 1991) is a journalist from London. Having worked as a commissioning editor at VICE and Refinery29, she is now writing freelance and working on her first book for Picador. Her main interest is LGBTQ culture and identity politics, and she has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, ES Magazine, VICE, i-D magazine and Dazed & Confused.
Stuart Feather On 60 Years Of Gay Life And Activism in Britain
On the 50th Anniversary of the Decriminalisation of Homosexuality, Author and Gay Liberation Front Member Stuart Feather Looks Back On Life As A Young Gay Man In 50s’ Yorkshire, The Gay Rights Movement of the 1970s, And Discusses His LGBT Activism Today.
On a late Summer’s day in 1957, a 17-year-old Stuart Feather walked around his local town in Yorkshire, buying up newspapers. The big news that day was the release of The Wolfenden Report, a government enquiry into homosexuality, which recommended it be legalised as a private practice between two consenting adults. Homosexuality was still criminalised at the time – not to mention stigmatised – and the suggestion that this be repealed was more than just progressive, it was shocking. For this reason, Stuart made sure he went to different newsagents to buy his papers; still in the closet out of necessity, he wanted to avoid rousing suspicion about why he was interested in them.
At lunchtime, he met with his boyfriend in the park, and they spread the papers out on the grass to read them. They consumed the reports incredulously – until they were spotted by two apprentices from Stuart’s work. “By the time I got back to the factory, they’d figured out what it was we were reading,” he remembers. “I was greeted with hoots and whistles and quite a carry on, all because I’d been outed by them.”
Luckily, the news didn’t get back to his parents, but less than a year later, they found a letter he’d written to his boyfriend in his coat pocket. “When my mother read that letter, all hell broke loose,” he says.
Now 76, and having spent a large proportion of his life as an author, an activist and a public speaker on gay rights issues, Stuart has borne witness to the changing conditions of life for gay people in the UK for decades, and right from the centre of things. 60 years after The Wolfendon Report, and on the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK, there a few better people around to gauge what’s changed for the better and what still needs to be done when it comes to LGBT equality.
Over the phone, Stuart is softly spoken, painting a vivid picture of gay life in Northern England during his youth, despite his faded Northern accent. He recalls the years that followed his “outing” as both threatening and thrilling, telling the stories of men he knew who would be regularly picked up by the police for being a known homosexual, one of whom lost his job and was disowned by his family after the arrest was covered in the paper. “There was a tremendous amount of prejudice,” he explains, claiming that he was very lucky not to be arrested or find himself on the receiving end of harassment.
The culture back then was underground; as well as a “surprising pick-up scene in gents’ lavatories all over York” – which was not just gay men but bisexual and particularly married men as well, he adds – Stuart found community in secret gay bars. “There was a place for us to drink in the back room of a pub in the centre of York,” he remembers. “So that was sort of my introduction to gay society. In those days it was all very secretive and people didn’t tell you what they’d been through – no one ever complained, but you did learn other people’s stories from their friends.”
In 1960, Stuart decided to move to London, to find work and likeminded people. Surprisingly, his memories of the day homosexuality was partially decriminalised – under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 – are less vivid than those of the day he read The Wolfenden Report. “I was then living down at the far end of the King’s Road with a boyfriend. I worked as a manager of a travel agency, he worked as a manager of a restaurant, so we were leading a sort of comfortable, middle-class lifestyle with a two-bedroom flat in Chelsea.” He says he perhaps didn’t celebrate the repeal of the act, and “can’t remember anyone else who did” because they’d lived with it (ignoring it, mostly) for so long. “In a way, it didn’t really matter to us”.
However, back then Stuart wasn’t, by his own admission, so politically minded. It was only when he joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) movement in 1970 that this started to change. “My boyfriend and some friends were shopping in Oxford Street and they had a leaflet pushed into their hand, and so they said: ‘Oh, let’s go to this gay liberation meeting and see what it’s all about’. The following Wednesday we all went along. I was just so surprised at what I was hearing – it was a whole different take on gay men and women’s lives and the roots of the prejudice was fascinating to me.” Stuart said he “just loved it” but that his boyfriend and friends “didn’t want to know”.
The Gay Liberation Front had formed in New York City a year prior, after police raids on gay bars had lead to an uprising from LGBT people now famously known as the Stonewall Riots. Demonstrators started the GLF as an organised, long-term form of resistance against anyone – but particularly authorities – trying to supress sexual liberation. Stuart remembers reading about it in the paper when it started in New York, but credits its importation to the UK to two sociology students who went to the U.S., joined, and brought the idea back.
“The funny thing was, they wanted to keep it as just a sort of small, left-wing student movement and they got the shock of their life when people like me started turning up, who had never had any interest before in political action,” says Stuart. “They couldn’t believe it.”
Stuart was a member of the GLF from his first meeting until the organisation’s last in 1974. GLF awoke a sense of justice in him; “we’d all suffered and we’d never talked about it because the veil of secrecy also means that you keep your own feelings of what it was like to be a homosexual completely to yourself,” he says. “Gay Liberation was a revelation because people were actually talking about what they’d been through and what they felt about it.” In that sense, it was almost like therapy: “We’d never talked like that before because no one wanted to be a wet blanket or a party pooper by talking about the pain they were going through for whatever reason, be it their landlords or parents or employers.”
Part of being a GLF member at the time involved wearing a badge, recalls Stuart, so that you were showing your pride, so that people on the tube could stop you and ask ‘what’s that then?’ It was about lending a personal face to a controversial movement – a movement that sought to assert the rights of gay people and eradicate shame. “One of the things that attracted me about Gay Liberation Front was the fact that someone said one reason for heterosexuals hating us was because they didn’t know any and therefore they were rather frightened of us, and if we came out that would be one way of showing ourselves to be just like everybody else and allay the fear.”
By 1971, the Gay Liberation Front had grown to 200-300 members, and according to Stuart, “there was a meeting of different function groups every night of the week”, mostly at their headquarters in the London School of Economics building. Regional offshoots started to launch around the UK, too – in Bristol, Leeds and Leicester, for example. The meetings didn’t have to be secretive, since homosexuality had been partially decriminalised a few years prior, but some of the younger boys going along, 17, 18 and 19, attended secretly, since they were under the age of legal consent for homosexual sex.
Looking back on the group’s biggest achievements, Stuart thinks it was the carefully coordinated chaos of their direct action and protests – “it changed the whole face of this country, because it got usinto the newspapers,” he says, sounding proud. Stuart gives the example of their disruption of the Festival of Light, for which conservative figures like the Frank Pakenham, 7th Earl of Longford and Mary Whitehouse joined together and decided to do something about the “moral decline of the British nation” (as Stuart puts it, wryly).
“They had a campaign to criminalise homosexuality again, to take away abortion rights from women, and to tighten up the laws on pornography and prostitution,” explains Stuart.
“They held a big inaugural meeting in Methodist Central Hall in Westminster [in 1971] and they filled the hall with all these fundamentalist Christians that they’d reached out to all over the country,” he continues. “We had someone inside their office so we managed to get ourselves in there and we released mice into the audience, which caused panic and consternation. We started off with slow hand-clapping and we had some [men in drag as] nuns who appeared, walked right to the front of the hall, turned around and then did the can-can down the aisles. That just freaked people out completely...” Stuart laughs, “and then we had same-sex couples standing up and kissing and the youth group released a banner over the top of the balcony saying: “Cliff for Queens”, because Cliff Richards was also on the platform that night.”
Was it effective? “Oh, completely effective – the last act was that some of GLF’s members – the action group who were more sort of butch men – managed to get into the basement and succeeded in switching half the lights off. The Guardian headline the next day was something like ‘Darkness At The Festival of Light’... the country had a good laugh at that and that was brilliant for us because people could see that we really meant what we were talking about and the actions that we did in those days just made people laugh – the humour that gets through to people.”
In 1974, the GLF began to collapse; inside factions started to cause problems. “It was a very anarchic movement, we were into everything being sort of free and so in the end people take advantage of that,” remembers Stuart solemnly. “Things weren’t going the way the Maoists wanted it to go so they tried wrecking it and the Marxist socialists were forever wagging their fingers and saying ‘this is not right’ simply because they couldn’t control things. Then there were the straight[-acting] gay men who wouldn’t look at their masculinity, wouldn’t question their misogyny or their sexism,” says Stuart. “They just thought that their oppression was just coming from straight society – outside of themselves – when, in fact, we were all suffering from self-oppression.”
After his last meeting in ’74, Stuart took a break from traditional activism, forming ‘The Blue Lips’, which was a gay theatre group, but one he sees as continuing the legacy of the GLF in its subject matter. He did that for around 25 years. In 2015, he wrote his book ‘Blowing The Lid: Gay Liberation, Sexual Revolution, and Radical Queens’, a beautiful testament to his years of gay rights activism. After it came out, he was approached by London LGBT rights activist Dan Glass – via “a fan letter”, no less – to speak at an ACT UP meeting (a brilliant HIV protest group) and offer them pearls of wisdom his rich protest experience.
“As it happened, I just had the answer to some of the problems they were talking about that evening, and I suggested a course of action which they decided to do, so then I thought, ‘wow, I’d better show some solidarity here’. Within four days of that meeting I found myself in Piccadilly Circus with the megaphone in my hand denouncing Barclays Bank for [sponsoring] Gay Pride while not paying their taxes and the same outside Starbucks on Wardour Street... I was loving it.”
Getting the taste for activism again, Stuart joined the group The Sexual Avengers, who campaign for a queerer future; “We have a whole programme with stuff that we’ll be doing this year,” he says delightedly, “So I’m back to activism.” The Sexual Avengers organise protests with a specific focus on intersectionality –fostering ties where LGBT people stand in solidarity with causes like anti-racism, or NHS cuts. It’s not just an organisation for gay men, but for anyone LGBT or Q.
“Things are certainly different to the first time around,” says Stuart – something he attributes to the hard work of LGBT activists themselves, as well as the advancement of feminism, which he describes as leading by example. As our call comes to an end, Stuart makes the point that governments are often quick to claim that they were the ones who decided to change the law. “That of course is just complete nonsense”, he says, “it was the activists on the ground at the time we have to thank – whether they were women fighting for abortion or gay men and women fighting for a repeal of the Sexual Offences Act”.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.