Earlier this year, during Lesbian Visibility Week, I was talking to a gay male friend who was questioning why such a week should exist when, according to him, “you couldn’t move for lesbians on British TV”. He went on to rattle off a list of programmes – many of them crime dramas, for some reason – where some of the leading characters happened to be lesbians. There were actually quite a lot of them – definitely a mark of progress since the famous Brookside kiss in 1994 – but I had to point out that “visibility” was about much more than shoehorning a lesbian chief inspector into a murder mystery to tick a diversity box.
As presenter Sandi Toksvig tells us in Jacquie Lawrence’s Gateways Grind (BBC iPlayer) without the past there is neither a present nor a future, and – even in the age of Gentleman Jack, Euphoria and Yellowjackets – lesbian history appears to have been airbrushed from the national consciousness.
In Gateways Grind – named after a method of dancing which, if performed correctly could apparently bring you to orgasm on the dance floor – Jacquie Lawrence’s history of London’s original lesbian hang-out Gateways Club, Toksvig zips through the high points of the tiny Kings Road basement club’s halcyon days of the 60s, 70s and 80s with the assistance of such luminaries as artist Maggi Hambling, DIVA publisher Linda Riley and Stonewall co-founder Lisa Power.
Founded in 1943, Gateways was originally a club for artists, bohemians as well as lesbians but, by the 60s, owner Gina Ware had deemed it “women only” – so strictly enforced that even Mick Jagger was turned away, despite offering to put on a dress. Stories of being barred for fighting, copping off in the toilets and – yes – reaching orgasm on the dance floor were amusing, but what stood out for me was that Gateways was, for many years, the only place in the capital where women who loved women could truly be themselves. We were reminded that, up until recently, being unmasked as a lesbian could lose a woman her job and, if she had them, her children, so it was important that what went on behind that unassuming green door stayed there and, for the most part, it did.
Let this serve as reminder to some of of the younger generation who are often wont to dismiss the trailblazers of the Gateways generation, who risked doing serious damage to their livelihoods and reputations simply for being honest about who they loved, as out-of-touch “boomers”: you are standing on the shoulders of giants, so a modicum of appreciation and humility might not go amiss.
Butches and femmes
The documentary was not without its quaintness, not least when we learned that there was an almost military demarcation between “butches” and “femmes”, with those in the latter camp not even permitted to buy a drink at the bar…that privilege was reserved for the butches. This was ably put into context by DIVA editor Roxy Bourdillon, too young to have frequented the club herself but nonetheless an avid and knowledgable student of lesbian history, who reminded us that this had its roots among the Gateways’ working-class patrons.
The hook on which Gateways Grind was hung was the campaign for a blue plaque to celebrate the Gateways’ unique place in lesbian – and, for that matter, British history as a whole. Toksvig told us that English Heritage – the body responsible for issuing blue plaques – was progressing well but, in the meantime, a temporary plaque was stuck to the wall alongside that famous entrance. English Heritage…we are watching and waiting!
Let us leave the final word to the aforementioned Linda Riley. When she was first warned of the sin and debauchery that lurked behind that green door, her first reaction was “I better get down there then”, which is precisely what she and countless other women – unafraid to be demonised, intimidated and cowed by society’s prejudices – did.
Gateways Grind is on BBC iPlayer now.