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These LGBT Ale Drinkers Are Taking on Britain's Beer Industry

Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) organisation is often criticised for its sexist marketing campaigns and lack of diversity, but the Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers group is pushing for this to change.
Photo via Flickr user brad

Real ale has a bit of an image issue. While craft beer is becoming increasingly cool, the phrase "real ale drinker" still conjures images of a man in a brown pullover, propping up the bar of his local, a copy of the Racing Post under one arm and a leering look in his eye.

Of course, this stereotype is no more accurate than any other, but the craft beer industry hasn't done much to dispel it: take a look at the pump clips along any bar and you may well come across one that includes either an offensive name (Oakham Ales' "The Opportunist" is particularly unpalatable) or at the very least, an image of a provocatively posed woman (Bristol's Ale, take a bow.)


READ MORE: Britain's Real Ale Industry Can't Deal with Women Beer Drinkers

You're not even safe with the companies that are supposed to care, as self-proclaimed "punk" pint purveyors Brewdog recently proved with their "Don't Make Us Do This" video, which saw the company male founders dress in women's underwear and mock homeless people.

With this in mind, the beer and ale world can sometimes feel like being stuck in a perpetual episode of Life on Mars, only without the irony.

But the group you'd expect to be the most vocal on this issue is the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA.) A not-for-profit, CAMRA is a champion for the industry and spends a good deal of money and effort encouraging people to consume independently brewed pints. They also do a lot to help landlords in the fight against the major breweries and pub companies—organisations who take villainy to heights rarely reached outside of comic books. In other words, CAMRA are usually the good guys.

The beer and ale world can sometimes feel like being stuck in a perpetual episode of Life on Mars, only without the irony.

However, when it comes to fighting off out-dated attitudes, they're not quite so effective. For example, in 2014 they released a now notorious promotional flyer featuring scantily clad women. While the flyer was quickly withdrawn, CAMRA's apology was criticised for not fully accepting responsibility, giving an independent observer the impression that the organisation simply doesn't care about being inclusive.


So when Manchester's yearly Pride celebration came around last month, I was surprised to see that a CAMRA-affiliated group called Lesbian and Gay Real Ale Drinkers (LAGRAD) would be taking part. Could it be that CAMRA was making a long overdue effort to widen its horizons?

It turns out that LAGRAD has actually been going for sometime as a national organisation, with regular meetingsf in Edinburgh, Brighton, and London as well as Manchester. In fact, director of CAMRA for the Greater Manchester Region Andrew Rodbourne first got involved with the organisation through its events.

"When I first moved to Manchester from Doncaster to be with my partner, I started going to LAGRAD socials," explains Rodbourne. "It was a great way to meet like-minded people who liked drinking similar stuff and it really helped me feel at home here."

That was back in 2012 when LAGRAD was pretty active on the Manchester scene, with as many as 50 people attending each social.

"We'd go for tours around the pubs in Chorlton or find the best pints in the city centre," recalls Rodbourne. "It was just a really positive group that brought together two communities and it always had about a 50-50 split between men and women."

Unfortunately though, those numbers started to slide, perhaps due to slip-ups like the flyer fiasco but more likely the result of a general inertia on the part of CAMRA when it came to engaging with the LGBT community on a nationwide basis.


All of this was a bit disheartening for Rodbourne who, as a CAMRA campaigner and LGBT activist, has a foot firmly both groups. So, to try and turn things around, he and his fellow LAGRADers set up at stall at this year's Manchester Pride.

"We had a really good response, lots of people coming up to us," says a relieved Rodbourne when I speak to him after the event. "We actually had good support from a couple of local brewers who gave us some beer to give away as free samples and I think there's going to be a lot of new LGBT members at the next meeting."

While Rodbourne hopes that recruitment drives at local pride events will catch on, so long as CAMRA continues with the gaffes and companies like Brewdog with poorly conceived ad campaigns, this may be a difficult task.

All you should have to have to join CAMRA is a love of real ale—there should be no other barriers.

"That flyer didn't go down well and I personally didn't like it," says Rodbourne. "When something like that happens you get a reputation, even if that doesn't reflect the organisation as a whole or the members that I work with. And, once you've got a reputation, it's hard to lose it."

One solution is for CAMRA to become more proactive, both in its recruitment of a diverse membership and in its marketing and promotional material. CAMRA director Christine Cryne tells me that LAGRAD is set up like a branch office and receives the same support as CAMRA's regional offices.


"LAGRAD has been going at least 15 years," she says. "It has done a lot to encourage LGBT involvement with CAMRA."

"There's passionate men, women, and LGBT members throughout CAMRA organising beer festivals, running regional branches, and protesting against pub closures," adds Rodbourne. "It's an inclusive organisation."

But change still seems to be slow. Recently the Young Members of CAMRA group tried to get a new flyer introduced for the 2015 university freshers' season, one that promotes the values of inclusivity and progressiveness that they believe CAMRA stands for. But, says Rodbourne, that message never made it to press.

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"It took so long getting through all the committees that it didn't happen in time," he says. "It was an opportunity missed."

CAMRA says it was not able to reprint the flyer due to lack of funds.

But, Rodbourne continues, it's not all doom and gloom: "More people are coming through and change is happening. Things are far better than they were five or ten years ago."

Cryne is also positive that CAMRA can adapt to attract a more diverse membership. Last year, they created a charter outlining how CAMRA should treat its volunteers and how those volunteers should treat one another and the public.

"We were hearing things like younger female members getting unwarranted attention from members of the public and other volunteers—people putting their arm around them, things like that," explains Cryne. "And what might be intended as friendly may not always be welcome. It is the small things that make people uncomfortable."


The organisation isn't limiting its guidelines to sexual and gender inclusivity and has also just issues a disability awareness charter.

"What we are trying to push is respect for each other," says Cryne. "All you should have to have to join CAMRA is a love of real ale—there should be no other barriers."

Rodbourne agrees and is positive about the future of both LAGRAD and CAMRA.

"We're doing a lot of good work in the area," he says. "Right now, we're campaigning to keep Formby Hall in Atherton open, which is a really important community venue, and we're organising festivals."

Ultimately, CAMRA is like every other organisation: you're not going to get along with everyone, much less agree with everything they do.

"Everyone in CAMRA has a different personality, and it represents a wide range of people," says Rodbourne. "But we do have to open it up and make it more inclusive, because that's going to be the future."