Juliet Jacques’ Variations, published today by Influx Press, is a short story collection which interrogates trans life in Britain since the 19th century. Through fictionalised diary entries, articles, blog posts and interviews, Jacques provides a timeline of trans life that is utterly alive – a far cry from the data that such history is often reduced down to.
This interview was published in The Gay Gazette in September 1997, as the lead feature in a special issue focusing on LGBT+ pubs and bars around the time of the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act thirty years earlier.
In the late 1960s, just after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, The White Swan in Liverpool became the most popular – and sometimes most notorious – drag bar in the north of England. Nearly twenty-five years after its closure, Derek Bradshaw catches up with one of the performers who made it famous.
The White Swan looked like any other pub. Sat on the corner of Roe Street, it had unassuming décor: wood panels, wall lights and leather bar stools, white net curtains, and orange and brown wallpaper and carpets. Opened in 1932, it had long picked up punters who wanted one last drink after an evening at the nearby Royal Court Theatre, which had recently been rebuilt after a re. Not that many theatre-goers wished to be seen entering The White Swan’s mock-Tudor- style doors, however. In the 1950s, everyone knew the pub, not far from Liverpool’s docks, was frequented by sailors, as well as ‘pansies’ and ‘fairies’ whose sexual inclinations could still lead to blackmail – especially from the police, who occasionally raided it – as well as public humiliation or even prison.
In 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence’. Pubs weren’t private, though, and it took another ten years for Lord Wolfenden’s recommendation to become law, when the Labour government passed the Sexual Offences Act 1967, abolishing the 19th century laws against sodomy and ‘gross indecency’. Within months, The White Swan became known for its drag shows, as performers swapped lip-synched renditions of Swinging Sixties pop songs and sexual innuendos with the public’s whistles, hoots and heckles – and sometimes worse. Over the next six years, it became an underground legend in Liverpool, known either as a magical place where almost anything could, and often did happen, or ‘that bloody poofs’ pub’, depending on who you asked. Then, almost as suddenly as its cult status had grown, it shut down – rumoured to be heavily in debt to some shady characters. What really happened in that short time?
Kevin O’Brien – known to The White Swan’s regulars as Mary Lighthouse – hung up his heels when the pub closed. Three years ago, he retired from his main job as an accountant, where he never told his colleagues about his second life. With his bald head and big nose, you might never have guessed, but Mary Lighthouse was one of the pub’s most popular acts: tall, thin, and bandy-legged, with sharp cheekbones and a sharper tongue, she would raise the punters up with a sly, sexy rendition of Cilla Black’s ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ and then slap them back to Earth with a carefully-chosen put-down.
‘There were three of us who made that place great,’ Kevin/Mary says. ‘Davina, Ladonya and me. The Liverpool Echo billed us as ‘the Golden Girls’, and the landlady, Pam, jokingly dubbed us ‘The Supremes’. Ladonya hated that: she kept saying, “I do one turn as Diana Ross, and that’s hung around my neck forever?” So then Pam went with ‘The Three Degrees’, which pissed Ladonya off even more. But that came later – at first it was just Davina Delightful, performing on her own every Friday night. When that went well, Pam wanted to get a few more girls in – I joined next, some time in 1968, I think in the spring.
‘My sister Tania talked me into going, the first time – my missus had gone to visit her aunt in Bootle. Tania and my other older sister, Gill, used to doll me up in their clothes when I was little, they just thought it was a laugh really. Because I didn’t kick o about it, they taught me how to put on make-up and used to get me to sing for them, Vera Lynn or songs from The Wizard of Oz. Davina was on that night, on the tiny stage at the back with the purple velvet curtains. She wore an amazing little dress, white at the top, black round the tummy, with this chequered skirt, apparently a copy of one of Cilla’s, and had this incredible platinum-blonde beehive. “Jesus, she’s stunning!” said Tania, before she nudged me and said, “We should’ve got you a wig like that.” I replied, “I think it’s real, love,” feeling jealous of Davina’s little nose and cute red lips. Anyway, she did this Petula Clark number, getting all these whoops and whistles when she sang Sailor, when the tide turns / Come home safe to me.
‘“Look at all those flowers,” said Tania as these lads threw roses at Davina. “You could do that I reckon, they’re looking for people.” I told her not to be daft, I hadn’t worn girls’ clothes since I was a kid, and I wasn’t a fruit. “It might be a laugh, though,” she said. “I can help you.” When I said I couldn’t sing, she insisted it didn’t matter. “Neither can Ringo, but they still let him have a go,” she told me, before pointing out that Davina was lip-synching. Tania was a tall lass, about my height, so she had something that would t. Hammered, I went back to hers and we tried it. She crammed my guts into this gold sequinned dress she’d bought for a hen night, and did my make-up. She kept going on about my “amazing pins” and promised to get me a wig, but told me to sing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, like I did in our mam’s old living room. I could still remember all the words. Even before I’d finished, she was telling me to get down to The White Swan and ask for an audition.
‘So, Tania took me back there the next evening, and demanded to speak to the landlady. Pam was pretty abrupt – “What’s it about?” – and Tania was always bolshy, yelling in front of the whole pub that her little brother wanted to be their new drag queen. How could I let down all those people who stared and laughed at me? Honestly, my first thought was: “I’ll show you!” So, Pam told me to be ready to perform on Friday night – I told her I’d only need a place to change and a Judy Garland record on the jukebox.”
Despite the decriminalisation, however, public attitudes often remained far from supportive of homosexuality or anything associated with it, and many people still struggled to be open even with their friends, families and lovers, let alone wider society. Kevin/Mary was no exception.
‘Samantha, my missus, really wasn’t happy,’ recalls Kevin/Mary. ‘She told me she didn’t want to see it, she didn’t want me to get changed at home, or the kids to find out about it. I spent the whole night convincing her that I still loved her, that I was straight, and that it would just be a gig. Then she asked if I’d ever worn her clothes. “Don’t be silly,” I told her. “You’re about a foot shorter than me and half my bloody weight!” “But you would if you could ...” she replied. I just smiled, said I was “all man” and went to kiss her. I think if she’d pushed it any further I’d have given up on it, but she just said, “If it makes you happy ...” and then went to sleep.
‘That Friday evening, straight after work, I went to Tania’s to grab her clothes. Then we went to the pub. I got changed in the cellar then she did my make-up in the Ladies, it was all very glam. The thing I was most nervous about was prancing around on that little stage in high heels, I hadn’t had much practice, just a couple of rehearsals with my sister on the Sunday. But I was doing it – Pam got up and said, “We’ve got something very special for you all tonight – a new girl!” And there was all this hooting and hollering as I walked down the stairs from the bogs, and Pam turned round and said, “Shit, what’s your name, pet?” I’d bloody forgotten to come up with anything! So, Pam yelled, “She hasn’t even got a bloody name! What shall we call her?” Some wag cried “Mary!” and Pam asked, “Mary what?” The bloke suggested “Whitehouse” and Pam said, “No, that’s taken, you dozy sod.” Another chap yelled “Shitehouse!” and Pam just went, “Alright, Mary Lighthouse.” Just as I realised I had my new identity, I saw Davina at the bar with a gin and tonic, shooting daggers at me. But even more than the boozers laughing, her glare just spurred me on.
‘They put the record on. I was so nervous, I forgot the vocals came in straight away. I also forgot I was supposed to be lip-synching and kind of bellowed the first line, and people started jeering. I wasn’t a professional, yet, but I knew I had to ignore them and get on with it. I tried to take my mind off that fuck-up by staring at the chandelier – it was massive, I think they got it from the theatre – then I spotted Tania laughing with her mate from work and realised I had to deliver the song to the people in the room. First, I went up to this Quentin Crisp-type in a suit and pink shirt with big eyelashes, and mimed The dreams that you dare to dream / Really do come true. He winked at me and said, “I hope so, sweetheart!” to raucous laughter. I just licked my lips and grinned. I’d forgotten how much those old queens loved Judy, I always thought of her as someone my sister liked, but I was really getting into it. I could see Davina had unfolded her arms and even if she didn’t actually smile, she’d raised her eyebrows – she always had them done up perfectly, I can still see those little arches even now.
‘I got to the chorus, looking up at the lights as I mimed Some day I’ll wish upon a star, then as I approached the end, gave my hand to some old boy. I gazed into his eyes and mouthed Birds fly over the rainbow, then turned back to the audience and held out my hands for the big ending: Why then, oh why can’t I? Everyone started whooping and hollering as Pam came back.’
‘“Encore!” cried some old soak.
‘“I haven’t got any more!” I replied.
‘“I didn’t want any more songs,” he yelled.
‘“Well, you’re not getting anything else, darling,” I told him, to uproar from the crowd.
‘“Who thinks Mary should learn a few more numbers and come back next week?” asked Pam. There was riotous applause. Despite Pam’s dismissive “Off you fuck, then,” I knew I was in.’ And so The White Swan’s much-loved team began to come together – but, being new to the game, Kevin/Mary didn’t realise quite how competitive it could be.
‘As the punters went back to their pints, Davina took me aside,’ Kevin/Mary recounts. ‘She looked me in the eye and hissed, “That wasn’t awful, but they’re going soft on you because you’re new.” I asked if I might get paid. “For an audition? You’ll be lucky!” I just laughed. “It’s alright here,” she carried on, “compared to most of the other shitholes I’ve done. I nearly got bottled out of the Southport Railway Club, but I don’t think that’d ever happen here. We’ll need to sort out your act, though.”
‘I didn’t know what to make of that, so I went back to Tania. I decided not to get changed, and everyone in the bar was really sweet – I soon realised the bar staff didn’t give a toss if the bloke buying a beer was in a suit or a frock, and nor did most of the drinkers, but some of them were really into it. The Quentin Crisp-type wanted to buy me a drink – I let him, and it was only later that Tania told me how disappointed he looked when I took the pint and went back to her. The pub was absolutely rammed for Davina’s performance, though: a bit more Petula Clark and some Dusty Springfield, everyone loved it. She didn’t engage with the crowd too much, although she picked up a bouquet that someone threw at the end of Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and blew them kisses at the end. She didn’t hang around after – Tania just turned to me and said, “What a bloody diva!”
‘From then on, we performed together most Friday nights. I got more into it, and expanded my repertoire, sometimes taking requests. I found more clothes too: Pam introduced me to the manager of the Royal Court, who gave me a few sparkly dresses they didn’t want any more. Davina told me where to get some false lashes and a nicer wig, with long brown curly hair, and taught me how to use make-up to shape my eyebrows so no-one at home or work would see if I’d plucked them. She also gave me a pair of falsies to stuff into a bra rather than manky old socks, telling me that “These are what I used to wear” before the hormones gave her “proper tits”. I was told never to ask her about “the op” – April Ashley was in the news because of her court case with her ex-husband, and there was stuff in the paper about Ashley going to Casablanca for surgery. Davina was interested in Ashley, and I think they had a few mutuals, but refused to talk to Pam or me about surgery, and any punters who brought it up got a stare that could turn you into stone – or worse, if they really pushed it.
‘Anyway, Tania came along most weeks, and my wife put up with it as long as I was back home, in “drab”, by midnight. As the crowds got bigger, Pam decided to do it more often. First she tried Thursdays and Saturdays, then Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. The weekends were always rowdy, Sunday nights a bit more downbeat. But it all went well, which meant she wanted to find a few more performers.’
Struggling to find people, Pam and Davina put adverts in a couple of bars around the north-west, as well as the Gender Identity Clinic in London and the Beaumont Society (a new London-based support group for cross- dressers and their loved ones). Neither got much response, because both the transsexual women at the Clinic and the transvestites at the Beaumont Society preferred to keep a low profile, and didn’t often want to be seen with each other, let alone the flamboyant queens at the White Swan. Gradually, however, word got around, and Wednesday became audition night.
‘We had all sorts try out. There was some bloke with a beard and lots of glitter, and a hairy chest in a tight pink frock. That might play well in London, but up here, it just confused people. One person insisted on singing rather than miming, and did a lewd version of ‘Love In My Tummy’ before hitching up his skirt to reveal that actually, the love wasn’t in his tummy. Pam said it was “a family pub”, even though I’d never seen any families in there, and told him that if he didn’t scarper immediately, she’d call the police. He had to run off in his tight miniskirt and heels – I still wonder how he got home.
‘The next week, Pam did have to call the cops. We had this queen, Lucille, who’d spent hours on her make-up and took herself very seriously. I’m not sure where she was from, but it definitely wasn’t Liverpool, and she didn’t like our Scouse wit. As soon as she started ‘Break It To Me Gently’ by Brenda Lee, closing her eyes and whispering like she was Maria bloody Callas, some bloke yelled, “I’ll break it to you gently, love!” Standard fare for any drag bar, you’d think, but Lucille stopped and shot daggers at him. It was tense, until her boyfriend – some heavy from the docks – weighed in and twatted him. Suddenly it was chaos, Lucille whacking people with her handbag, lager and stilettos flying across the bar, fisticuffs spilling onto the street. No-one wanted the police to come – we all remembered the raids – but Pam had no choice. They didn’t nick anyone, but said if it happened again then they’d tell the council to revoke our license. Pam stopped the open auditions after that.
Instead, Pam and Davina scoured bars, pubs, and clubs in the north-west, looking for one more person who would give The White Swan its X-factor. ‘We had a drag king from Leeds try out,’ recalls Kevin/Mary. ‘He was great – doing Sinatra, Dean Martin and other crooners rather than Elvis or The Beatles – but the audience preferred the girls, so he only did the occasional bit. Three weeks later, though, Davina came back from Manchester with someone she’d seen at The Union, who she said would be perfect.’
This was Ladonya, a Jamaican immigrant only ever known to the pub’s performers and staff (who paid their stars cash-in-hand) by her drag name. ‘Pam was anxious about how Ladonya would go down,’ Kevin/Mary remembers. ‘I mean, our audiences were generally open-minded and good-natured, but everyone was white. We agreed that I’d warm up the crowd, and take Ladonya under my wing – help her with her outfits, tell her what to expect. We needn’t have worried – she was a pro, quite well-built but with a soft nose and striking eyes, coming on in this beautiful lime- green dress and black wig, her hair styled into a bob with a side parting. She had her finger on the pulse musically, too, geeing up the crowd with Gladys Knight’s upbeat version of ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, knowing exactly when to smile, when to shimmy, when to hold up a defiant finger. By the time she got onto ‘Baby Love’, everyone was hooked, and our girl group had formed. Some nights it was just one or two of us, but if we were all on together, the place would always be packed.’
Entrance was cheap – just a few shillings – and soon, people were coming from all over Lancashire to see the trio. All three, but especially Davina, would perform across the north-west, but there wasn’t much of a circuit besides a few pubs in Manchester or Leeds, apart from the Working Men’s Clubs of Bradford, Huddersfield and Sheffield, which weren’t always enthusiastic, or even friendly. The girls began to wonder if there was much of a world beyond The White Swan. Then a proposal arrived that was too good to turn down.
Variations is out now via Influx Press.