It all started so well. "In a hundred years' time, when I'm forgotten, the charter will still be seen as one of the most significant documents of its time", said Ken Livingstone in 1986, as he launched the Greater London Council's Charter for Lesbian and Gay Rights at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre. The five-storey building cost more than £1 million to open and was the biggest single project any public body had financed for the lesbian and gay community.
The centre was seen as one of the jewels in the crown of the Labour administration's policy of funding minority groups. At a time when lesbians and gay men reported suffering from workplace discrimination, street harassment and frequent arrests, the centre acted as an oasis for people to gather, socialise and express themselves. The centre also provided office space for gay organisations – bookshops, coffee shops, theatre groups – enabling them to grow and prosper. But six years after its launch, it closed in a torrent of political infighting and mounting financial losses, the clues of which are still found today in the Hall-Carpenter Archives at the London School of Economics.
Differences between queer people came to the fore within the microcosm of the centre, as debates over the inclusion of open bisexuals and S&M groups made headlines. Hit by the Conservative government's withdrawal of grant funding, spiralling debts and arguments over representation, the LLGC's vision for a harmonious community began to fall apart by the early 90s. On the 30th anniversary of its opening, we spoke to former management staff, volunteers and members about the centre's legacy and why so few people today know it ever existed.
Lisa Power, 61
LGBT rights campaigner, ex-centre visitor
The centre was run by total amateurs chosen for their political categories or beliefs and not for being able to run a successful social or commercial undertaking; they were at best incredibly naive. There was massive fraud/petty theft at all levels, from volunteers who thought it was fine to let their friends eat for free to bar deliveries where half the stock went straight into someone's car.
The women's floor was only open to the "right" sort of lesbian. Some of the staff actively fomented problems – one, a gay skinhead, deliberately booked the male Gay Skinhead group in on "Women's Night". Open bisexuals and straights weren't allowed, for part of the time at least – things changed every time there was an EGM or AGM depending on who attended and voted. S/M were constantly fought over, though Sadie Maisie eventually became by far their most successful disco night and many of my friends went who had nothing to do with SM just knew it was a great "anything goes" club night.
As a friend said, his main experience there was "being told off by various joyless types for not being the right sort of gay", and another summed it up perfectly: "more mired in arguments about inclusion/exclusion than actually providing a service". Eventually it fell apart, people stopped going and it was losing a fortune.
Reggie Blennerhassett, 55
I joined probably a year or so after the Centre opened. It was the early 80s, I'd just moved from Ireland, and I thought it was amazing. In the face of huge opposition, the people who fought to get the Centre opened did an incredible job. It was a great service to the community, particularly for people in their teens; it was their home, a safe place. It certainly provided a space for women to feel safe and comfortable, because there wasn't half as much on the lesbian scene as on the gay scene.
The centre was set up as a workers' cooperative, which was probably a very forward-thinking approach. But on reflection, that's where it might have been better to have some management structure. There was an idea that the centre was ahead of its time, and that if it had opened a little later it might have lasted longer and been more successful.
It's interesting how 30 years later you'll meet people who'll remember the centre and say it was their lifeline; people who were vulnerable youngsters and went on to do very well in life. In terms of our social history, it's a hugely important landmark.
Ex-paid staff worker
There were ten or 11 of us who were on incredible wages, about £10,00 to £11,000 a year. Our sick pay was unending, we had really good holiday allowance; so for the staff it was a very good place to work.
The volunteer programme was a great way to integrate yourself into a community. If you'd just arrived in London and you didn't know anyone you could become a volunteer, and all of a sudden, you had a group of friends. The centre gave you the confidence to be who you wanted to be.
It was a place that many people needed in their lives; with all kinds of activities and support services. Everything was under one roof, there was parking, it was by the Tube, you could go on your own and feel safe. The way the building was structured meant that if you did go for a group meeting, you could stay and have coffee afterwards. It was fantastic. The other really important aspect was the enduring friendships that were made by people who met there.
But there was a hell of a lot of disrespect. In the very beginning, the management committee completely fucked up by employing a white workforce. Everyone who worked there apart from me was college educated which also misrepresented the community. That sent off a chain reaction – who was the place for?
It was a place of the time, and its demise was too soon. With smart management, it would have been self-sustainable. The benefit to the community was forever lost.
Colin Clews, 63
Former centre visitor
My main memory of the centre was a space free of the trappings of the commercial scene. I personally found it easier to be myself in there. Going on "the scene" felt more like a performance with too much emphasis on image and behaviour. It was nice to have a space where you could be with other queer people without any of those expectations.
The strengths and weaknesses of the centre stemmed from the same things – its novelty. We'd never had a place like that before and we were aware of the kinds of things that were lacking in the commercial scene (quiet meeting spaces, office space for community organisations etc). But I think it's often the case that when ideas get put into practice, issues arise that people hadn't even thought of before. The issue of bisexuals and S/M groups are perfect examples of that.
We are, on the one hand, a "community" but we're far from a homogenous group and our differences as queer people can divide us just as much – if not more – as our differences with non-queer people. No one had really given any thought on how those differences might be managed, because no one had anticipated them in the first place.
Jennie Wilson, 55
The centre's former Chair
The centre felt like a massive gesture from the Greater London Council towards the lesbian and gay community. It was extraordinary to be given some sense of power or recognition in a way you hadn't seen before.
Without a doubt the LLGC became a rallying point. There were groups that for the first time dealt with the mental health of lesbians and gay men. It gave people the ability to meet together at reasonable times. We saw organising between lesbians and gay men, which wasn't that common. We had real discussions about how we could embrace black lesbians and gays. We were becoming a bit more of a community.
But we weren't mature enough to know what we were doing. This was the first time we'd actually been called to be responsible for how be behaved and how we ran things. The very early, honest volunteers gave way to people who realised the place was being so badly run you could rip it off. As far as the users went, people's own sense of identity politics started to drive what they thought the centre should be. You couldn't keep everyone happy, and no-one was prepared to compromise for a greater goal. We needed to embrace difference, rather than seek to find one common acceptable model of homosexuality that everybody ascribed to.
It was the first real experiment in giving gay people a space in which they could get together and organise, and I think we showed ourselves to be sadly lacking in our ability to do that. But the initiatives that came out of it were extraordinary.
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