In preparation for North West Sound Heritage’s launch of ‘Demo Tapes’ (a forthcoming project encouraging the creative reuse of oral history of protest and resistance in song), I listened to some LGBTQ+ oral histories recorded from across the North West. Here I have selected clips that share narratives of community building and celebratory queer spaces to drive solidarity for personal safety and movements for protest and change.
This small selection of archive audio speaks to the power of creative cultural activism as radical group affirmation and celebration; from painting slogans on bridges, drag cabarets and fictionalised memoir to transgressive theatre and groundbreaking photography. All of these accounts form a personal queer chronology of family, home and safety within small groups and subcultures across LGBTQ+ society. Mapped out as a whole these small collective acts of protest and triumph drove progress of a much wider political movement for LGBTQ+ rights and equality.
Former partners, lifelong friends, collaborators and community organisers, Angela Cooper and Luchia Fitzgerald were interviewed together by Dr. Sarah Feinstein in 2016 as part of Manchester Pride’s oral history project. Their stories have been recently highlighted when they became the stars of the short documentary ‘Invisible Women’ (2019). Originally being interviewed as part of the 2017 BBC documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK (‘Pride and Prejudice: The People’s History of LGBTQ Britain’) ‘Invisible Women’ became a follow-up to focus on the significant impact of their lives and work.
Any podcast fan will recognise the intimate nature of the ‘deep dive’ into subject matter that the longform audio interview affords. Oral history interviews offer comparable opportunities to encounter significant memories and moments that might never have surfaced in other forms. The original methodologies popularised by the 1970s oral history movement were designed to democratise working class and marginalised communities, empowering them to become experts of their own lives and histories.
Luchia Fitzgerald moved from Ireland to Manchester, UK when she was 14, ending up homeless and pretending to be older to get factory work. Standing outside the Union Hotel on Princess Street circa 1961/62 and getting up the courage to go inside was a pinnacle moment:
Angela Cooper was born in Salford and always knew she was gay but didn’t have the word for it growing up. Politicisation was the driving force for coming out, rather than ‘the scene’. Angela’s story starts with joining the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and connecting with women’s liberation university networks at Lancaster University in the early 1970s:
“Lesbians are everywhere”
Luchia tells of how ‘we started with ourselves as far as equality was concerned.’ As self proclaimed ‘working class mill kids’ they shared their experiences of discrimination to form solidarity amongst the classes:
Around a table in The Picador in Manchester’s Shudehill, conversations between students and the regular working class punters kickstarted Manchester’s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) group:
Luchia explains that protest strategies depended on ‘how much you had to lose’ and often fell along class lines. One particular night she took a key part in direct action in Manchester with the GLF, writing ‘Lesbians Are Everywhere’ on city centre bridges under the cover of darkness.
Forming pockets of likeminded community was not only an outlet for burgeoning political action but it was necessary for protection and survival in hostile 1960s society. This lack of acceptance led to homelessness, depression and even horrific medical intervention to ‘cure’ gayness. Luchia shares a deeply personal experience of how finding community at the Union Inn saved her from the devastating and barbaric practice of lobotomisation:
The drag shows and cabarets were provided a much-needed cathartic release. The safety of making friends or an atmosphere shared with supportive strangers was literally lifesaving. As spaces of safety, they were accepting of all LGBT people, and ‘we never outed anybody, that was sacrosanct.’ Famous people like Dusty Springfield used to regularly visit, and the community kept her secret within the walls of these celebratory safe havens:
Lesbian bar The Picador welcomed all sorts of characters. Angela recounts a chance meeting with a former teacher from her convent school:
Luchia gives an example of how bisexual and lesbian sex workers survived and supported each other. Several sex workers offered support to vulnerable community members who needed help with rent. Their solidarity was life-saving:
‘We’re queer, we’re here, we’re not going anywhere’
Angela and Luchia helped set up Manchester Women’s Centre as a full-time live-in space, to support vulnerable women, and to live politically active lives 24/7. They explain that the ‘happenings’ and flashmobs they took part in with the GLF were completely different strategies to those used by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), which they considered ‘the acceptable face’ of the fight for equality (and which, in their opinion, contained too many Tories). More importantly, while the CHE’s main goal was equality, Luchia explains that they wanted much more:
Music & Print
The Moss Side community press at the Nello James Centre on Withington Road, Whalley Range, trained Luchia, and passed on the printing machinery and business to her when it folded. Angela and Luchia went on to run Amazon Press for over 12 years as an essential form of creative protest and information distribution for the community:
Inspired by the records coming from the US feminist music label Olivia Records, Angela and Luchia formed a band in 1973 called The Northern Women’s Liberation Rock Band. Their first gig was at a national women’s liberation conference in Edinburgh, where they played to over 1,700 women:
Angela and Luchia explain that the band often played benefits to support strikers, feminist groups and publications like Spare Rib. Playing a gig at HM Style Women’s prison evoked a moment of pathos when Luchia caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd:
They both continued to write and perform women’s liberation protest music with songs like “Ain’t Gonna Marry’ and ‘Greenham Song’ as part of the band Mother Superior and the Bad Habits (later just The Bad Habits) with Janet Wolstonholme, Una Baines, Jenny Clegg and Paulette. Two songs from this lineup have been made available on the Women’s Liberation Music Archive Soundcloud page:
For the continued story of Pride, Protest, Action, Art! please read part two of this blog.
You can also find out more about the Picador bar in this fascinating interview with Liz Naylor: