LGBT+ Activism and Legislation in Cumbrian Oral Histories

UOSH volunteer Emma Haggerstone reflects on the OutREACH Cumbria collection of oral histories held at Cumbria Archive Service.

CELEBRATE: LGBT History in Cumbria project is a superb illustration of striving for inclusivity and map making in both the literal and metaphorical sense. The exhibition reflected the diversity of stories of LGBT people of a rural region and, with photographs, documents, and audio recordings, introduced us to a wealth of knowledge hitherto unknown.’

Sue Sanders

Chair, Schools OUT/LGBT History Month UK and Professor Emeritus, Harvey Milk Institute

In my experience listening to the oral histories collected by OutREACH Cumbria as a part of the CELEBRATE: LGBT History in Cumbria project, I felt there were two key messages. Firstly, it was clear that the purpose of the project was to give voice to the often unheard stories of LGBT+ people in rural areas. Secondly, what came through was the importance of activism and key legislation and how it changed their lives. The interviewees often spoke about their personal involvement in activism and pivotal changes in legislation, and in this post I will discuss their stories and how the particularity of their environment influenced their experiences. 

HIV/AIDS and the impact on the LGBT+ community (1980s) 

The government’s Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign included billboards like this one on Stockport Road, Levenshulme, circa 1986. Image supplied by Manchester Archives and Local Studies.

The HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s significantly impacted the LGBT+ community, particularly gay and bisexual men and trans people, firstly by loss of life, and therefore depriving the LGBT+ community of so many elders today, and secondly by strong negative sentiments and stigmatisation which has had lasting effects on perceptions of LGBT+ people. In 1986 the Greater Manchester Police Commissioner, James Anderton, commented that ‘gays, drug addicts and prostitutes’ living with HIV were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making’, adding fuel to the fire of negative perceptions. Below is a image of Manchester ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activists protesting Anderton. 

In his interview D explains that his partner passed away from HIV/AIDS at the height of the pandemic. He explains that after his partner’s passing he set up a support group and helpline in Cumbria for others impacted and their families. This was significant as his support group worked outside of national charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust to help specifically Cumbrian people. 

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D continues by praising the NHS and social care services and their care for his partner and states that they were also his main support during that time. He discusses how HIV/AIDS support in Cumbria today has changed and how he still has contact with nurses who supported his partner and with those he helped through the support group twenty years prior. 

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Manchester ACT UP action against GMP police Commissioner James Anderton CBE, who commented that ‘gays, drug addicts and prostitutes’ living with HIV were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making,’ 1990. Image source:

Section 28 (1988-2003 in England and Wales) 

Protest against Section 28 at the Albert Memorial, Manchester, 1988.

Section 28, or Clause 28, of the Local Government Act was enacted in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher to prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. The legislation came about in the era of HIV/AIDS and rising negative sentiments towards LGBT+ people. Section 28 had a particular impact on young people as, together with the broad climate of negativity and fear around homosexuality which prevented young LGBT+ people to be open about themselves, schools refrained from teaching about different types of sex and relationship education and teachers were inhibited from helping pupils and addressing homophobic bullying. The oral histories show that many of the interviewees’ lives were touched by the legislation as young people growing up in Cumbria and as activists. 

Alex describes growing up in Cumbria in the time of Section 28 with no visibility or support for LGBT+ people. Alex talks about how homophobic bullying of others put her off seeking guidance, thinking it easier to ignore her identity to avoid any risk. Cathy adds that there is a continued impact in educational settings as the couple have friends who are teachers that are still not “out”. 

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Catherine echoes Alex’s sentiments as she also experienced no visibility or support growing up in the Lake District. Catherine calls Section 28 a ‘devastating law’ and recollects watching coverage of its introduction in the media at age sixteen. She reflects that documenting these histories is important as times have changed so much.

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“Manchester Stop Clause 28 demo JO Rosa and Mark” by plasticchristmas is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
“Marriage Equality” by celesteh is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Same-sex marriage legislation (2013 in England and Wales)

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was introduced in 2013, with the first marriages performed in March 2014. The legislation granted marriage equality to same-sex couples who were previously only able to receive a civil partnership, it also allowed those with a civil partnership to convert to a marriage, and also meant that trans people no longer had to divorce or dissolve their civil partnership to begin the process of gender confirmation. It is a landmark piece of legislation allowing many in the UK to see same-sex relationships as equitable to heterosexual relationships. Same-sex marriage was shortly after introduced in Scotland, Ireland and the USA in a remarkable wave of changing attitudes and legislative support for LGBT+ relationships in recent years, however it wasn’t until 2020 that same-sex marriage was legalised in Northern Ireland. 

Cathy and Alex describe having one of the first same sex marriages in Cumbria in 2014, shortly after the legislation was passed. They discuss the unique process of preparing for the wedding including working with registrars to change the wording of the ceremony to be more inclusive. They discuss the significance of equal marriage to them whilst acknowledging that many LGBT+ couples still choose civil partnerships. 

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[Image source: Protest march and rally in Belfast, calling for the legalisation of same-sex marriage, 2017] 

LGBT+ Cumbria Today 

OutREACH Cumbria 

OutREACH Cumbria are the county’s main service provider for LGBT+ people, and are the charity behind this oral history project in partnership with Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery. The project culminated in an exhibition being held in October 2016 showcasing the previously undiscovered history of LGBT+ people in Cumbria. 

OutREACH Cumbria Website [hyperlink]

OutREACH Cumbria Facebook [hyperlink]

Cumbria Pride 

[Image source: Cumbria Pride] 

Cumbria’s annual Pride event was established to show that Pride is not just for big cities, but also for rural areas and small towns. The first Cumbria Pride event was run by Pride in North Cumbria (PiNC), an LGBT+ youth organisation, with around 40 people in attendance. Cumbria Pride now happens annually in Carlisle providing entertainment and support for around 5000 people. 

Cumbria Pride [hyperlink]

Pride in North Cumbria [hyperlink] 

 LGBT HQ, Carlisle 

The LGBT HQ centre opened in 2013 housing multiple LGBT charities, groups and projects, including PiNC and Cumbria Pride, to provide free counselling, hate crime reporting, anti-bullying campaigns, social groups, outreach and fundraising for LGBT+ people in Cumbria. 

LGBT HQ [hyperlink]

Sticky Bits Café [hyperlink]


There is still a long way to go for LGBT+ communities, below are reports focused on issues that continue to impact, disadvantage or actively hurt LGBT+ people in the UK. LGBT+ charities and activists have highlighted factors such as home life and domestic violence, racial and cultural discrimination, work and employment discrimination, health inequalities, ageing and ageism, housing, and conversion therapy practices as very present, significant concerns facing LGBT+ communities. 

It is incredibly important to shine a light on histories we are not usually exposed to, and this project gives voice to the often unacknowledged rural LGBT+ experience. The oral history accounts expose the isolation felt and lack of support received, but in greater measure show the pivotal parts played by Cumbrian LGBT+ people in UK LGBT+ history. Their once hidden stories and contributions are only beginning to be heard, giving us a better understanding of how legislative and social progress has been made across the entire geography of the UK. 

Emma Haggerstone, UOSH volunteer

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