“You’ve got mail”, my flatmate Peter announced.
It was September 1977. I was lounging in bed one Saturday morning in my London flat. The letter was from the University of Essex in Colchester announcing that I had been awarded a maintenance grant to go towards my tuition and living expenses to pursue their MA in Sociology. It was very late notice but I grabbed it.
The problem was that the classes for that Masters were starting in just three weeks. I had already begun teaching the lads and A-level students at Uxbridge Tech where I was working, so I’d have to quit that job. If you’ve read that post, you will know that the Principal was not at all keen on my political activities with the union at the college, so he was quite willing to release me from my contract. I said a quick goodbye to my students and colleagues and off I went.
It wasn’t just my job that I would be leaving but also the warm bosom of Gay Left that had nurtured and fed me socially and politically for the last few years in London, not to mention my trade union work with NATFHE that I talked about here. Where was my commitment to the struggle?
In my mind, I was hoping to learn more about that struggle through this year studying. But, as well, I was still in my “exploring the world” mode. Despite having a secure and satisfying job and a good set of friends, I wasn’t ready to settle down. I loved the idea of being a student again in a new part of the country.
Colchester – Another World from London
I told myself the university wasn’t actually that far away. About 70 miles from London, the University of Essex was located near the historic market town of Colchester which claims to be Britain’s oldest recorded town and served as the first capital of Roman Britain. Its rich history includes not only Roman ruins, but Saxon and Norman bits as well, so there was lots to explore beyond the university and the gay scene.
I did that two hour drive up and down the A12 very often throughout 1977-78 in my basic Renault 4 with its unique dash-mounted stick shift. Very cool, at least in my mind – once I had conquered its eccentricities.
Why the University of Essex?
The simple answer to that question is that Ken Plummer was a sociology professor there. He was the only professor at that time in the UK solidly working on the sociology of sexuality and that’s what I wanted to study.
Mary McIntosh, a sociologist, was also at Essex. In 1968, Mary had published The Homosexual Role, a foundational text which had argued that homosexuality was not a universal condition, but a variable social role. Very radical for the time.
My friend Jeffrey Weeks had introduced me to Ken and I soon learned that he was a passionate teacher, theorist and researcher, not to mention a complete joy to be around.
Ken’s approach to studying us gays and lesbians, relatively new at the time, was through the theoretical lens of Symbolic Interactionism which studies how society is socially constructed through people using language to interpret the symbols we encounter in our lives. Therefore, this approach believes that the social world, including homosexuals and homosexuality, is constructed by the meanings that we, as individuals, learn to attach to events, symbols and social interactions. Therefore how we homos are seen and treated by society is not God-given or “natural” but decided by humans, often the ones with power.
This new view challenged the traditional, clinical notions of criminology and “deviant behaviour” which had been how I had trepidatiously and unhappily studied homosexuality 7 years earlier at my undergraduate Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario – we homos, as the deviant “other”.
- Therefore I have to say: “Sorry, Lady Gaga, no matter how much I love you, we’re not Born This Way“.
More about that in my next post.
The final reason for choosing the University of Essex, a “new university” created in the 60s was because it had the reputation of being notorious as a hotbed of radicalism and rebellion with its Sociology Department at the core of the activism. Occupations had been frequent in the past with the usual accompanying list of non-negotiable demands.
What was not to like?
As you may have guessed, I didn’t just come to Essex for studying. My diary tells me that during my first week on campus, I went to a GaySoc party. For my non-Brit readers, GaySocs were what every gay/lesbian university group was called at the time. They organized both social and political events, the ratio between the two depending on the tone and politics of the group’s leaders at the time. I realized that our group had a good mix of both. Essex GaySoc made a point of also calling itself The Gay Liberation Society.
That GaySoc party took place on the 13th floor of one of Essex’s student residences quite infamous because high buildings were so unusual at the time as student residences.
Given that this party was the first event of the new term, people were a bit shy.
Chatting to a few of the others, all undergraduates, I began to sense that, when they learned that I was 27, on a Masters course and had worked for a few years, they didn’t think of me as one of them. I was an older man. Oh dear. Was I not young anymore, I pondered?
Off to the gym
Coincidence or not, this was the point in my life when I decided that I should think about keeping fit. So, for the first time since those miserable gym classes back in high school where the only activities I excelled at were the Charleston, the Tango and social dancing, I entered a weight room to start a workout routine. I had found it somewhere in the bowels of a bunker-like building.
Given these were the days before fitness was on most everyone’s mind, it was usually empty and, with neither a trainer nor a plan, I randomly lifted weights until I got bored which wasn’t long. I then headed to the showers whether I needed one or not. The workout hardly did me any good but it did start me thinking that, now that I was getting older, I should at least think about keeping somewhat fit.
Blasphemy and the Anti-Whitehouse Rally
Besides organizing parties and dances, the University of Essex GaySoc did take on some political activities and one was a demonstration in front of the home of Mary Whitehouse who lived in the countryside close to Colchester.
Those of you who live in the UK and are of a certain age will know of Mary “Stop the Filth” Whitehouse. For others, think Florida Orange Juice Queen Anita Bryant in a twin set and pearls. Both were virulent censorious homophobes who worked hard to put the brakes on the few rights we gays and lesbians were beginning to make in the 1970s.
Mary started her long career in finger wagging in the 60s with her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVLA) attempting to put a stop to what she saw as Britain’s long slide into a filth-ridden permissive society, especially on TV.
A low point occurred in 1977 when Mary brought a private prosecution against the editor of “our” Gay News, Denis Lemon, for “blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion”. Gay News had published a ribald poem by James Kirkup called “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name”. That had set her off. You can read more about the case here but certainly we were all surprised at the time to learn that blasphemy was still against the law and that you could go to jail for it. The prosecution was successful and Denis was fined £500 and sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment suspended.
Given that Mary lived near to us, we thought that we would pay her a visit to show our anger at her homophobic actions. Out came the banners and on a cold winter’s day we trekked up and down the road in front of her home shouting something inspiring and radical. We didn’t knock on her door. We weren’t even sure she was home but that didn’t matter. We felt good.
Boycotting WH Smith Booksellers
Because of Mary’s prosecution and for other homophobic reasons, WH Smith, a major national chain of booksellers, had decided to stop selling Gay News. This triggered protests around the country. Essex GaySoc did its part and out came our placards again and we marched up and down in front of the Colchester’s WH Smith on a cold February Saturday morning. We were looked upon as a curiosity as people weren’t sure what this was all about but some people did take our leaflets. It wasn’t until 1982 that WH Smith agreed to again distribute Gay News in their shops.
John and I on Abbeygate Street
Where did I live? At my first seminar with Ken and the other MA Sociology students, I looked around to see who my fellow gay men and lesbians might be in this cohort but, operating on stereotypes as I still do, the pickings seemed surprisingly slim. But Ken introduced me to John Marshall from Warwick who was just starting on his PhD. Ken didn’t out us to each other, but we got the message. I immediately liked the somewhat serious John who had a twinkle in his eyes and a quiet chuckle. I sensed he would be up to having a bit of a laugh. On top of that, he thought I was a bit funny!
We clicked and, as both new kids on the block, we soon made plans to share accommodation. John had found a terrace house very close to the centre of Colchester and he invited me to join him there. I jumped at the offer. We stayed in that chilly house through the winter with space heaters on full but it was very much a warm home.
Because there were four bedrooms, we rented the other two rooms out to various people. Our our only criteria was that they were gay, funny and/or fun.
The first housemate to join us who met our strict criteria was a newly hired Russian History professor at Essex, Steve Smith, a gentle and unpretentious soul who didn’t stay out at the pub as long as we did but, despite that, was a wonderful asset to our group with his humour and good sense.
Then there was our supervisor – Ken. Things had been going up and down for him at this particular time of his life. Because he wanted some peace and quiet to sort things out, he moved in with us for a few months. The idea of a lecturer/professor sharing accommodation with his graduate students might be seen somewhat differently today but, at that time, we saw it as new friends helping each other out.
When we were all at home, we didn’t talk sociology all that much. More often it was taking bets on when Elton John would move on from being bisexual to officially coming out, along with undertaking an in depth analysis of the latest David Bowie and ABBA numbers.
To my utter shame, Ken discovered that my knowledge of ABBA was sadly very much lacking. He took it upon himself, along with his complete collection of their LPs, to teach me ABBA’s entire history as we sang and danced along to their songs late into the night in our tiny living room. “Thank You For The Music” that came out that year was one played very frequently. Of course, we did our best to perform along to the song as it played. Fake microphones in our hands, natch.
The stylus on my smoked plastic-topped record player skipped when we bounced too high. It looked something like this one with two fake wood speakers. Very 70s.
Staying up late didn’t stop Ken from getting up earlier than the rest of us the next day and into university before we were even up. He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. I was next up and drove into campus taking Steve and John with me – if John was ready. Not the fastest mover in the mornings was our John.
The Rec and Colchester’s gay scene
Although I had dipped my toe into the GaySoc at the university, I also wanted to explore what was available in my new town – to experience the “town” of “town and gown”. I learned that Colchester was too small and too close to London to have its own dedicated gay bar, much less a gay disco, but John, my new housemate, told me that the town had a longstanding and vibrant gay group, Colchester CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality) and he had already met some of the very energetic people who were involved with it.
Some of those enterprising members of the group had found a virtually unused saloon bar in a local pub, the Recreation Hotel. This had become an informal meeting place for gay people on Thursday evenings. The very next Thursday, John and I jumped into my Renault 4 and squirmed our way into the pub’s packed sideroom. John introduced me to those movers and shakers and I knew I’d found a new home at the Rec. And here I certainly wasn’t the oldest person in the room as I had been at the GaySoc!
A “Ray from Ipswich” had been organizing La Bohème Discos on occasional Wednesday evenings at the Rec. Seeing that those discos were very popular, we learned the CHE group had hired the upstairs room on the more popular Friday evenings for its own disco by negotiating a deal with the landlord, Jim, who was happy to see his otherwise empty-ish pub filled up. In those days, to stay open past the “Time Gentlemen” of 11pm, you needed a late license from a Magistrate. The only way to get one was to say that you were having a private party and name some event – like someone celebrating their birthday. And serve food. What a palaver. But it worked.
Just in time for our arrival in town, the first CHE Friday Night Discos with “DJ Mick”, a local Grammar School student, took place. John and I soon were helping with the tasks of producing flyers, spreading the word, selling raffle tickets (prizes included Boney M LPs), passing out sandwiches and staffing the door. At times, when the dance floor was so full of bouncing bodies, I was worried that we might go crashing through!
The discos, which became a crucial part of local gay life, attracted people from all over the region and created a new sense of community, popular with both students and locals.
On top of that, brave gay American military men from the nearby US air base at RAF Bentwaters (no jokes please) mingled with us. In contrast, despite the fact that Colchester was a military town (and had been since Roman times) with a very large garrison, I have no memory of any local “squaddies” turning up at the Rec.
As my friend Iain said, the disco was like an old-fashioned village dance hall with a big mix of all types – a big contrast to London. Those hot, sweaty discos continued to run on random Fridays for the next few years.
“Everybody Dance”, for sure. “I Feel Love”, indeed.
Gay Sweatshop comes to Colchester
Mixing both town and gown, John and I worked with the GaySoc and CHE to bring the very popular Gay Sweatshop performers to Colchester to perform their play entitled “As Time Goes By“. The performance occurred during GaySoc’s “Gay Week” in February.
The play was in three parts: the first was set in late-Victorian England at the time of the Oscar Wilde trials, the second in Berlin in the early 1930s as Hitler was rising to power and the last in a bar in New York City just before the Stonewall Riots of 1969. They told stories of gay men caught up in the history of their times. The play spoke to me as it showed the strong links we had to the past that I had never known much about. I was completely gobsmacked as I had never seen anything like it from our own community. Tears, laughs and big applause from the packed house.
No Time For More
In this post, I had hoped to include details about the two main relationships I had during this year with Fraser and Derek along with what I actually learned and produced during my studies at the university. But I’ve gone on far too long already so I’ll stop here and I promise to tell all in my next post.
Thanks very much for getting this far! A very big thank you to Ken, Fraser, Iain, Tony and especially John (all friends from that time who are still friends with me) who shared their memories of this period with me and helped to improve my writing and my facts. Big hugs.