LGBT History Month takes place in February every year. It’s an opportunity to celebrate LGBTQ+ culture, reflect on the community’s history and look to the future of activism.
LGBT History Month is for everyone: community groups, organisations, individuals, activists, service providers, LGBTQ+ and non-queer people alike.
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Bristol has a thriving LGBTQ+ scene that grows year on year. LGBT+ History Month is an opportunity to not only celebrate the city’s diverse and flourishing queer community, but to acknowledge the people that fought for the rights LGBTQ+ have in 2020 – and the ongoing activism that needs to happen for true equality, both in the UK and throughout the world.
Bristol has played an important role in queer history, having been home to influential members of the LGBTQ+ community and providing safe havens for people identifying as queer since as early as 1920.
Suffering and persecution of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people was rife during the 1800s in England, with hangings for being homosexual taking place until 1861 and homosexuality entirely criminalised until 1967.
Bristol’s activist spirit, however, was alive and well as early as the mid 1850s, seen in poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds, who lived mostly in Bristol between 1840 and 1877 and is of world significance for his books A Problem in Greek Ethics and A Problem in Modern Ethics, which argued for a rational approach to homosexuality and law reforms.
The early 20th century saw The Radnor Hotel, the city’s first gay pub, open on St Nicholas Street, as well as becoming home to a transgender pioneer.
In 1939, Michael Dillon, who was born Laura, moved to Bristol from Dublin. He received hormonal treatment at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, which began the process of medical transition. At the same hospital in 1942 he met a doctor who agreed to perform a mastectomy, completing his journey to fully transitioning.
The 1960s saw an explosion of queerness in Bristol as homosexuality became partly decriminalised. The back bar of the Ship Inn on Redcliffe Hill opened as a gay bar around 1965 and three coffee bars on Park Street and Clifton Triangle become largely gay after pub hours.
The 1970s saw continued growth for Bristol LGBTQ+ scene. April 1970 saw with the formation of Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in Bristol. A similar group, Bath Gay Awareness Group, was formed in Bristol’s neighbouring city in 1971. In 1982, Bath Gay Awareness Group became GayWest, merging with CHE Bristol the following year.
From the mid 1970s, the city’s LGBTQ+ scene continued to grow with The Oasis on Park Row, The Ship on Lower Park Row, Club 49 on Christmas Steps and The Elephant on St Nicholas Street opening as gay venues, following the opening of The Moulin Rouge, Bristol’s first gay club, in 1970.
1975 saw the Bristol Gay Switchboard open on Hill Street in Totterdown and was a significant move towards the wellbeing and support of queer people. Founded by Dale Wakefield using her private phone line, herself and a group of volunteers received phone calls from people in the queer community, offering information and a listening ear.
Later in 1975, the city’s first Pride was held and towards the end of the decade, Bristol Gay Centre was founded at the former McArthur Warehouse on Gas Ferry Road.
Pride was revived in 1992 (although folded again in 2007) and Freedom Youth, a social and support group for the city’s young queer people, started in July 1995. Still in operation today as part of Off The Record, they will celebrate their 25th anniversary in July this year.
In the world of politics, Redland councillor Rosalind Mitchell caused something of a media sensation when she announced her medical transition from male to female. She received attack from both the media and fellow colleagues – although apparently accepted by the Labour Group on the council she was refused entry to a Labour Women’s group and did not restand when her term expired in 1999.
The early 2000s saw Section 28 repealed and the Equality Act and Civil Partnership Act come into force. This decade also saw the first openly gay MP for a Bristol seat in Stephen Williams, representing Bristol West from 2005. It also saw the growth of Old Market as a hub of the city’s queer scene.
September 2007 saw the formation of SingOut, the regions first choir for LGBTQ+ people, with current choir communications coordinator, David Johnson, saying: “It’s become an important part of the LGBTQ+ community in Bristol; not only through performances, such as Bristol Pride, but also through outreach work at local hospitals, prisons and schools.
“It fills a gap, socially, for those who want an alternative to the club scene and has grown to nearly 150 members since its inception.”
A new incarnation of Pride then began in 2010, with Daryn Carter at the helm, supported by friends including Anna Rutherford, now director of the Architecture Centre.
“Our response to repression was to create Bristol Pride as a massive and visible force for good,” says Anna. “We involved as many people as we could and worked behind the scenes with the NHS, schools, the prison service etc to help with systemic issues.”
“I’ve lived in Bristol for 16 years now and I’m so proud to see how far the LGBTQ+ community here has come in this time,” adds Daryn Carter, who has been CEO of Bristol Pride for the last decade. “Bristol itself has changed a fair bit in this time and so has the LGBTQ+ scene and events. Having delivered Pride for the last ten years it’s been incredible to see how far the city has come, I think Pride has helped put Bristol on the map both national and globally.”
The event has grown into a staple of Bristol calendar and last year was named as one of the best 50 Pride events in the world. 2019 saw thousands of people parade through the city to show their support for the queer community, with weeks of events taking place throughout the city beforehand – from film screenings to dog shows and circus events to vigils.
“Since then, I think the city has continued to change,” adds Anna. “I’ve been running Indigo since 2010, we host monthly events for LBTQ+ women, welcoming everyone from firefighters to surgeons. Our events are more popular than ever, and first timers no longer knock furtively on the door, but stride in with confidence.”
“The queer scene in Bristol is great because we finally have options and really bloody good ones too!” Sharifa Whitney James is a queer, black woman working with LGBTQ+ people aged 50 and over at Bristol Ageing Better as well as a co-founder of Kiki Bristol, an organisation for queer people of colour.
Speaking about Kiki, Sharifa says: “We created a space that was non-existent in Bristol before, carving out space for LGBTQ+ people of colour. We explore what blackness and queerness means to us and hold various events and collaborate with institutions which historically haven’t held space for people who look like us.”
As well as Sharifa’s work creating a stronger community for older and BAME LGBTQ+ people, organisations such as Hidayah offer a safe space for queer Muslims.
“The queer space was predominantly white and cisgender which wasn’t representative of everyone the LGBTQ+ community,” says Farina, who heads the Bristol branch of the organisation.
“Hidayah in particular has a different impact on the Bristol LGBTQ+ scene because it offers an alternative that isn’t centred around going out to a pub or out on an evening.”
The alternative LGBTQ+ scene in Bristol continues to grow, offering events and groups that aren’t centred around partying, alcohol and drugs.
“I feel creative arts events and feminist music scene events are on the rise,” says Scarlett, the founder of Bristol Femme Night. “It’s connecting everyone together and raising the point that we need to keep pushing for expression and support.”
“Bristol is ever changing and evolving,” says Lloyd from queer indie club night Don’t Tell Your Mother (DTYM). “It’s is one of the reasons we love it! We’ve always believed there is space for everyone and everything from indie and alternatve queer nights to drag and cabaret. We’re really big fans of lots of different genres of music and different art forms.
“When we started DTYM it was really important for us to try and achieve a kindness and acceptance for all at our events. We’ve always said that DTYM is for LGBTQ+ and friends and we meant that in lots of different ways. We wanted a safe space for queer people, we hoped queer womxn* would feel comfortable to come along in a male dominated club scene and we hoped everyone else would feel confident enough to be themselves.”
“The queer scene in Bristol has visibly become more diverse and more inclusive,” adds Nic, who also works with DTYM. “Especially in the last few years, you can see the extra care now that promoters and venues are taking, and the importance being put on creating that safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.
“We are continually praised for our events and how safe and inclusive our nights are and we work hard behind the scenes to ensure this is always the case. It’s what DTYM is all about – a safe queer space for all people to have fun in.”
Away from the party scene, there has been a growth of community-focused, social groups, such as Out To Swim West. The Bristol branch of an organisation that began in London, the group has grown to more than 30 members in under a year.
“Out to Swim West has provided a totally new place for LGBTQ+ to swim together, to challenge ourselves and to support each other,” says Matthew, a member of the group. “We started with three members and, in a year, we now over 30 showing that there was a need for a dedicated swimming club for the LGBTQ+ Community.”
Spencer Blackwell, a volunteer at Trans Pride South West, one of the largest celebration of transgender, non-binary, intersex and gender variant individuals in the UK, adds: “It’s really great to see so many nights and venues become more inclusive of trans people in Bristol, through making changes such as including gender neutral toilets and having trans-friendly staff.
“We’re really excited by all of the new LGBTQIA+ organisations and events popping up throughout Bristol and the South West, and hope to work with lots of new and different groups to cater to the diverse trans and LGBTQIA+ communities in Bristol.”
Gazing into the LGBTQ+ community’s crystal ball presents a hazy picture of the future. In some respects, queer rights are at the forefront of politics and human rights like never before, with increasing rights and equality for the national and global LGBTQ+ equality.
The difficulties the queer community, and especially trans people, cannot be ignored. Despite the welcoming nature of Bristol’s LGBTQ+ scene, it must be recognised that nationally and globally, queer people are receiving an onslaught of negativity with LGBTQ+ rights in threat.
“I know many people are scared of our hard-won rights being rolled back,” says Anna Rutherford. “Sometimes I wake in the night wondering about our future. But I’m an optimist, and there are many like me who are willing to put the work in to ‘fight’ with love.”
LGBT+ History Month is a chance to celebrate the progress that has been made, but to continue to fight for the equality and rights of queer people everywhere.
“Bristol is a mini haven for many queer folxs*,” says Sharifa Whitney James. “I feel like we are just getting started though, becoming an option among places like London and Berlin for our eclectic queer scene. It’s grown a lot over the past 11 years and it’s so nice to see. Watch this space!”
*folx is a gender-neutral way to refer to members of or signal identity in the LGBTQ+ community.
Main photo by Dan Sheppard