Sunday, 16 October 2011

Black in the UK

LGBT black history in the UK is elusive. True, there are quite a few black lgbt people who have made their mark – Justin Fashanu, Stephen K. Amos and Joan Armatrading to name a few. But as far as “ordinary people” like myself there is even less than with white lgbt history.

The wider lgbt community quite often ostracised and refused to accept black lgbt people, much as it did with bisexuals and transsexuals. With the visible differences arising out of race the black community tended, from the 1950s to 80s, to group together for support. This is how some of the most popular clubs in London were founded, and the few white people who attended them spread the word that racism is no reason to exclude someone from their community.

Some Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 1950s, whether they were gay or not, had already been playing their part in the white lgbt community in the UK. A number of these immigrants set up illicit “clubs” in their homes to provide secret meeting places for gay men. Most of these were in the cities, but one or two are recorded in smaller towns. One was here in Nottinghamshire in Mansfield Woodhouse.

A house on
Old Mill Lane
was owned by an Afro-Caribbean man who opened it up to gay men from a wide area. Many men were local and some came from neighbouring cities like Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield. Some even came from as far afield and Pontefract in Yorkshire and Twickenham in Surrey. It came to an end in 1961 in one of the last and largest prosecutions for acts of homosexuality in the UK.

In a period where the police were deliberately pursuing what they called “chain prosecutions” every suspect’s friends became “people of interest”. One man who regularly visited the black man’s house in Mansfield was arrested in Derbyshire, and after an investigation some 22 other men were arrested for attending the same house.

During their trial in Nottingham 50 years ago next month the owner of the house was never mentioned by name, but all his “customers” were. The trial showed the range of backgrounds of the men who visited the house, revealing to the general public that even working-class men can be gay (even as late as the 1980s I experienced for myself the bigotry that still lingers in that coal-mining area). The jobs of these 23 men included several coal miners, machinists and lorry drivers. There were a few shop workers and clerks, an airman and a retired gentleman. Their ages ranged between 17 and 70. All pleaded guilty and received sentences ranging from 3 years in prison to 12 months probation (one received a conditional discharge). There were other chain prosecutions around the country.

What this case shows is that, even though the black gay community in the UK in the 1950s and 60s was very much subjected to racism in most cases, there were black men who recognised a need for gay men to socialise and gather in an era when such gatherings were illegal. The un-named owner of the house in Mansfield Woodhouse provided a much needed service, and the large number of men who were prosecuted (an goodness knows how many others slipped through the police net) proves that he, and others like him, was prepared to put himself at risk of prosecution.

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