Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

A Brief Overview of Sandra Baker’s project on Sheffield’s LGBT History

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Sandra runs a project on Sheffield’s LGBT History.  She started her research in 2010 as part of an MA in History in the Local and the Global at Sheffield Hallam University.  Her research focuses on the history of the LGBT community in Sheffield and is an on-going project which involves personal stories documented through interviews as well as LGBT community based experiences from the 60’s and 70’s. The interviewee’s all self-identify as LGBT and are either from Sheffield or moved to Sheffield in the 80’s and 90’s.  It is worth noting that although the term ‘LGBT’ is being used quite liberally throughout this artcile, a gay person during the 60’s through to the 80’s would not have used that term, and that at that time, ‘gay’ was generally a catch all term for the LGBT community.

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Terry Sanderson attending Pride in London

At the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s, this was the time of great change for LGBT people in Great Britain with the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. The passing of the 1967 sexual offences act took place during a period of great conservativism in British government. The Wolfenden Committee was set up in the 1950s to investigate social attitudes to homosexuality amongst other social ‘issues’ and in 1964 presented their report to government strongly recommending the legalisation of sex between men. This combined with social pressure and high incidents of blackmail against high profile gay men, led to the change in the law.

Social change was slow to catch up with this however, and many gay men in particular maintained a low profile. Some of Sandra’s interview participants had been given aversion therapy or very narrowly missed it, as it was still widely thought that homosexuality in men was a mental condition and was at best to be pitied or ‘cured’.

It is therefore unsurprising that there was a clash within the LGBT community at this time over the ways in which they should be gaining equal rights, and what those rights should be. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) were forming in London and creating a new radical form of gay rights, using confrontational campaigning methods and having lists of demands. Some LGBT people in Sheffield were inspired by this and wanted to demand rights for their own LGBT community, whilst others didn’t want to ‘create a fuss’.

In 1969 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) was formed in Manchester and was a daughter group to the Albany Trust. The CHE’s aims were to support LGBT people and to create social events at which gay people could freely meet. By the early 1970’s Sheffield had a branch of CHE which ran regular discos at the City Hall called CHEckers, providing support groups and running campaigns, such as one to get Gay News kept in the Sheffield Library, which the Council had refused.

CHE was not as radical as the likes of GLF, but during the 1970’s it created a lot of the activity and social events taking place in Sheffield outside of the gay bars. It also encompassed a wide range of LGBT people. There was a support line for trans people in Sheffield for a time and women’s events too. Rotherham later had a CHE group, run by Terry Sanderson who was interviewed for Sandra’s History of LGBT community in Sheffield project. Sheffield CHE hosted the National CHE Conference in 1975; an incredibly exciting time for them. Even now something like this in Sheffield would have an amazing impact on the local community. It was at this event that Tom Robinson wrote and performed his song Good to be Gay which later morphed into Glad to be Gay, the song that encapsulated the gay rights movement in the 1970s.

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Lesbian Extravaganza

During the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s Sheffield was seen by many as an epicentre for political activism and involvement with several movements such as the Miner’s Strike(s), women’s liberation, Black rights campaigns and trade unionism. Many of the LGBT people in Sheffield at this time and earlier were actively involved in these movements and in the Gay rights movement, but not all. A large number of gay people in Sheffield were just as happy to spend time with other gay people in bars and clubs and leave it at that.

However, this did create splits in the community at the time, particularly within the lesbian community. Most of the politicised people from the LGBT community were women and they responded to the fact that the gay bars in Sheffield were quite male dominated, and intimidating to women. They responded by creating their own events and spaces that were women only. This was not exclusively a ‘lesbian’ thing; any women could attend these events and for many this was a truly liberating time. Events ranged from regular comedy nights to a full production of Calamity Jane, which was a women only cast, but also restricted to only women in the audience.

In the 1990’s women in Sheffield formed the Women’s Cultural Club and many lesbians were involved in its construction. At this time there was a large movement in women teaching other women construction skills such as plastering, brick laying etc. and much of this skill sharing went into the Women’s Cultural Club. Once it was up and running the club formed a huge part of the women’s events scene in Sheffield. It was located in what is now the Workstation!  (The venue of our festival on Saturday)

Since the 1990s Sheffield’s LGBT community has grown and become increasingly visible and accepted in the wider community. The research Sandra has done so far can hardly be seen as the last word on Sheffield’s LGBT past; there are an immeasurable number of stories still to collect and mysteries to solve. Having said that, she hopes this has helped put things into a bit of context and provide a good overview.

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Author: Hidden Perspectives

A research project within the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at The University of Sheffield.

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