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TOUCH ME Interview Series - Stuart Feather

Stuart Feather (he/him)

Stuart Feather is an activist who was an original member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and took part in the first public demonstration of homosexuals in the UK in 1970.


Stuart is a painter and the author of political biography, Blowing the Lid: Gay Liberation, Sexual Politics and Radical Queens, published in 2016. Stuart was also a member of the Bloolips queer theatre troupe between 1977-1993, which won a New York OBIE awards in 1981.

What does Pride mean to you?

I suppose it’s an annual parade, protest march and carnival. It is also a way of showing the community off as a caring community. A place where, ideally, there would be other groups like Black Pride and Trans Pride and so on that could join us on the day. That’s a question of intersectionality and I don’t think that the community is ready for it. It’s a great idea but at the moment it creates more division than a sense of togetherness. That indicates that something is wrong and I think that comes down to the lack of a firm political foundation on which we can all understand each other. There’s a great deal of empathy and recognition of each other and the prejudices we face – each group collectively and as a whole – but I do think in order to be able communicate, politics are the most important thing to have right.


Our Gay Liberation Front was a Socialist movement. It’s a word that probably frightens present-day trans people and the Black community as well. But if they look at the origins of trans people and the, unfortunately few, Black people in Gay Pride, they did understand it and historically they do have a relationship with Socialism.


That’s 50 years ago and since the 1980’s we had nothing but conservative governments. With Dan Glass at The Sexual Avengers and also at Reclaim Pride, what I observed was that a lot of people that came to that had no experience of living under a Socialist government and they didn’t really appreciate how right wing they are. 40 years of right-wing press gradually moved everyone in the country to the right. I believe there’s the need to reclaim Socialism as a political foundation.


What are the biggest challenges that the LGBTQ+ community still faces?

Again, it’s the lack of political foundation. What the GLF started has propelled the whole community and the country forward for the last 40 years. That can only be because we did get the politics right about Socialism. There were various different factions in GLF – Maoists, Marxists-Socialists, outriders for the International Socialists – and they all tried to impose their ideologies on the movement but the movement rejected them by voting. I would say, to make a claim for the group I was with, that our politics were based – having not been in any way political before GLF and I voted Conservative because my parents voted Conservative – on our experiences in the movement, both by the demonstrations and actions we made. That was very different when compared to the organised Left who did not back us in some actions.


The women really were our guiding mentors. They were the ones that complained about the men’s misogyny and sexism and the fact that men were not examining themselves and their own privileges or trying to do anything about it. Everybody wore a badge in the GLF but we decided the clearest means of projecting the fact that you were a gay man back then was to wear a frock and heels and then that was screaming the obvious to the other side of the street: that you were a gay man, a homosexual, a flaming faggot!


So that’s how your drag come about?

Yes, it was a political gesture, absolutely.


What is your first recollection of a queer person?

I might have been around thirteen and I was living in a suburb of York, called Acomb. There was the Acomb Green, a triangular piece of public land and one day I was there and I saw a lot of people collecting in one corner. As I approached, I saw this little stage with a man on it, in the bright afternoon sunshine, and I suddenly realised it was a man in drag. I absolutely couldn’t believe it and I had very mixed feelings about it. I was very attracted on the one hand, but on the other hand I thought it was a sort of disgusting.


Then he came to our school and we were told he was coming to look for people to learn a Georgian minuet and dance the dance at the York Castle Museum as part of the York Festival. I was in the class that was learning to dance and I was rejected. I was really surprised! I had done a bit of performance in Gang Shows in the Scouts, but it turned out to my advantage. Instead, I got to play a Victorian knife grinder – there is a model Victorian street within the Castle Museum, cobbles and everything and the odd Tudor building and Georgian ones – and there I met a woman, she must have been six years older than me and she was great because she was already training to be an actor. There was a photographer who would come out occasionally and take a photograph of the crowd, he had a pan and phosphorus and he’d set the phosphorus alight and there was a minor explosion. Nadine would scream, fall on the floor, faint!, and we just got this routine together which became very entertaining for people. She was the one who told me about the York Cooperative Society Drama Group so I joined and I was in a couple of plays. When the York Festival came around again in 1957 I got a speaking part in the Mystery Plays. I was learning all the time. Then they brought in all these student actors from Bradford Academy of Dramatic Art and they just had crowd parts whereas I had a speaking one – they were really furious with that! It was a bit unpleasant backstage and I thought if this is what actors are like I don’t want to be bothered with the theatre.


How did this taste of the theatre relate to your later activism?

The Gay Liberation Front started in October 1970 and at Christmas they announced they were looking for volunteers to join the street theatre group. I volunteered for that because I thought this was something I could do. At the first meeting, Derek Jarman kindly lent us his squat for the afternoon. Before it started I was looking through his bookshelves and I found this book published by the Bauhaus, on Street Theatre in the Bauhaus. What had I let myself in for? I’d heard about the Bauhaus but I didn’t know they had street theatre, I thought it was painting and sculpture and domestic interiors and things like that. It was actually what I thought it was, theatre on the streets in a protest kind of way.

So theatre was used by the GLF as a vehicle for protest?

Indeed it was. Using our comedy, our camp, our biting sarcasm. In fact, a year and half later we were faced with this big group called Festival of Light and there we would use theatre. The Festival was organised around two missionaries who had come back from India and discovered that Britain had fallen into the depths of depravity. They got all these fundamentalist Christian churches together and the intention was to recriminalize homosexuality, abortion and to increase the penalties for pornography and prostitution. A typical right-wing program! They held an inaugural meeting at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster but we did very well: we got one of the women of the street theatre group to pose as a devout Christian and apply for a job with the Festival. She got appointed to the planning office for the whole thing. So, she got us seats for Westminster Central Hall and all the details of their plans.


After the inaugural meeting, they planned to have a mass rally in Trafalgar Square and march to Hyde Park and hold their Festival of Light there – Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford, Malcolm Muggeridge and Cliff Richard were all on the platform. Then Street Theatre and friends decided what they would do. Each group or individual would do a protest inside the Hall to start at the beginning of the first lot of applause. The applause would continue with slow hand claps, so when the applause died down that’s what people heard. That made the platform a bit restless right away. We were about forty of us. Within the group, we all kept secret from each other what we were doing, all we knew was there would be a group in front of you and you’d know what they would be going to do. When that group had done it and the stewards would have come to take them, the next group would pick their moment for their demonstration. It stretched throughout the whole evening.

It started with hand clapping and then the first physical thing was to release masses of mice on the floor. That created havoc and screaming and it was incredibly funny. As that calmed down, all these same sex couples stood up and started kissing each other. The next thing that staggered everybody in the hall was that this group of nuns stood up and solemnly walked down the aisle to the front, turned around and lifted up their skirts and cancanned down the aisle. People were just gobsmacked. After that the youth group threw a great bed sheet over the balcony with Cliff The Queen painted in big red letters. Next, there were two old colonel types, very tweedy, arguing amongst themselves and complaining that they couldn’t pray in this violent atmosphere – two actors, of course, whose voices reached every corner and bounced off the ceiling! Then another of our drag queens stood up and started shrieking and declaring that had been saved and seen the face of the Lord! The whole place fell silent and for a moment they believed it until, of course, doubt crept in. The stewards came round to get him and he made his way to the front and carried on. After that, we all had our KKK outfits so we all stood up and raised our arm and demanded that homosexuals should be crucified and beheaded and all these outrageous things. Of course they came for us too and landed a couple of punches as they pushed us down the stairs. The final moment was at the end of the evening, when the action group, the butch guys in GLF, got into the basement and plunged the Hall into darkness. Which was a great thing for The Guardian headline the next day was ‘Darkness in our Light’!


Nevertheless, they held their rally in Trafalgar Square and for that I was in drag as the alternative Mary Whitehouse and the sisters in red and Richard Dipple had a crown of thorns in his head. Trafalgar Square was just horrendous and everyone was shouting. They really had tunnel vision, this great mass of staring eyes and all shrieking ‘Jesus Saves!’. We wanted to get out of there and make our way to Hyde Park to join the rest of the GLF. Around the edge of Trafalgar Sqaure, the police stopped us and wouldn’t let us go any further. A superintendent from Scotland Yard came and said we were part of The Angry Brigade - a group of left wing Cambridge students who were bombing property of ministers of the Crown and so on and had been going on for three years. The papers had been forbidden to mention it but when they hit the home of the Home Secretary it was too far and the story came out, so there was a lot of terror going around in the left because they were being raided by the police, ripping of the floorboards of flats, snatching people away and doing heavy questioning. But I managed to escape. When they drove the wedge it divided us and one half was led into The Strand where they were arrested. Then the police pushed the rest of us right across the square in between the two lions - the only way out of was to climb up. So we climbed on to the plinth and Mary Whitehouse was there in the corner by the National Gallery holding her morals aloft for everybody to admire. At that moment a smoke bomb went off, it really looked grim and that was a wonderful thing too. I managed to escape with my friend Nicholas and we walked and picked up a few others – a nun and Paul Theobald dressed as a policeman. We were just crossing the park, not chanting, and the police suddenly grabbed us from behind and pushed us towards a police van. The policeman holding Nicholas was in the centre and in grabbing his arms from the back couldn’t move them – Nicholas in true Royal Ballet style had locked his arms – and the police’s hand slipped down and he cut his little finger on Nichola’s bracelet and charged Nicholas with assault on police – a six month sentence, which was terrible for Nick. There were a couple of months before he went to court the first time and they said the officer was on duty elsewhere and wasn’t available to bear witness. It was postponed to a later date and then at that date the prosecution said the papers had been lost, nothing to say. Obviously someone higher thought this was all ridiculous.


A month after, the Festival of Light collapsed completely. What we also had done is that they were bringing people in buses from all over the country to this rally and right at the last moment we had written to them to apologise but the parking arrangements and times had been changed. We told them it was starting at 6 o’clock – the time it was ending – and we gave them parking instructions on the very edge of London in the suburbs. They expected 70,000 people and they got little over half of that.


We entertained the press and they thought we were really amusing, They couldn’t respond to the humour. That was a really example of using our theatricality and all our gay qualities in disarming the other side. In demonstrations, if you could make the police laugh, and some of them did, you’d immediately split the ranks and that’s not what’s wanted, they want every man to do his duty.


Do you feel that humour and creativity might be lacking in today’s movement?

That bill has just been made law, hasn’t it? Perhaps we should have a demonstration where we don’t make any noise but we mime everything. We can still have the placards but just mime. Or have people who are visibly gagged - that might make a point or make people laugh.


What do you think are the greatest achievements of past 50 years since the first Pride in the UK? Is this the queer world you imagined?

The second is the easiest one to answer: no. A decade or two ago, I began to think about the 50th anniversary, if I was on the platform at Trafalgar Square, what would I say? I never thought that our Pride would be taken over by the Conservative Party and destroyed. I never had foreseen the commercialisation of Pride generally, let alone that the conservative Mayor of London would conspire to bankrupt our own Pride charity which had been doing the work very well and had been economically viable for 42 years and was suddenly bankrupt. Boris Johnson as Mayor blamed us for bad financial management when that wasn’t the case. He doubled the price of Trafalgar Square from £50,000 to £100,000, he allowed Westminster Council to put in a bill for £67,000 for lost parking tickets and he forbade Pride to communicate with the community and everything had to go through City Hall. Why? So that no one knew what was going on. He also said all the money must be paid to to City Hall before the event, not after, so that prevented from rattling the buckets on the day when a lot of the income would come in and so forth. Then he went to Fleet Street with a cheque for £100,000 - he was going to save Pride from the bad financial management and Boris would make Pride happen! Of course the £100,000 had to go into the bank and then left for Trafalgar Square and there was another £67,000 that hadn’t been estimated for. I didn’t envisage that.


As for the biggest achievements, just the fact that we did it, really. It was a vindication of our politics and the politics were to come out. To be a member of the GLF you had to come out – to your family, at work and society - and that was a difficult one. We held the first demonstration of homosexuals in this country six weeks after the GLF started. A young man who was chair of the Young Liberals had been arrested in the cottages in Highbury Fields and we thought it was a good moment to make a demonstration about it all. Between 1967, when the laws changed, and 1970 when GLF started, nothing really changed for us, we were still considered criminals and a danger to the public. What had changed dramatically for the police force - with the beautifully crafted legislation designed by Henry Labouchere  and the head of Scotland Yard - was that you could be imprisoned for being an homosexual merely on the suspicion of any person who wanted to go and point the finger at you at the police station. They used pretty policemen as snares and the arrest rate for cottaging shot up by 300% in three years.

One of the greatest legacies we have is that thousands of lesbians and gays came through the doors of the GLF. They might have been involved for a while and later not, but then when the AIDS pandemic hit, there were already groups of friends in place, well connected, especially in the health services and activists who had the balls to stand out to the medical professionals and doctors and ask: Why are you doing this? What’s really happening? Who’s doing the research? That was brilliant.


Although the women had walked out of the GLF because they were sick of men’s misogyny and sexism (coming back at the first march came under their own banner of Women’s Gay Liberation), they forgot all about that in order to help the gay men who were sick. The women were key in nursing and looking after people. For the separatist women, their biggest legacy was Green and Common because it was through their strength that eventually the Americans pulled out. Those women are recognised today but it was on the basis of not having men in the room, every woman wants to be able to speak to their sisters without being interrupted by some man!

How useful is it for brands, businesses and organisations to engage with LGBTQ+ creators and activists, as Begg x Co and QUEERCIRCLE are doing?

To be honest, I don’t really know. Last night I had the pleasure of talking to the Stonewall Ambassadors. With me there was Valentino Vecchietti who designed the new flag that includes intersex people. He was telling us that he gave the files away and just distributed them so that groups all over could replicate the flag but that he himself didn’t have any funding or assistance. He was delighted that the Regent Street association had put up a hundred of his flags but here he was telling us about his struggle. He does need some funding and to promote and extend the reach of explaining intersex diversity and the campaign to stop parents making decisions on their children’s bodies, chopping their life up physically. I don’t know how you do it but the need is there.


QUEERCIRCLE is very good and so was the dinner I was recently at with Begg x Co, who is donating money and forming a caring community. Care is really important now. Care is now seen by many writers – Olivia Lang, Maggie Smith – as a form of freedom and I think it is really good. Out of caring can maybe come the financing of projects like this that we are doing today. On those levels, I think that it is a really good way forward.


When you say corporate, I begin to shrivel up in but if they want to do something maybe it should be the LGBTQ+ groups in their organisations. I don’t know how that can work within companies that are creating disgraces all over the world, whether these companies would allow for their employees to raise money for LGBTQ+ causes. But for others it would be a good idea to get all the LGBTQ+ members in the company to positively influence their finance departments and tell them what they could do.


The reach is everywhere, we are everywhere, so drawing on that fact could help finance a lot more in our community.


What would you like to see happen in the future amongst the LGBTQ+ movement?

Solidarity. More love. More respect for each other. Seeing the differences as advantages and not as distractions or an opportunity to be special and unique and step outside.

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UK’s first Pride march, Begg x Co has once again teamed up with LGBTQ+ organisation QUEERCIRCLE, this time on a capsule collection of lightweight summer scarves. Proceeds from this unique partnership will support the organisation’s ambitious LGBTQ+ arts, culture and social action programmes.

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