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07 February 2011

The Radical Feminists and Bethnal Rouge

One of the threads in London Gay Liberation in the early 1970s was Radical Feminism (not to be confused with the Radical Feminism of the 1980s), and in fact it was not a self-chosen name:
"We didn't take the label radfems. It got thrown at us one night in an argument … 'You radical femme acid queens!' … it was something from outside. We never used words like that. We would say 'get a frock on dear' whenever they were ranting away.(Bette Bourne quoted in Power: 273)".
"It started with jellabas and kaftans and long hair and flowers ... then we discovered glitter … and then nail varnish. Later, some of of us – a quarter of the men, I'd say, at some time or other – would get a nice new frock for the next Gay Lib dance. Then a few people began wearing it to meetings. It just evolved (Michael James quoted in Kirk: 96)".
It then became street theatre, notably the Miss Trial demo outside the Old Bailey in support of the women who were on trial for disrupting the Miss World contest, and then the disruption of the 1971 Christian Festival of Light. Some GLF queens wore drag because it felt right, some for fun and some for political reasons.

Generally the queens were living in communal squats and in poverty in Brixton and in Notting Hill, and wore drag all day every day. They aligned themselves with lesbians against the masculine gay men who were dominating the GLF meetings. When the women finally split from GLF in February 1972, the Rad Fems began to dominate at the All-London meetings at All Saints Hall in Powis Square, which was a bit intimidating for newcomers.

However the RadFems also demonstrated against the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, which allowed The Sunday Times to run an article on the irony of feminist men telling women how they should behave. The fledging Gay News used this to disassociate from what they referred to as 'fascists in frocks'. The initial issues of Gay News were hostile to GLF in general and even more so to the queens.

The official first gay pride march in London was the Carnival Parade on 1 July 1972. However a few days earlier, GLF had been allocated a timeslot with the Boilermakers Union to picket the US Embassy about what they were doing to Vietnam. Only the Radfems turned up, a band was playing, and Bette Bourne and Michael James started a waltz. The US school band packed up in a fit of pique. The queens sauntered off and ended up at Piccadilly Circus. The police asked where they, the queens and the rent boys, intended to go, and said they would escort the march which went via Oxford Street to Hyde Park.

By late 1973 the movement was almost over. Some of the surviving RadFems took over the anarchist Agitprop bookshop/commune at 248 Bethnal Green Road, which at one time had been owned by a banker to the Kray Brothers gang, and had a wall safe. Agitprop had been raided twice by the police in the two years that it had been open, and two of its members were on conspiracy-to-procure-firearms charges.

Agitprop had already sponsored the East London GLF and now the queens took over and renamed the building Bethnal Rouge. They actually continued the bookshop for several months. The local pub was freaked out when they first arrived, but as some of them could play piano, and others were good at singing, there was some degree of acceptance.

Bette Bourne did not join, being from the East End and not wishing to return. Michael James went to Amsterdam for a year. Andrew Lumsden left his job as a financial journalist at The Times and joined the commune; Julian Hows, expelled from school for his GLF activities, ended up managing the local Kentucky Fried Chicken but buying their chickens from the Tesco's supermarket across the street; Stephen Bradbury had walked away from a job at Midland Bank to join the queens when they lived in Notting Hill; Stuart Feather, one of the early queens, was involved.

By this time the GLF Office Collective, at 5 Caledonian Road, in the basement of Housemans Bookshop, had been taken over by a clique that was allied with the early Gay News but out of touch with the rest of Gay Lib. In October 1973 the Bethnal Rouge queens raided the office and took the files. Gay News responded with an article that went so far as equate drag queens and violence. However at the last GLF Think In at Sussex University that November opinions were more on the side of Bethnal Rouge, and that the Office Collective had ceased to be useful.

In February 1974 Bethnal Rouge was invited by Goldsmith College Gay Soc to give a Pre-Disco talk. Group 4 Total Security working for the College attacked them before they even spoke, and when Lewisham police arrived they were told that Bethnal Rouge had come to the disco to cause trouble. One queen needed hospital treatment; another who was head butted and lost two front teeth. One was arrested and later that night thrown through a glass door in the police station. The rest escaped. Shortly afterwards the commune were evicted from 248 Bethnal Green Road.
Julian Hows. P185 in It's Not Unusual' by Alkarim Jivani

I don't know of any of the Radical Feminists who later became women. Stuart Feather, Bette Bourne and Michael James became performers maintaining the spirit of Gay Liberation. Stuart later became a painter. Alaric Sumner became known as a poet. Cloud Downey works in theatre. Andrew Lumsden later became a tour guide and a painter. Julian Hows was in the press when he insisted on wearing the female uniform when working for London Underground, and is now an Aids survivor. Stephen Bradbury and Richard Chappel died of Aids in the early 1990s.  Some of these are featured in Kirk & Heath's Men in Frocks.

I arrived in London in April 1972 and started going to West London GLF in July, and later switched to South London GLF.  Power's book is basically the history of the all-London GLF  which I never actually went to, and thus never met, as far as I remember, any of the people mentioned above, although I certainly do remember meeting other people mentioned in Power's book, and bedded at least one of them.  They and I were probably at, at least some, of the same Gay Lib Dances, when I was just building up confidence to go out as female.  I certainly did not have the confidence to join a drag commune.

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