The 1970s was the era of the button badge. Every shade of political opinion – and apolitical social comment – found its one–line expression on a badge. The cause of Gay Liberation was no exception.
I’ve no idea what happened to my Gay Pride 75 badge or the Campaign for Homosexual Equality one that I’m sporting in the inset picture; that’s from 1976. Yes, the rather miffed looking little creature on the right is me. I had not long turned 21. On the left is Oliver Merrington, the man I left home for, and he would have been 23 at the time. We are in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament, on a Gay Pride Picnic. I have just had to take the Glad to be Gay balloon off the Burghers of Calais statue.
In my two years with Oliver, I was the first convenor of the Southwark/Lambeth group of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) – his idea, not mine – and I think the card badge is from the CHE National Council where was it was officially recognised. The organisation ran very much to the union rule–book model. The mutual friend who introduced me to Oliver had been involved in the more radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and he viewed CHE as ‘moronic’. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that CHE was regarded by some gay people as dangerously radical. We are talking about an age when staying ‘in the closet’ had a distinct appeal for many.
The message to those who could – or should – was to ‘come out’. It meant acknowledging one’s own sexuality and thus being prepared to tell everyone else. I’d started by telling my family at 18 so I had no use for the lambda pendant. (Can’t think where that came from and why it’s living in the tin with the badges.) The lambda pendant was cashing-in on the closet, in my view, because it was meant to be a subtle way of letting other similarly wary folk know that you were ‘that way inclined’.
Oliver was a big influence in my life. He had been involved in student gay groups before being involved in CHE and was always very cool and rational. As two innocents, we thought the South/Lambeth group should have some suitable tee-shirts for Gay Pride marches and local community events. The group agreed. It was only when they saw the finished product, with the words out in full
that, to our dismay, our normally supportive bunch baulked and refused to buy them. I was on a ceramics course at the time, getting through tee shirts very quickly, but we were both stuck with them for years! The story of me running the Croydon College GaySoc – something else Oliver volunteered me for – can wait for another time. …
I was completely unaware that the picture of me and Oliver had been taken until five years ago when, out of the blue, he sent it as an email attachment. Oliver had seen it flit by in a YouTube video, made by Peter Tatchell, on the history of Pride. Apparently, it was taken by a press photographer but not published.
In his email, Oliver said that in a month’s time it would be forty years… and, though we hardly ever contacted each other, I phoned him. About a month after that I had a call from his partner to say that Oliver had died suddenly: an unexpected heart attack while he was sleeping. The email attachment was lost in a computer disaster and the picture here is copied from Oliver’s obituary notice in the CHE Yearbook 2016.
The political arguments of the 1970s might seem simplistic or even embarrassing now, but, globally, prejudice and hatred haven’t changed much. I can still hear Alice of the GLF radical drag Brixton Faeries at a 70s anti-National Front demonstration yelling – an echo from an earlier era of persecution – ‘You’re not turning me into soap!’.
With all that in the background I’m convinced that it is still necessary to do more than find a flag to stand under because that flag may not always be there. After all, how is Pride ever going to reclaim the rainbow from the NHS? Society in general will not accept us as equal human beings with equal rights if we do not start, as individuals, by accepting ourselves. So don’t rely on a symbol or an acronym to define yourself, say the actual words; spell them out in full. There’s never been a better time to ‘come out’.
Peter Hitcham (February 2021)