Bethnal Rouge was a gay bookshop/commune opened in 1973 by a group of ‘radical femme acid queens’ – a group of gender-nonconformist queers, who emerged from the London Gay Liberation Front (GLF).
The Bethnal Rouge collective had to some extent evolved from the loose group of radical drag queens that had coagulated as members of the GLF, some of who had been living communally since early 1972 in various parts of London.
London Gay Liberation Front had been born in late 1970 (inspired by GLF’s birth in New York) and had rapidly become a large and brilliantly confrontational movement in the capital, which spread throughout the country in the next couple of years. But it was always a diverse and to some extent fractious alliance. If gay men and lesbians had initially been united in fighting the massive social prejudice and violence against them all, divisions soon opened up, as the women’s liberation movement blossomed, and the male dominance in the ‘liberation’ front became a major issue. But other bones of contention was whether a class-based evolution was the first priority, as an immediate need that would help sort everyone’s sexual oppression out (er, eventually), and if liberation was what people were fighting for – for many was it acceptance and assimilation into straight society, recognised as gay but equal?
The GLF became gradually fragmented, between a number of fractions – groups aligned for a while who in time discovered political and social differences that in the end led them in different directions. Lesbians eventually got pissed off with male dominance in GLF; varying left, Marxist and anarchist influences produced their own splinters. The movement as a whole had also always united political action with a massive personal and sexual flowering that attracted both people interested only in their own sexual adventures and those who thought sexual adventures and living arrangements could be the basis of an overturning of heterosexual and homophobic social structures.
The queens who founded Bethnal Rouge had been among the faction called ‘Radical Feminists’ in frustration by their GLF critics, (confusingly this label was applied to the men in drag, and should not be confused with the more usual use of Radical Feminists). They had broadly allied with lesbians in GLF in opposition to the more ‘straight’ gay activists who dominated GLF meetings in the early days, but as GLF grew, sections split off and local groups proliferated, the ‘Radical Feminist’ drag queens came to be one of the most vocal and eventually dominant factions in GLF in London, though their confrontational all-out assault on hetero-capitalist society was not universally popular in the gay movement and could freak newcomers and tentative young gay folk somewhat…
“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)”.
“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)”.
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.
However the RadFems also demonstrated against the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, (mostly on the basis of what they saw as the middle class nature of the Spare Rib collective) 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.
In July 1972 a group of the most radical drag queens were renting a house in Athlone Road, off Tulse Hill in Brixton, and got into a barney with some local somewhat homophobic kids from Tulse Hill School, who had attacked their house. This resulted in about 30 of the queens and friends ‘invading’ the school to hand out leaflets. Julian Hows, later a leading light of Bethnal Rouge, was an already out pupil, who had been suspended from Tulse Hill and had got involved with the commune.
From Brixton, the commune moved to the then slightly more gay-friendly Notting Hill, to set up in Colville Terrace and then nearby Colville Houses. The main GLF meetings had started to fall apart as various factions argued and moved off in different political directions. The queens had clashed with other groupings over their insistence on personal liberation, with a lifestyle-oriented, but confrontational, all out, in your face. This ended in head-on clashes with those who saw themselves as more practical, such as the GLF office collective.
“There was a very strong movement against monogamy, couples were really uncool. Because everybody wanted to have sex with everybody! But politically, we were breaking up the nuclear family and we were not going to have any ersatz nuclear families and 1 can’t bear gay weddings. 1 think it’s disgusting! All these silly queens imitating their oppressors. Please, do something original, what is this contract, is this a business? It’s like doing a deal with someone. I think it’s really naff. Really naff. One of the great things in the commune was, it was so taboo because it was so fatal. I mean, I’ve got an eighteen‑year relationship now and it’s very different from living with a group of people. It’s very powerful, but it’s not good in a group.” (Bette Bourne)
In March, the Colville commune moved into a new home – Bethnal Rouge.
A communique announcing the birth of Bethnal Rouge was written in red pen by someone with gorgeous handwriting and ended with a kiss in a similar coloured lipstick):
‘Dear Brothers + Sisters,
Bethnal Rouge, a commune of gay people, have taken over the former Agitprop bookshop. The shop will continue with the emphasis on gay’s, women’s + children’s books and periodicals. We open up on March 1st, our hours are Mon-Sat 11am-7pm. There’s plenty of room here for people to relax, chat and have coffee, so come on round.
Love Bethnal Rouge Collective
P.S. Tube: Bethnal Green (Central) Bus: No. 8″
The radical Agitprop bookshop had moved around various parts of London for a couple of years, most recently in Bethnal Green:
“… it was this bookshop cum warehouse and you walked into a kitchen which went into open plan East End camp with a built-in bar in tacky plastic. The place had originally been owned by one of the Krays’ bankers, who was serving twenty-five years in Maidstone, and Agitprop had been very nice to his wife, who they thought got a rough deal. It was the first house I ever lived with a wall safe and we kept looking at various places for hidden money, under the floorboards and so on.” (Julian Hows)
Agitprop had faced increasing police harassment and raids, as cops more and more cracked down on the capital’s underground, anarchist and fringe left scenes in the hunt for the group of bombers who used the name the Angry Brigade. Agitprop had been raided repeatedly, two of the collective members had been arrested on firearms charges and accused of being part of the Angry Brigade, two more were threatened with deportation. The collective decided to call it a day.
“Bethnal Rouge came about through Andrew Lumsden, Richard Chappell and Steven Bradbury, who hung around together. The three of them got the building from Agitprop, in the spring of 1973. Agitprop were giving up the lease on the building and wrote to various groups offering the premises. I brought the letter back to the commune and after we decided not to move there we passed it on to Andrew and Richard. The people who went to Bethnal Rouge included Steven, Matthew Dallaway, Michael Kennedy and Margaret.”(Stuart Feather).
Andrew Lumsden recalls: “The bathroom was filled with Peanuts cartoons from the Observer. It seemed rather endearing, this in the revolutionary Agitprop premises. They were rather large, we had a bookshop on the ground floor and the publishers were very easy going about supplying books on credit. We had a till by the door and we sold some, though it never made any particular profit. We were supposed to take it in turns to run the bookshop. We painted a mural at the far end of the ground floor and upstairs we turned the living room into the same as 7a (the previous commune at Colville Houses) – drapes and hangings everywhere, mattresses strewn around the floor, and various people came to live there and visit. We used to go to the local pub which was staggered by these drag queens turning up, but it was a standard cockney pub, they had a piano and they liked to have a singsong and quite a lot of the people in the commune were very good at sing songs, so that made us reasonably popular and we spent quite a lot of dole money on there, so that was all right… We even took the door off the loo because we didn’t believe in privacy, everything had to be done in public. I left eventually because of the heavy drug use in there. Lots of heavy straight men began coming round…”
The Bethnal Rougers lost little time ‘integrating’ into local life: “I managed the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop in Bethnal Green under a false name. I went along for a part-time job and became the manager in weeks because it was two queens who were brothers who were running it and took a shine to me. So we managed it and the rest of the staff left because they couldn’t cope with me, and the whole of Bethnal Rouge tried to manage it. We were making an awful lot of money because we were going across the road to Tesco’s and buying cases of chicken, cutting them up and using Colonel Sanders names to pull the punters.” (Julian Hows)
[Bethnal Rouge could clearly teach KFC of 2018 a bit about management and ensuring chicken supplies… Ed].
Life in the commune was generally chaotic, by all accounts, with people arriving and hanging around and departing constantly, and (presumably, though not mentioned) a fair amount of sex going on.
A special Bethnal Rouge issue of the GLF new-sheet in June 1973 contained a spoof, but clearly not completely inaccurate, diary of life in the commune-bookshop:
‘Doin’ the Bethnal Rouge
6am – we go to bed; except Nicole who gets up and Geoffrey who rises for his bath.
9am – forget to put the dustbins out, Michael turns off central heating. Open door to sunroof – going to be blazing hot day.
10am – 33 unknowns appear from bed for breakfast. Matthew makes station hotel breakfast for 85.
11am – man turns on hot water system; Lydia looks for her giro; Andrew can’t find the Wall Street Journal.
12am – forgotten to open the shop; huge queue – oh they’re waiting for the bus. Lydia quieter.
1.00– cocktails and California beachwear on roof; social security visitor expected; gramophone red hot.
2.00 – shop opened; thermostat mad for 4th week: can only have jot water if central heating at full blast; fat visitor melts.
3.00- we’ve forgotten to buy food for supper. Remember its early closing. [For you young’uns, in the 1970s Wednesday used to be early closing day, when shops would shut early. Like all shops. You were buggered if you had run out of milk.]
4.00- Michael turns off central heating. Lydia turns off SS visitor.
5.00- everybody awake. Man puts on hot water & accordingly central heating.
5.30 – the party continues. Somebody steals £50. Richard starts getting supper together from somewhere – Michael makes salad from unpaid bills.
6.00 – cocktails on the sun roof. Someone steals £40 & the green shield stamps. Gramophone explodes.
7.00 – guests arrive. Full meeting of commune efficiently deals in quarter of an hour with all practical and emotional problems.
8.00 – do bookstall at GLF meeting. The men state thinking about sex. Central heating explodes. One million for supper.
10.00 – somebody steals the furniture; we get thrown out of Tricky Dicky’s disco.
12pm – somebody steals Bethnal Rouge; we go to sleep in the dustbins’
(the following week somebody slyly added a missing footnote:
‘8pm – Margaret also thinks about sex – then does the washing up.’
If, like your editor here, you have spent time in the fun hinterland where squat lifestyle rebellion meets activism, you may fondly recognise the dynamics here… There’s no denying the fun to be had, but if you have also been there trying to run an anarchist bookshop with chaos, partying and infuriating dithering going off (and yes, also combined with the kind of technical issues with power, heating etc… if only we had had fucking central heating at our place however… some days it was too cold to open and we held meetings in the pub up Railton Road.)
The setting up of Bethnal Rouge coincided with the fragmentation of the main London Gay Liberation Front group, which had been slowly drifting apart for months, but now imploded. The queens, of whom Bethnal Rouge might be said to be the focal point, and the GLF office collective, based at the Housmans Bookshop, 5a Caledonian Road, represented two increasingly at odds poles in the gay activist scene.
The office collective felt they did all the real work and were ignored or unappreciated; some of he other folk hanging on in GLF thought the office collective were too allied to what they called ‘straight gays’, activists in name, but aspiring for a kind of respectable equality and a niche in hierarchical fucked-up old society. The queens didn’t want ‘equality’ and acceptance, they wanted to tear the whole structure down and were out to provoke and experiment with new forms of living. Bethnal Rouge and the office collective fought constantly in the weekly meetings (by now held at Conway Hall), through leaflets and the pages of the GLF newssheet. In August 1973, a leaflet was issued denouncing the office collective:
“It’s happened again. The MEN have: formed a GROUP…. Took over the CAPITOL (our office) – started to make rules for others than themselves… printed PROPAGANDA on a newssheet… took complete control of PUBLIC property… THE SAME OLD RITUAL… wot next? Forms in triplicate, secretaries, candidates for parliament???? … The office collective say ‘ALMOST’ anyone can join. I don’t want to ‘join’ anything, so apparently I can no longer use ‘our’ office… and of course ALL the GLF mail and expressed opinion is now to be answered by the MEN from the Stone Age, men who don’t sue their own minds, but copy all the mistakes MEN have made since the world began. I don’t want to stop them using OUR office, but I and perhaps others expect to be able to sue it as well without ‘joining’ anything.”
Whether this leaflet issued from a Bethnal Rouger or not, shortly after this, a proposal to move the GLF office to Bethnal Rouge was discussed at the end of September 1973, but nothing decided. The next morning the Bethnal Rougers took direct action, staging a raid on the office in Housmans, attempting to seize as much GLF material as they could, and a physical struggle ensued. Julian Hows, Stuart Feather and Richard Chappell of Bethnal Rouge were involved. Office collective worker (and longtime Housmans Bookshop worker) David ‘Max’ McLellan, (RIP you mad old tankie!), summed it up thus: “I remember fighting with Julian Hows over a pile of [GLF] manifestos. Julian lost.” However, the Rougers did apparently depart with lots of the office bumf…
The office collective’s view of the raid summed up the now crevassic difference of opinion now polarising gay activism; but also starkly illustrates two views of how you change the world. Which if we’re honest, both have something going for them:
‘And on the Third Day They Came’
Last Wednesday morning, Stuart Feather, Richard and half a dozen others arrived at the elegant and well appointed 5 Caledonian Road and loaded everything into a truck, including the worldly possessions of some of the members of the office collective, tore everything off the walls and generally caused as much indigestion as can be caused by that number of people at that time of the morning. Cherubim, hearken unto your fairy godmother, the place looked like Cinderella’s coach at two after midnight.
That, apart with getting foot and fist heavy with odd peaceful people standing around or offering oral objection, was what happened. Why is a much more difficult question to answer. At the all London meeting at the Conway Hall the previous evening the possibility of moving the office from 5 Caledonian Road had been discussed, but naturally, the all London meeting being the all London meeting, no decision had been taken. And indeed, 5 Caledonian Road does not exist only for the benefit of London, so presumably the forty five other GLFs should have had some say in the matter, but a small group of people in GLF have got themselves so liberated that they have now gone a complete circle and adopted the methods of our flat-footed brothers. [The cops, ed]. This incident is merely the cumulation of two months of bickering, internecine warfare, and general nastiness which has driven people away from the meetings at Conway Hall, wasted the efforts of the offive collective and of the Bethnal Rouge Commune so that nothing has been done to further the liberation of London at all, with the exception of two demos. Well you may ask brothers, where our communal head is at, I’ll tell you – it’s stuck between our legs, fist fucking.
In the middle of all this, why have an office at all? The process of liberation is a long and painful one which never finishes; there are people all over the country who are in various stages of the process. They need pamphlets, badges, information, contact, speakers, assurance and a voice to fill fantasies while they wank off into a public telephone booth. Laugh not, brother, for there you go. In addition, in London, there needs to be somewhere where posters can be made and stored, demos got together, and something done about turning London on. Finally there needs to be somewhere central for people all over the world to drop into when they find themselves in this big wicked city.
By whom can this function be filled? Bethnal Rouge commune is on London and has plenty of space; it has someone there almost all the time and has gay people who are trying to make a go of a totally new life style… On the other hand they are… so liberated that they can’t communicate with most of the human race, and most of the human race can’t communicate with them.
Unfortunately most gays are still members of the human race; you must remain within shouting distance of those you want to relate to. On the other hand, the office collective has been able to answer all mail, provide a reliable service as promised, pay off a lot of the debts, build up a certain amount of confidence, and pay the rent. …”
Not long after this the GLF office collective announced its effective divorce from London GLF and its re-organisation as the Gay Switchboard, which went on to do sterling work as a point of contact for gay folk from all over the place, and continues today…
Bethnal Rouge, in the meantime, claiming to be the true voice of the movement, in a ‘Court Circular’ dated October 3rd-9th, responded they had ‘not taken over the office but merely liberated it from the grip of male oppression’, branding the GLF Office Collective an ‘obscene parody of straight middleclass liberal do-gooders.’
Bethnal Rouge continued for a few months after these events.
In February 1974 Bethnal Rouge was invited by Goldsmiths College Gay Society to give a talk before their regular disco. “They were dressed for the occasion in their best Disco Diva Drag.” Whilst enjoying a pre-talk drink they were attacked by Group 4 Total Security, who worked for the College, and badly beaten up. When Lewisham police arrived sthe security 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 was evicted from 248 Bethnal Green Road.
“And we got evicted from Bethnal Rouge and lived in Parfitt Street, in one of the few back to backs left in the East End.” (Julian Hows)
Parfett Street was one of the early streets that became fully squatted in London’s East End: some of its history can be read here
The Bethnal Rouge queens continued their struggle against ‘heteronormativity’ in their own many ways… Stuart Feather, Bette Bourne and Michael James became performers (Stuart later became a painter). Andrew Lumsden later became a tour guide and a painter. Julian Hows achieved minor celebrity when he insisted on wearing female uniform when working for London Underground. He is now an Aids survivor. Stephen Bradbury and Richard Chappell died of Aids in the early 1990s.
Some of the fundamental arguments that produced Bethnal Rouge continue today, and have, if anything, gained topicality. The question of an acceptable gay culture that is benignly tolerated and smiled upon by ‘straight’ capitalist society, versus a subversive sexuality that undermines not only imposed gender roles and toxic and oppressive masculinity, but exists as part of wide movements to radically alter social and economic relations – today we live with the result of the victory of the former tendency. The influence of the radical queens who created Bethnal Rouge, as with much of the most starkly innovative theorising and experimenting of the era, has become sidelined, somewhat, in comparison to the ‘straight’ gay activism that the queens railed against. Ironically though, much of what passes for mainstream gay culture has become completely de-politicised, bound up with consumerism and craving for ‘acceptance’ and ‘normality’, when compared to the GLF era. This is of course to some extent inevitable, for social movements fighting for change: that the early flowering against hostile ‘norms’ produced radical positions, which tend to slowly fade as wider society is actually forced to accommodate the change. GLF and its ilk helped create the change that made their protests less urgent, over decades. But its also true that movements are rarely homogenous, and common interests can unite people with widely varying views or needs, which break under stress, or sometimes split as some achieve partial victories, while others in the wide movement do not. Before the Bethnal Rouge/office collective split, the first divisions in GLF emerged as lesbians protested against domination of the organisation by gay men who they saw as fundamentally seeking gains for themselves without really caring about gay women much.
Drag, of course, was as old as the hills – but even the subversive political drag had mostly dissipated in its impact by the 1990s, reclaimed by the old music hall dynamic: fun, in itself, but hardly threatening socially.
Now, with the strange permutations of queer culture and the resolution-based posturing of much of post-millennial politics, men dressing as women is often labelled as ‘cultural appropriation’ – unless you are declaring yourself as transgender, men shouldn’t be dressing in dresses. Student Unions have denounced and passed resolutions against the very idea.
For those of us coming into radical movements in the 1980s, influenced by 70s feminism, gay liberation, as well as class, race, and our own backgrounds, many of those I grew to work with felt most at home with the ideas of the radical feminists – both the drag queens and the lesbians. Gender, the expectations of behaviour and the social relations that it implied, were a social construct, born and reinforced in the power relations of men over women, but with the layered complications of class, masculinity and femininity, sexuality mixed in… we fell in behind the aim of the Bethnal Rouge queens – we wanted to help dismantle the whole social structure that imposed gender on us all. Freeing us all from power of men over women, but also from the stereotypes and narratives of what men and women do, look like, behave like, and ARE. Most of us still do (from the fleeting conversations I still have with old mates). Among other aims.
Times have moved on, as they tend to do.
These days, men who dressed and acted as the radical queens did would like as not be expected to be part of the transgender movement, in one form or another. Though this might or might not in reality reflect their actual aims. There is a strand of historical looking back that retrospectively classes many gay rebels and especially transvestites as effectively transgender… in some cases there’s a basis for that, in others without real historical justification. Often making modern assumptions for social situations that are utterly unlike our own, seeking ancestors in the past who reflect out own experience in our own times. This is a basic misunderstanding of both the nature of social change, and the vitality of the DIFFERENCE between us and those who we look to/inspire us in history. Our experiences and views are different partly BECAUSE of them and their struggles.
Transgender politics is obviously central to current hot debate. Major questions exist as to whether gender is either an inherent trait in us, fundamental to us as a person, despite the biological sex we are born into – or a socially conditioned set of attitudes, reflexes and assumptions, based in the power relations of patriarchy, capitalism and race supremacy, which we have imposed on us, more or less successfully, and which we resist and subvert…
Some of the GLF queens reputedly did transition and become women – others remained fiercely gay men, who dressed in drag to undermine the whole hetero-normative caboodle. Which represents the true tradition? Does such a thing exist?
Like the Mormons, you can try to baptise you ancestors in your image – they may refuse to stay dead and co-operative, however.
I would have liked to write more on these issues and how the history intersects with the now – but at some point you have to just post (time’s tight, and I’m supposed to be doing Proper Work etc), but comments and angry denunciations welcome. On a postcard.
Much of this post was taken from No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power. But other sources are out there.
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar
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