In the online Guardian:
Mark Brown, Arts correspondent
Lancashire town a forgotten battleground for lesbian and gay rights, says playwright-in-residence for LGBT History Month
Burnley is a market town known for many things including, perhaps, its rich cotton mill history, its overachieving football team or its close proximity to the M65. But the birthplace of gay civil rights in the UK?
“Given my role, if anyone should have known about this I guess it should have been me, ” said Stephen M Hornby, who has been playwright-in-residence for LGBT History Month since 2014. “I was completely blown away when I was told all of these stories.”
There are two little known events from the 1970s which give the Lancashire town ammunition to be known as a forgotten battleground for lesbian and gay rights.
Both are to be dramatised in plays being performed in Burnley this month to mark the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, the landmark moment when private homosexual acts between men over 21 in England and Wales were decriminalised.
The first tells the story of a transformative public meeting held in Burnley Central Library in 1971; while the second is a story from 1978 of a bus driver sacked for wearing a “Lesbian Liberation” badge.
Hornby has written The Burnley Buggers’ Ball which tells the first story of the meeting, one subsequently described by the last gay rights campaigner Allan Horsfall as being the birthplace of gay civil rights in the UK.
“At that meeting and in that moment everything changed,” said Hornby. “And yet we know nothing about it. It is an amazing, desperately important event and yet I was completely ignorant and have had to start from scratch.”
One negative consequence of the 1967 act was that police raided and tried to close down gay venues. That led Horsfall to have the idea of establishing gay membership clubs, called Esquire clubs, modelled on northern working men’s clubs.
Horsfall and fellow members of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality repeatedly failed in their attempts before gaining permission to open a club in Pendle Co-operative Society. That led to a furore – one councillor fumed “we’ll have no buggers’ ball in Burnley” – and culminated in the public meeting.
During the dramatisation of the heated meeting, one speaker says “we are talking as if there are only two gay men in Burnley and five in Lancashire … I want every gay man in the room to stand up”. At the time, gradually two-thirds of the room stood up.
“That is the moment they realised they had power and civil rights,” said Hornby.
No Esquire club was created in Burnley, or indeed anywhere else, but the meeting had an effect. “The triumph of the meeting was people walking away with a feeling that if we work collectively, if we can mobilise, we can bring about change and have the same rights,” said Hornby.
The second story has been adapted by Abi Hynes into Burnley’s Lesbian Liberator. It tells the story of Mary Winter, a bus driver sacked for wearing a “Lesbian Liberation” badge, worn partly because she was fed up getting hassle from male passengers.
The bus company ordered her to stop wearing it. She refused and, after getting no support from her union, the TGWU, she mobilised women’s groups from across the UK and staged a demonstration outside the company offices in Burnley.
Winter also loses her battle but, in a way, that is irrelevant, said Hornby. “It is the first time in both cases that people are effectively drawing a line in the ground and saying you are wrong, you should not cross this line.
“Putting it simply, they lost the battle so that we could win the wars.”
Hornby and his company, Inkbrew Productions, have attempted to track down Winter but have been unsuccessful so far. “We’ve done the obvious and we can’t find her but she may still be around and it would be amazing to find her. We’ll have another go … she’ll be guest of honour,” he said.
The plays in Burnley will be a highlight of the annual LGBT History Month in February. Its founder and chair, Sue Sanders, said both events are important. “These are moments of resistance, of self-assertion and collective organisation.
“These are the moments when we as a community first stood up in public and said, ‘No’. Our work is to unbury these stories that prove that as a community we have been active, aware and clear about the work that needs to be done to ensure both individual rights and civil rights.”
The TV writer Russell T Davies is a patron and supporter of the project. He said: “This is precisely what LGBT History Month should be doing, uncovering hidden history, finding great stories and bringing them to life again for new audiences. And who knew they’d both be about Burnley!
“It’s marvellous to think of this mill town in east Lancashire being the centre of the struggle for UK gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s.”
The plays will be performed as a double bill, beginning at Burnley Central Library, on 18 and 25 February. They will also be staged at the Martin Harris Centre, Manchester, on 24 February, and at the Sexing the Past conference in Liverpool on 4 March.