The 50th anniversary of the first LGBTQ+ stall at the Cambridge University Students’ Freshers’ Fair 1972

On one of the little-known areas of our city’s social history that involved many brave pioneers at a time homophobia was institutionalised. However, I am not the person experienced or qualified to tell that story.

It’s a social history that I know very little of, even though I lived through the 1980s and 1990s. Much of this was due to being of the Section 28 generation of school children, and furthermore being in a church-going family throughout my childhood. Finally, my generation was the last generation to go to school without the internet being around. It was only when I got to university in 1999 when I left Cambridge for Brighton that using the internet on a daily basis (to check emails from course teachers and societies amongst other things we were told) that it became one of many huge changes that you experience when you move to a new place.

It was only after I had left home that I found out about all the things school had not taught us, and why – and the influence of both party politics and religion on education policy. It was only through my more recent study of local history that I found out the battles for more progressive teaching on all things sex and relationship education was something that dated back far longer than I had originally assumed. The huge legislative changes made by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government in the 1960s (including the abolition of capital punishment, the easing of laws relating to same sex relationships, and on abortion) collectively both had a big impact on, and reflected the changes already happening in society during that decade. Hence the official publications of the era are useful for social and local historians as a starting point to look at how the changes in law affected individual towns and cities. Hence I digitised the Handbook of Health Education from 1968. Even just looking at the contents pages can be enough to highlight areas of future historical research.

Above – from the Handbook of Health Education (1968) by HMSO – what has changed or advanced since this book was published? What has remained the same?

The first LGBTQ+ students stall at the University of Cambridge students’ fair

What makes this event in our local history ever so significant is that it happened only five years after the change in the law.

“In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act was passed which decriminalised private homosexual acts between men aged over 21, while at the same time imposing heavier penalties on street offences.”

UK Parliament – Living Heritage

Tuesday 03 October 1972 – the first stall at the Societies’ Fair

It was a small article on the front page of the Cambridge Evening News – digitised here by the British Newspaper Archive, which I’ve screengrabbed below.

Above – from the British Newspaper Archive here.

One of the leading campaigners in Cambridge was Bernard Greaves of the Liberal Party

“Greaves was the first openly gay man to hold national office in a UK political party. His influence and example were the most important reasons why the Young Liberals and the Liberal Party accepted not just the formal case for law reform but the reality of openly gay lifestyles in a normal social and political setting.”

Liberal History – Bernard Greaves

Pat Jones’ name also comes up – not one I’d spotted before in my local history research. Her name comes up as one of the organisers of local meetings in Cambridge, such as this one from the November 1972 edition of Gay News.

Above – from Gay News 1972 in the Gay News Archive

The following year in 1973, the student society found itself back-to-back with the Cambridge Intercollegiate Christian Union – the latter objecting to the former putting posters up on the reverse of their boards. Their objections were overruled.

Above – from the Cambridge Evening News 10 Oct 1973 in the British Newspaper Archive

The article reflects the tone of the media coverage as much as the institutions of the time. At the same time we are also reminded of how some things never change – staff shortages at Addenbrooke’s!

Above – from the same page of the Cambridge Evening News. “Local MP meets with Minister for Health over staff shortages at Addenbrooke’s” – I wonder how many times that has happened over the half-century or so that has since passed.

The opportunities for local historical research

There are a number of lines of research that students, researchers, and interested people can undertake using resources that even a few years ago we did not have. For me, the recent digitisation of the editions of the Cambridge Evening News from 1969-99 in the British Newspaper Archive (which most schools, colleges, universities, and public libraries should have free access to on their organisations’ services) means we can undertake keyword searches that in times gone by would have taken far, far longer.

Trigger Warning

The language used in some of the exchanges in the letters pages is one that many of today’s readers will find shocking, offensive, and abusive. And reading some of it will be painful emotionally. Even as a straight male adult I found some of the sentiments expressed by people identifying as Christians of whichever denomination to be something which I struggle to understand. Yet it serves as a reminder of the huge social and structural barriers that equalities campaigners in that still recent era of history faced.

There is also the Gay News Archive which was established in 2016 – so around the time I started this local history blog. Which reflects the nature of this blog as an ongoing piece of research rather than a completed book. In that regard readers and followers of this blog get to read the new re-discoveries (I call them that because these are things that people knew about at the time (especially in newspapers) but inevitably got lost to the sands of time) not long after I have stumbled across them.

Cambridgeshire County Council’s Library Service

Their online catalogue is leading with LGBTQ+ month

Furthermore, if you go into the Cambridgeshire Collection on the third floor of Cambridge Central Library in Lion Yard, archivists over the years have collated leaflets and files deposited by people into a local studies file which you can access to read inside the collection.

Above in the Cambridgeshire Collection

And finally… …a project to interview the campaigners and people who lived through those difficult decades in the 20th Century?

This is one of a number of areas where I don’t feel that I should be the person to research and tell the story – because it’s not my story to tell. Furthermore, my experience of the last two decades of the 20th Century was one shaped by institutions that actively kept me ignorant in the literal sense (“lacking knowledge and awareness of…”) of the huge changes happening at the time. For example as a teenager in the mid-1990s, we were aware of the Dot Cotton club (which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021) but there was no acknowledgement in school or wider society beyond the basics of sexual health of a community of people who every month would rock up to a club night in my childhood neighbourhood throughout my entire teenage years.

Also founded during the 1990s was the Kite Club – now the Kite Trust.

“The Kite Trust was founded in 1993 by a small group of dedicated and committed local people from all walks of life. From our formation we were known as The Kite Club, and from 2003 as SexYOUality. We were established to support lesbian, gay and bisexual young people aged under 25 in Cambridge.”

The Kite Trust

A decade prior to that, Centre 33 was established off Parker’s Piece

I only found out about Centre 33 in 2002 because I walked past their front door on a rainy day a few weeks after graduating, wondering what to do with my life. I only went in because the door was open. It was then that I kicked myself for not having found out about them nearly a decade earlier – what a huge difference it would have made to my experience of that difficult decade.

I still struggle to understand why institutions would want to educate children to be ignorant of the world that they live in, and will grow up to become active citizens in. Part of it reflects my own history of growing up in South Cambridge which was a very different place culturally to what it is for today’s teenagers – not least because in those times I was often the only visibly non-White child in my class at primary school, and maybe one of less than five at secondary school. Therefore issues such as racism were never discussed as social issues – and so inevitably we never had any group or organisations to talk things over with, mindful that in the 1990s the worst of John Major’s austerity was really kicking in. Hence why some of the newspaper headlines and articles from that time are heartbreaking for me to read because our generation deserved so much better than what we got from the politicians of the day.

The risk that we lose these important local histories

In the 1990s I remember describing the cultural life for us teenagers as ‘stale’. In the quarter of a century that has followed, Cambridge has both expanded and experienced an increase in the turnover of its population. You only have to hear of the experiences of those who grew up in Cambridge who talk of how they can no longer afford to live in our city so inevitably move out and commute in, or move away altogether. There is also a growing number of adults who never move out of their childhood homes because they cannot afford to on their incomes, or who like me boomeranged back after time away for example at university or working in another city/country. Hence why I hope people from Cambridge University’s well-connected networks will be able to work with the Museum of Cambridge – the museum of our city and surrounding district’s social history, to get some outside funding for what for me is still a little-told but very important part of the making of our modern city.

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