Cardiff University in the February Sunshine.
Cardiff University in the February Sunshine.

A few months ago, now, I posted a few blogs dealing with the question of Welsh tolerance of minorities – particularly sexual minorities – and how this might place the events depicted in Pride in a different light to what might otherwise have been expected of a “mining community” (by which is usually meant a hard-nosed, single-minded working-class kind of a place – meant, of course, by people who haven’t grown up in such a community). Now that we’re in to February, the more eagle-eyed readers based here in the United Kingdom may have noticed a few more rainbow flags dotted around public buildings – a sign that we’ve also entered LGBT history month. This year it’s the 10th anniversary of the festival in the UK and the 21st anniversary of its foundation in the United States. These are quite significant landmarks and it’s a sign of the growing importance of this aspect of the past that two important books are on their way as well – Helen Smith’s analysis of same-sex desire in the industrial north of England and Jeff Meek’s history of Scotland (both in Palgrave’s Sexualities series). Wales seems to be a little left behind at the moment, although part of my current research is focused on a similar recovery of masculinities in industrial South Wales.

Today’s blog draws on that research and takes a more in-depth look at the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when the modern equal rights campaigns really came into being in Wales, with a particular emphasis on Cardiff. It’s worth admitting that, as all historians do, my research into this, rather neglected aspect of Welsh history, has led me to reconsider precisely what can be utilised as sources for the contemporary past. Previously I’d only really looked at the Campaign for Homosexuality Equality (CHE) microfilms that were created by Harvester Press in the late-1970s (and extended up to about 1983), which detail the growth of the gay rights campaign in Wales only in the very broadest terms – they did not offer the ‘voices’ of those involved, for instance – and are quite functional in their bureaucracy. Given the marginality of Wales to CHE’s activities, it’s not surprising that these are quite limited sources and, in any case, my interest was really on LGSM and its relationship with Dulais so I could afford for it to be a few footnotes. As my interest has widened, however, I’ve been forced to think again.

Knowing that both CHE and GLF had good relations with the local universities, this was my first port of call. University archives are not always the most straightforward things to navigate – what has survived can sometimes be very partial and certain periods in the institution’s life are better represented than others. Student records, particularly those from Student Unions, it must be said, have tended to survive rather poorly. Cardiff is not so different from the wider trend in this regard but what exists happens to be rather valuable: the student press. In 1971, in one of the first articles published in the Cardiff student press about homosexuality – and certainly the fullest and most open up to that point – one student described the work of GLF in providing a place to meet and to feel comfortable without having to attend the city’s ‘one or two gay bars’ which were ‘little more than cattle markets: everyone knows you are there to pick someone up – but it’s secret and shameful’. Back then, GLF’s Cardiff headquarters were located on Charles Street – at number 58 to be exact – providing a continuity with today’s vibrant gay scene which is broadly focused on that part of the city. 1971 also saw GLF attend the university’s fresher’s fayre for the first time. It was a muted experience: ‘we were met by an almost unrelieved blaze of apathy’ – although a handful of people joined up and ‘several … circuited the stand several times’. But it was a start. This pioneering student activist concluded that:

By means of the underground press Cardiff GLF is known everywhere. Except, of course, in Cardiff.

Two years later, the NUS Easter Conference overwhelmingly committed itself to gay rights and to the establishment of GaySocs at its member institutions – the card vote was over 360,000 in favour and around 10,000 against. This commitment from students made the NUS the largest single pro-gay rights organisation in the UK. Cardiff’s SU reacted pretty quickly. In mid-May, 1973, UCC’s GaySoc had its first meeting (held at the Chapter Arts Centre in Canton) and maintained strong links with the CHE branch which also met at Chapter. This version of GaySoc survived through the 1970s until 1980, when it ceased to exist. A second society, known for a period as Lambda, was founded in 1981, however.

It is worth pausing here, very briefly, to reflect on the significance of Chapter to the emergence of Cardiff’s gay subculture in this period. Chapter was founded by Christine Kinsey, Bryan Jones, and Mik Flood, and the centre opened at the old Canton High School in 1971. The idea for an arts space for the city was first discussed by the trio in December 1968, but, as is always the case with these things, the idea took time to develop into its full form. As an arts space, rather than a pub or a club, Chapter provided the safe, nourishing environment that members of CHE and the university GaySoc were looking for. This was not uncontroversial, as Kinsey recalled, ‘we sometimes attracted hostile press coverage’, but it was important nevertheless. Unfortunately, in the absence of a publically-accessible archive for Chapter, relatively little can be said at the moment on this particular aspect. Hopefully, in the near future, this will change.

Now, to turn our attention back to Cathays! In 1980 we find another important article in the student newspaper, Gair Rhydd (Free Word). In a strong echo of the aims of LGSM, one member of GaySoc wrote of how ‘we are fighting back […] fighting the Tory cuts and racism, fighting the threat of nuclear holocaust and the oppression of women’. To be an activist for the rights of one minority was, rightly so, to be an activist for the rights of all. Another voice, this time from a second year student, provides a rather different view of what life was like for young gay people in the early years of Thatcherism. Arriving at Cardiff, he hoped to find university would be ‘a liberal society free from social labels, a time to find out about yourself’ but instead found that there was a ‘general anti-gay feeling’. He continues:

If I went into the Dyfed bar on a Wednesday night and announced I was gay, I’d expect to be laid into.

Of course, the student environment did provide some safety – he was less likely to run into members of the National Front, as could happen in central Cardiff. Several students from the Welsh College of Music and Drama, for example, had been ‘beaten up by thugs’ when they were out at night in the city centre. Nor were gay people the only ones who faced discrimination in central Cardiff in those years – racism was a particular problem, as was sexism. An instructive examination of the pubs and clubs of Cardiff can be found in the pages of Ar Dâf, the student magazine of the Welsh-speaking Students Union. The Matisse club, for example, was denounced as ‘a sexist place: it costs more for women to get in. No jeans’ [translation], the George pub was apparently ‘full of posers’, and The Conway full of ‘y crachach Cymraeg’ (that is, the self-appointed elite – crachach doesn’t quite translate). That was in 1983 by which time the magazine was also comfortable with advertising the King’s Cross, one of Cardiff’s most famous gay pubs.

The following year was one of quite considerable change. In March 1984, a poll of Cardiff students found that 44% of them felt the Conservative Party the best party in the country and 32% saw Margaret Thatcher as their current political icon (Gair Rhydd joked that Cardiff was probably the only Tory SU in the country in 1984), the outbreak of the miners’ strike saw a decided radicalisation of parts of the student body and by 1985 the SU had turned back to Labour. Amongst the most vocal students of this period was Tim Foskett, a psychology undergraduate, whose activism provides a nice coda to today’s blog. Foskett was an active member of the Lesbian and Gay Society at Cardiff through his undergraduate years (according to his biography in Gair Rhydd, that is!) and in 1985 took on the role of co-ordinator of the first Gay Pride march in Cardiff. It is, I think, symptomatic of the value of the university environment and a fulfilment of the  aspirations of those who stood on the GLF stall in 1971 or who helped form GaySoc in 1973 that Cardiff’s Pride March began as an initiative from the student body. It was in this period, too, that Peter Tatchell came to address Cardiff students for the first time – rather in contrast to a decade earlier when Enoch Powell had been amongst the most frequent visitors. Things were, then, changing and changing for the better.

For those keen to learn more about LGBT history, particularly here in Wales, the Glamorgan Archives are running an event on 14th February. The details of this can be found here.