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'Highbury Fields gay rights demo was a watershed moment': Islington Museum to set up first LGBT archive

PUBLISHED: 10:58 10 October 2016 | UPDATED: 11:16 10 October 2016

A collage of photographs from the first gay rights rally in Highbury Fields, 1971. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

A collage of photographs from the first gay rights rally in Highbury Fields, 1971. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

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A new LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) archive is being created in Islington. It is fitting in a borough steeped with LGBT heritage, the Gazette discovers.

Plaque to commemorate first gay rights demo in Britain, Highbury Fields. Picture: John Levin/Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0Plaque to commemorate first gay rights demo in Britain, Highbury Fields. Picture: John Levin/Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0

As the setting to some of the most important LGBT events in British history, it feels appropriate – and some would say about time – that the town hall is setting up Islington’s first LGBT archive.

On Monday, the council launched an appeal for people to scour their homes for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender memorabilia – from photos to posters to flyers – to build the archive, which is likely to be housed at Islington Museum in St John Street.

With Islington’s rich history promoting the LGBT cause, this shouldn’t be too difficult.

Pride parades are today an annual occurence in towns and cities across the UK. And that is partly thanks to the 150 brave campaigners who held Britain’s first ever gay rights protest in November 1970 – in Highbury Fields.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell: 'Highbury Fields emboldened people'. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA ArchiveGay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell: 'Highbury Fields emboldened people'. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Archive

The torchlight rally was organised by the Gay Liberation Front in response to the arrest of Louis Eakes in the Fields.

Mr Eakes, of the Young Liberals, was detained for cruising several men in a police entrapment operation. Mr Eakes claimed he was asking them for a light.

Even in a political climate hostile to gay men, enough was enough.

Peter Tatchell, one of Britain’s foremost LGBT campaigners, tells the Gazette: “Homosexuality had been partly decriminalised in 1967, but most aspects of gay male life remained criminalised.

"This rally in Highbury Fields was a watershed moment, the first time LGBT people had protested for their rights in Britain. People were very nervous, fearing arrest. When that didn’t happen at the march, it emboldened gay people"

Peter Tatchell

“As a result, the level of arrests remained high and the case of Louis Eakes was typical of what was happening all over the country.

“This rally in Highbury Fields was a watershed moment, the first time LGBT people had protested for their rights in Britain.

“People were very nervous, fearing arrest. When that didn’t happen at the march, it emboldened gay people. They were able to feel more confident about public campaigning against the discrimination that remained.”

In November 2000, a plaque was unveiled in the Fields to honour the march. Among the guests were two MPs who entered the House of Commons in 1983: Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) and Chris Smith (Islington South and Finsbury).

Chris Smith, then MP for Islington South and Finsbury, was the first MP to come out. Picture: Johnny Green/PAChris Smith, then MP for Islington South and Finsbury, was the first MP to come out. Picture: Johnny Green/PA

Mr Smith, who served until 2005, was the first MP to come out in 1984. Mr Tatchell knew what a huge step this was: in 1983, he stood as an openly gay candiate in the Bermondsey by-election, said to be the “nastiest in 100 years”.

“Chris Smith won huge admiration in the gay community,” he said. “I had been demonised and vilified. But public revulsion against that extremely homophobic campaign meant no one dared do the same to Chris. He encouraged other MPs to follow suit.”

Not that Islington LGBT history is solely restricted to politics. Only last month, we ran a feature on Trade, the legendary gay night at Turnmills in Clerkenwell Road.

Between 1990 and 2002, it was a safe haven for LGBT people to party until the early hours – of the afternoon.

Islington councillor Osh Gantly speaks at the UK's first exhibition on transgender people of faith - which took place in Islington Museum earlier this year. Picture: Em FitzgeraldIslington councillor Osh Gantly speaks at the UK's first exhibition on transgender people of faith - which took place in Islington Museum earlier this year. Picture: Em Fitzgerald

So with five themes of politics, social life, health, discrimination and community development, the council is seeking artefacts for the archive, which will be an ongoing collection. Cllr Aysegul Erdogan, Islington’s equalities champion, said: “We’re calling on people to hunt out any items and memorabilia they may have at home or work, and contribute it to something bigger that will be enjoyed by generations.”

Email islington.museum@islington.gov.uk for more

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