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Islington’s gay history landmarks – hidden in plain sight

PUBLISHED: 08:50 16 February 2018 | UPDATED: 08:52 16 February 2018

Tour guide Karen Lansdown outside 53 Cross Street, the former home of gay activist Sister Kitty. Picture: Polly Hancock

Tour guide Karen Lansdown outside 53 Cross Street, the former home of gay activist Sister Kitty. Picture: Polly Hancock

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February is LGBT history month. To mark it, Clerkenwell and Islington tour guide Karen Lansdown talks the Gazette through some snapshots of the borough’s rich – but often hard to spot – gay history ahead of two public tours.

Tour guide Karen Lansdown in front of 190, Upper Street, now a branch of Gill Wing. But from 1978 to 1993 it was the Sister Write feminist bookshop, with a cafe on the first floor called Sister Bite. Picture: Polly HancockTour guide Karen Lansdown in front of 190, Upper Street, now a branch of Gill Wing. But from 1978 to 1993 it was the Sister Write feminist bookshop, with a cafe on the first floor called Sister Bite. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington is full of LGBT “firsts”.

Many of these are well known. The first gay rights demo in Highbury Fields in 1970, the first gay rights march from the same location a year later, the first openly gay MP in 1984 (Chris Smith) and the first openly gay mayor in 1986 (Bob Crossman).

But walk down Upper Street and there are even more “firsts” than meet the eye.

Next Sunday, Clerkenwell and Islington tour guide Karen Lansdown is mapping 50 years of “firsts” with a special walk to mark LGBT month (her colleague Janet Foster is doing the same walk tomorrow at 2pm). This week, Karen was kind enough to take the Gazette for a preview.

First, we come to number 190, now one of the three Gill Wing shops. From 1978 to 1993, this was a shop called Sister Write, the first bookshop run by a women-only collective.

It has an important place in LGBT history, Karen explains, because of its lesbian literature. “This was way before the internet, so it was something not generally available. Lesbian books and magazines had been hard to source as general bookshops wouldn’t stock things like that.”

Tour guide Karen Lansdown outside twentytwentyone in Upper Street. The building was the original HQ of London Friend and also housed the Gay Sweatshop theatre group. Picture: Polly HancockTour guide Karen Lansdown outside twentytwentyone in Upper Street. The building was the original HQ of London Friend and also housed the Gay Sweatshop theatre group. Picture: Polly Hancock

One hundred yards down the road was London Friend, the UK’s first registered LGBT charity, which set up in numbers 274-275 in 1972. This is now the location of furniture store Twentytwentyone.

“It was set up to be an organisation where gay people could be friends,” Karen says. “It was a safe space to go to talk about issues they had, whether it was coming out, counselling, relationship advice or health and wellbeing.

“In 1975, it was also the very first gay organisation to receive a government grant to support its work. It was acknowledged more support was needed. Being gay became recognised as something people needed support with, especially when it wasn’t socially acceptable.”

London Friend, which also shared the office with a theatre group called Gay Sweatshop, moved out of Upper Street in 1987. But the charity remains in Islington, at the King’s Cross end of Caledonian Road.

Also in Caledonian Road, meanwhile, was the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, which founded in 1974. This was another “first”: the UK’s first phone helpline for gay people. It is now simply called Switchboard and is still based in the Cally.

“There’s a little bit of Caledonian Road which is associated with LGBT organisations,” says Karen. “Those organisations, when HIV happened, were very involved in educating and supporting people.

Islington North MP and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, far right, enjoying Karen Lansdown's LGBT walk around Islington last year. Picture: Karen LansdownIslington North MP and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, far right, enjoying Karen Lansdown's LGBT walk around Islington last year. Picture: Karen Lansdown

“In 1987, the government was promoting safe sex and produced a leaflet saying: ‘Don’t die of ignorance.’ Without mentioning it to the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard, the leaflet listed its number and within a few hours it was completely overwhelmed.”

Back to Upper Street, we come to the junction with Cross Street. In the 1990s, number 53 was home to a “gay household” on a temporary lease from Islington Council. It became an avant garde hub for the gay community, as one tenant called Sister Kitty demonstrated.

Karen explains: “He was a member of a group called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It started in San Fransico and still exists today. Sister Kitty was of the London branch and they would campaign and highlight issues by dressing as drag nuns, with over-the-top theatrics and wearing lavish make-up.”

It leaves Karen, who was joined by Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn on her LGBT walk last year, to marvel: “This central part of Islington is chock-a-block with history. We were amazed we could find so much in such a small area.”

Janet Foster’s LGBT walk starts at 2pm tomorrow outside Angel station. Karen’s walk starts at 11am outside Angel next Sunday (February 25). They are delivered in partnership with research project Islington’s Pride. Places are free but booking is required. To do so, visit ciga.org.uk

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