How a determined editor entrepreneur put Britain’s first gay newspaper on the map
All this looking back at how far the LGBTI community has come over the last fifty years prompted me to pull out my collection of back numbers of Gay News, and marvel how the paper went from a non-paying, seat-of-the-pants operation run by a small bunch of activists, to a respected, profitable and professional venture that changed the face of Britain.
From a starting print run of only a couple of thousand in 1972, it grew to over 40,000, although by the time it closed in 1983 it had come off it’s earlier peak. And it was all due the the brilliance of the editor and owner, Denis Lemon.
Denis was a smart but distinctly eccentric character. I first came across him in the pub after a Gay Liberation Front meeting. I was new to GLF, new to London, and rather innocent.
Denis hung about with the leather crowd, but instead of the rigidly prescribed black biker leather uniform, his biker leathers, though of the approved brand, were sky blue, and teamed, not with knee-high motorcycle boots, but red hi-top canvas sneakers.
This gave him a totally different walk. The boys in black stomped and swaggered: Denis moved at a fast forward-leaning lope, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
They had military haircuts and moustaches: Denis looked more like Shaggy without his Scooby-Doo. And he was looking at me.
“Careful of that one,” said a friendly voice in my ear. “He likes to drop acid, dress up as Captain America, and get screwed in car wrecking yards.”
Denis loped over. “You cruisin’?,” he said, with a grin.
“What’s ‘cruising’?” asked innocent little me.
“Oh boy,” said Denis, grin widening. “You are new, aren’t you? It means looking for someone to have sex with tonight. So. Are you cruisin’?”
For the record we never made it to a car wreckers yard. We only ever made it into bed that once: I was far too vanilla for Denis. But we did become friends. (And then later, sadly, enemies. But that’s another story.) Which is how I ended up in the collective that launched Britain’s first regular, independent gay newspaper in 1972.
Right from the start Denis knew that as long as Gay News remained a little local paper, sold around gay venues in London and a few other cities, we would always stay small and vulnerable. Denis wanted the paper to be too big, too well known, and too financially secure to be easily silenced. He wanted a paper which could be an authoritative voice for the gay community for a long time to come.
In the beginning we ran on the thinnest of shoestrings. There was no money to pay staff, and it was a struggle even to pay the printer . Money for promotion was not even on the agenda.
Denis understood, however, that publicity could be had for nothing, if you went about it the right way. And that way was to challenge the law. Any legal action against the paper could be presented as an attack on the gay community, on personal freedom, on freedom of speech. The liberal media would rush to our defence. High profile progressive lawyers would clamour to represent us. And well off closet queens would get out their cheque-books. The problem was, how to get the law to come after us?
It should have been easy. The law was very busy making an ass of itself over homosexuality at this time. For example, the 1967 act had legalised consenting homosexual sex ‘in private’. That seems quite simple.
The courts interpreted ‘in private’ very narrowly, to mean ‘alone within one dwelling unit’. So X could be having sex with Y in the bedroom, but if Z was in the next room alone watching television, X and Y were not ‘in private’ and could be – and on occasion, were – arrested.
If, sick of policemen charging into their bedroom full clothed, X and Y rented a hotel room, they were still liable to be prosecuted. The courts ruled that, even if they were alone in a locked private room, they were only ‘in private’ if there was no-one else in the building at the time.
The chief constable of Manchester – an evangelical Christian who detested gays and lesbians, until he found out his daughter was one – uncovered an ancient law bye-law that forbade ‘licentious dancing in public’. Henceforth you and your partners soulful gyrations to Spanish Harlem were liable to be interrupted by the beam of a torch, wielded by a plain-clothes policeman, up a stepladder at the edge of the dancefloor, making sure you weren’t dancing too close to your temporarily significant other.
In 1971 the hippy paper International Times (IT) was prosecuted and shut down for running gay personal ads. The House of Lords ruled that while the homosexual acts might now be legal, public encouragement of the acts was not.
So when we launched Gay News in 1972, Denis insisted we run a small ads column under the tag line “Love Knoweth No Laws”, and sat back to await his martyrdom. The Law, however, declined the bait.
Denis’s next attempt revolved around the popular London leather bar, The Colherne, in Earls Court. In summer, dozens – and occasionally hundreds – of patrons would hang around on the street outside after the pub had closed, cruising the surrounding mews and back streets. The police patrolled in numbers and encouraging patrons, none too politely, to go home.
Denis took to joining the throng, complete with camera and flashgun, photographing the police in action, and running stories in the paper about their aggressive behaviour. Still nothing happened.
So Denis escalated the confrontation, firing the flash right in their faces – sometimes even after he had run out of film – until he was eventually arrested and charged with obstruction.
But despite cries of “press freedom” etc., the issue did not catch anyone’s imagination.
In 1974 Dennis decided to try again, publishing a picture of two men kissing on the front cover. He succeeded in getting prosecuted for obscenity, but unfortunately won his case, which meant the issue didn’t run nearly long enough to create the kind of publicity Dennis was looking for. But it was still useful in raising the paper’s profile.
It wasn’t until 1977 that Denis found his pot of gold, in the shape of a somewhat tacky poem by Professor James Kirkup. It was the reverie of a gay Roman centurion fantasising about making love to Jesus’ corpse. As Denis accurately forsaw, The Love that Dares to Speak its Name thoroughly riled the Festival Of Light (the ACL of its day) and it’s archmage, Mrs Mary Whitehouse, a wowser of immense influence.
Needless to say, Whitehouse was loathed by the liberal arts establishment lefties, and mercilessly lampooned by her bete noire, the BBC. This was the era when it seemed like every comedian dragged up as a severe middle-aged woman in a pastel tweed costume, hat and handbag, ranting about smut while lasciviously consuming same.
She demanded the authorities ‘do something.’ When the authorities declined, Whitehouse brought a private prosecution under the archaic law of ‘blasphemous libel’, the first use of this creaking antique in 50 years. John ‘Rumpole Of The Bailey’ Mortimer appeared for the defence. Margaret Drabble and Bernard Levin appeared as character witnesses.
In July 1977 Denis achieved his longed-for martyrdom, with a nine month suspended jail sentence and a £500 fine. Gay News was fined £1000 with £10,000 in costs. They appealed in 1978 but the convictions were upheld. The publicity was enormous. Now everyone knew Gay News.
The readership grew almost overnight from 8000 to 40,000, fundraising took care of fines and costs, the papers future was secured. Denis’s ambition had been achieved.
In a curious coda, Denis was inducted into the Reform Club, wearing a suit and tie. By this stage I hadn’t seen or spoken to him for several years, but I did wonder if he was wearing his Captain America leotard underneath.
Gay News changed Britain. But the personal cost to Denis was enormous, and he eventually sold the paper in 1982. It folded two years later.
Denis died in July 1994 after battling a string of AIDS-related illnesses for many of the intervening years.
Doug was a founder member of the short-lived ‘editorial collective’ that launched the paper in 1972, and it’s first (very bad) newshound. The paper was a collaboration between the Gay Liberation Front and the more sedate Campaign for Homosexual Equality.