Amiable Warriors: the history of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality
13 February 2015
Over the festival weekend, I'm launching Amiable Warriors, the history of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). Founded in 1964 as the North West local committee of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, CHE mutated over the next few years into the largest LGBT organisation this country has ever known. I'll be reading at 13:20 on Sat 14th at Central Library, and at on the same day at 11:15 at the Lesbian and Gay Foundation.
Unlike pressure groups like Stonewall or radical movements like the Gay Liberation Front, CHE was a representative democracy. It combined campaigning with a social and support network, encouraging often isolated and self-oppressed individuals to gain the confidence to come out. At its height it had over 5,000 members and 150 local groups, including several in places where homosexual acts were still completely illegal – Dublin, the Channel Islands.
I took up the challenge to write this history because I've experienced CHE during most of its history, and I knew many of the people involved. Now, after four years, Amiable Warriors, Vol. 1: A Space to Breathe, the first volume of a projected trilogy, has arrived.
I am surrounded by books. Amiable Warriors, Volume 1: A Space to Breathe. Big doorstops, bright pink and blue, sobered by an impassioned lesbian, Jackie Forster, on the front. I knew Jackie in the 80s, and she gave me the best advice I ever had, as an actor, to guard against losing my voice. “Gargle in port, darling, every day,” she ordered. Not that she was camp, not a bit of it…
They weigh about 0.9kg each, these books, and are about 3cm thick. 650 pages, something like 250,000 words. I never knew I had so many words in my head. The most I’d ever written, until Amiable Warriors came along, was a two-hour play, maybe 40,000 words. I look at these books slightly goggle-eyed. I must look a bit like my mother, a tiny woman who got tinier with age; I used to catch her glancing at my six-foot, 190lb frame, as if she couldn’t quite believe that such a great lummock could pop out of such a small progenitor.
There was of course a great moment of pride, which was immediately crushed by the realisation that some idiot had managed to mis-spell ‘Foreword’ on the cover, and not the editor, not the designer, not I had noticed it. Heads will roll.
And then there is the immediate concern to get my baby out into the big world. In two days’ time I will be loading up my battered white van and heading to Manchester for the conference. I am trying to plan what extracts to read. The bit about Audrey Hepburn going to visit personnel officers on the Trafford Estate in 1965, immaculate in elbow length gloves and picture hat? The rather suave Legal Officer in immaculate white trousers which are so tight that when he falls over drunk at a conference he can’t stand up again and has to be levered from the floor? The CHE member in the Gallery in the House of Lords so enraged by Viscount Montgomery’s 1965 speech proposing an age of consent of 80 that he threw his Hansard order paper down on the National Hero’s head? The tragic cases such as the lovers in a suicide pact who left a note asking to be buried together? Romeo and Romeo of the West Midlands… The more I think about it, the more I realise that, whatever else Amiable Warriors, Vol. 1 is, it’s a cracking good read.
Yes, it’s only Volume One. After Manchester I have to crack on with the story of CHE and GLF, which will upset quite a few people, I know, because so far GLF has had it all its own glamorous quasi-revolutionary way in the history books, whereas I think in the long run CHE was probably more influential, changed more lives in more towns, and broke more ground pressing onward to Equality. It is very easy if you were in the thick of an organisation and it changed your own life to believe that it was the crucial crucible of change in the great ongoing struggle. We are, after all, each of us the centre of our own universe.
One or two crucial university intellectuals aside, and always excepting those who went on to found Gay News and Gay Switchboard, the Gay Liberation Front outside a very small circle was at best a source of amused irritation and at worst the provoker of incoherent rage at the thought that such childish exhibitionists were destroying our chances of acceptance. Mind you, CHE wasn’t much better regarded by the mass of the homosexual population – if they’d heard of it. It was homosexuals rocking the boat and drawing attention to themselves. Despite the comparative radicalism of the leadership, most ordinary CHE members did not believe in sexual equality, genuinely thinking that the age of consent should be 18, or even stay at 21. Such was the mire of self-oppression we were trying to drag our boots out of, a sucking quagmire of doubt and inferiority; we did not deserve to be equal. It took a decade to get over that feeling, but CHE did get over it, and all credit to it for engaging with people whom GLF would largely have written off as hopeless.
This is the argument that I will be developing in my keynote speech on Saturday morning. I do hope you’ll come along and argue with me.