Book Review: No Bath But Plenty Of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front 1970-73 by Lisa Power

by @edent | , ,

Book cover featuring a GLF protest.

The Gay Liberation Front dragged homosexuality out of the closet, onto the streets and into the public eye. Its London supporters held the first gay demonstrations, organized the first Pride march and ran the first public gay dances in Britain. The Front contained an alliance of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transsexuals long before ‘queer’ was fashionable, and challenged homophobia before we had a word for it.

Their direct action and street theatre were the envy of the rest of the revolutionary counterculture, their politics the most diverse, their communes the wildest and their arguments the loudest. In two short years, the Gay Liberation Front created the conditions for a lesbian and gay movement for generations to come and then imploded into fragments that became our newspapers, helplines and activist groups.

This is an interesting and, at times, challenging book about an aspect of modern British history. They certainly don't teach about the GLF in schools!

As well as being a thorough examination of the activities of GLF member, it also asks some important questions about the ways Queer culture has been appropriated and sanitised by the mainstream. Is equal marriage just replicating the worst aspects of an abusive hertropatriarchal relationship? Does capitalism rely on the oppression of an underclass?

There's an inherent tension between people who see gay liberation as separate from women's liberation. And those that see racial equality as distinct from gay equality.

In many ways, the GLF succeeded. There is less legal discrimination now - and attitudes to LGBT+ people are more positive than they've ever been. Some of their organising tactics - like using breakout groups to manage large scale decision making - are replicated in many communities.

And, in some ways, they failed. Drag shows on TV are rarely feature revolutionary political discussion. Street theatre and consciousness raising have been replaced with soap operas and corporate diversity training. Trans-women are still routinely excluded from "women only" spaces. And society has not yet dissolved into a gender-free free-love love-in.

The street theatre and "happenings" seem a little childish when looked through the lens of history. As Peter Cook put it, "those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the second world war..."

Do stunts help change mainstream opinion? Some of the "zaps" (as was the parlance) were aimed at disruption rather than conversion. That certainly feels great to the participants, but has limited value.

In the end, the book reminds us that there is a heck of a lot of admin involved in starting and maintaining a revolution. And sometimes the revolution requires people to put aside their differences to achieve a common goal.

It is a wonderful - and occasionally upsetting - wander through a transformative part of recent history.

On the negative side, there are occasional minor transcription errors from where the book has been copied from the paper original. The formatting makes it slightly hard to work out who is talking, and whether a passage is a quote or commentary. At times, it feels like you're reading endless committee minutes.

Overall, it's an important read for anyone - queer or straight - who wants to understand the background to the current struggle for inclusivity.

Here's the GLF Manifesto from the 1970s. How many of its demands have been met, do you think?

  • that all discrimination against gay people, male and female, by the law, by employers, and by society at large, should end.
  • that all people who feel attracted to a member of their own sex be taught that such feeling are perfectly valid.
  • that sex education in schools stop being exclusively heterosexual.
  • that psychiatrists stop treating homosexuality as though it were a sickness, thereby giving gay people senseless guilt complexes.
  • that gay people be as legally free to contact other gay people, though newspaper ads, on the streets and by any other means they may want as are heterosexuals.
  • that police harassment should cease right now.
  • that employers should no longer be allowed to discriminate against anyone on account of their sexual preferences.
  • that the age of consent for gay males be reduced to the same as for straight.
  • that gay people be free to hold hands and kiss in public, as are heterosexuals.

You can read more about Lisa Power on Wikipedia.

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