I came to Sussex as an undergraduate in 1977 at a time when Gay Liberation in Britain was only a few years old. As an 18 year old I was closeted about my sexuality – life for a gay teenager in the 1970s was not always easy. Bullying at school of boys or girls who didn’t conform to sexual / sexuality ‘norms’ was rife and homophobia in the ‘70’s was the rule rather than the exception. Coming to Sussex was a breath of fresh air, with the liberal political and social traditions of the University creating a far more relaxed attitude to sexuality than existed elsewhere in society.
In my first term I joined Radio Falmer as a disc jockey, as well as the Anarchist Group which later became the Libertarian Socialist faction of the students union, and the Men’s Group. The Men’s Group was promoting sexual equality and freedom along the lines of 1970s feminism. Getting in touch with the feminine as well as the masculine side of one’s being; acknowledging and addressing sexism within one’s life. Whilst the term “new man” had not yet been coined, it would have been a concept that we would have recognized.
In my second term I was able to acknowledge and accept my sexuality to the point where I could talk to my parents and friends about it and to join the Gay Society. At that time Gay Soc comprised a couple of dozen members and met once a week in Falmer House for a discussion meeting. By the end of that year, Brian Robinson and I, as the two “leading lights” of the Gay Soc committee that year, were helping to turn the society around. Now 30 plus years on Gay Soc has grown and developed into the current LGBTQ groups.
By the following year we were holding a weekly disco in the Crypt bar (now the back half of Falmer Bar) as well as being a very politically active society both on and off campus. One example of this was “Blue Jeans Day”, where we announced that everybody on campus who was wearing blue jeans was thereby announcing their homosexuality. This was a time when, even more than now, blue jeans were a universal item of clothing. This was a form of confrontational politics where we were trying to make people reflect on sexuality and homophobia. We also supported the “Boycott WH Smith” campaign. The largest newsagent in the country had refused to stock the national Gay paper Gay Times, which was under attack from Mary Whitehouse and other reactionary forces. I spent a night in the Brighton police station for my part in pasting up literally thousands of “Boycott WH Smith” stickers on their Churchill Square windows. Brian organised a Gay Film Festival for Gay Soc, with a gay film once a fortnight in the Asa Briggs main lecture theatre; a midnight picnic in Stanmer woods – steadily more and more varied social events. Within a year the membership of the society grew to around one hundred.
When Quentin Crisp came to Brighton to give a public talk, a group of Gay Soc members went to picket and protest. As far as most of us were concerned, he projected a negative image that reinforced stereotypes rather than challenging or breaking them. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how he was a product of his time and was a complex and contradictory character. Certainly, the negative comments he made about HIV and AIDs a few years later did not endear him to most radical queers.
I’m now back here at Sussex 30 years on – everything and nothing has changed – but that’s another article.