The South London Gay Community Centre was opened in March 1974, when members of the South London Gay Liberation (SLGL) movement squatted an empty shop with a basement and two floors of offices at 78 Railton Road, Brixton. When the Centre was opened, Brixton was one of the most impoverished and deprived inner city areas of London, with various community-based groups already fighting out against its decline. The Centre housed the meetings of the SLGL, where members decided the campaigns and events they would be involved in. It also hosted various activities and events, such as film screenings, fitness classes, wrestling classes, a knitting circle, weekly Saturday discos and a gay telephone help-line. In 1976 the Gay Pride event was organised by the Brixton Gays. Popular discos and cabarets were run in big town halls, like those of Lambeth, Chiswick, Fulham and Hammersmith, and the radical drag group Hot Peaches visited the centre from New York, after performing their musical The Diva of Sheridan Square in London.
The South London Gay Community Centre drew visitors from the UK and abroad, through its social and political activities: ‘… there were freaked out ‘waifs’ who had had aversion therapy, earnest people from Germany, Australia, the United States, etc. who came for political reasons, and a few dope-smoking hippies…’ (Bill Thorycroft in Peter Cross). The law on homosexuality in Britain had only changed in 1967, and during the 70s gay people were still considered second-class citizens, ostracized by their community and families and continuously policed and punished by the law. The Centre functioned, for its many visitors and members, as the local axis of a growing, radical, gay movement, who sought to come out into the daylight and publicly declare its own, self-determined identity. ‘Gay people arrived at the squat for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated. Some saw this as an opportunity to attack straight society trough adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.’ (Ian Townson 2010 Urban 75).
Gay communities and its members were under attack, isolated and persecuted from various fronts: under the ‘sus’ law police officers were allowed to act and arrest on suspicion, while the National Front was active in all areas, attacking gay venues. In 1978, Mary Whitehouse and the Festival of Light Christian fundamentalist movement, took on a moral crusade against blasphemy in the magazine Gay News. The event prompted the birth of the National Gay News Defense Committee (NGNDC), based initially in 146, Mayall Road, Brixton and then moved to 157, Railton Road. The NGNDC later re-named as the Gay Activists’ Alliance.
The South London Gay Liberation actively engaged in protests and pickets in the local community and in wider London. It supported the South London Squatter movement, the Claimant’s Union, picketed shops that refused to sell the newspaper Gay News, campaigned in solidarity with Black, lesbian and women’s group. In 1978, the Brixton Gays supported the Anti-Nazi League march for the Rock Against Fascism festival in Brockwell Park, South London. The demonstration came along Railton Road and passed under a banner that said: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti Fascist. When Brixton burned in the riots of 1981, the SLGL joined forces to show its solidarity to the oppressed Black community: ‘We even took tables and chairs out on the street in front of the gay squats for a celebratory party, some people in drag getting a mixed reception from people on the street’ (Ian Townson 2012).
The Centre was evicted in April 1976. After it closed, the nucleus of political activity shifted to the squats on Railton Road and Maydall Road. ‘The Brixton gay squat became a destination. … We knocked down party walls between the houses … garden walls came down, paths were laid down, people left their back doors open. People also started making a proper communal garden.’ (Peter Cross 2010). Today the gay squats are part of the Brixton Housing co-operative. While the communal garden has been kept intact, the houses have been re-developed as single-unit living spaces.
The Brixton Fairies and The South London Gay Community Centre, Brixton 1974-6, Ian Townson (Urban 75:2012), Urban 75
Revolting Queers, a Memory of South London Gay Liberation, Peter Cross, in Goodbye to London: Radical Art and Politics in the ‘70s (ed. Astrid Proll, Atje Cantz:2010)