Andrew Lumsden, a pioneering LGBTQ+ rights activist

credits: Andy Parsons

Andrew Lumsden is a pioneering LGBTQ+ rights activist. He was in his twenties when he started fighting for the decriminalisation of homosexuality and for the LGBTQ+ human rights in the 1960s. He participated in the first Pride in London, started the legendary Gay News in 1971 and explored the gay world of Sixties in London. Now, Andrew is participating the Queer Tours of London and he is involved in the “Gay Liberation Front Think In – Reclaim Pride” Programme.

Andrew has a lot to tell about his life, his experiences, his memories of the London gay scene during the sixties and his fights against the system so that we can have a safer life as proud LGBTQ+ people.

When did you join the Queer Tours of London and why did you decide to do so?

We started it in 2017 I think. I didn’t start it. A young LGBT Londoner called Dan Glass started it and invited some of us, who were older than him to join, as we remembered London before he could.

What is the Queer Tours of London?

We offer to show people places in London that are associated with their own community. For example, there is a Queer Tour of the Bangladeshi community or another one run by the black population in Brixton. There are various geographic ones too. Sometimes we create the tours and offer them ourselves, and sometimes like the one in Soho, that was the first ever done, people ask us to construct them. Some time ago, a university asked us to create one for the Marylebone district in London because they had students coming from all around the world for a conference, so they could provide something of a particular interest to the LGBT community. Recently, we created one for the City of London, the financial district.

Members of the Gay Liberation Movement protesting outside the Old Bailey over Mary Whitehouse’s court action against the Gay News Magazine on 4 July 1977( Getty )

How has your experience been as a queer tour guide? Have you enjoyed it?

I love it. I have learned so much. I love the way Dan Glass creates a tour. He wishes us to be entirely involved with people who come, so it does not feel like us giving a lecture or everybody walking around in silence. It begins with who are we, with why we did want to do this. What we encourage people is to interrupt us all the time and share their experiences with us.

How different was London life when you were a young gay man compared to now?

It has changed significantly. I was late coming out as gay. It was not common for people of my generation. I was born in 1941 and until 1957 it was completely against the law to be a gay man or a bi man or a trans woman in this country and the whole world. That changed very slightly in 1967. But the police behaved appallingly to us and was bullying us until the end of 1980s, when the law began to improve. It felt like a spirit of revenge from the side of the police. The police were arresting us and they were trying to bust the places where we met, and police prosecution went on for many years. I remember that I got arrested once, and it was the time I demonstrated against the police. It was a particular protest in the Notting hill area because drag people were facing discrimination and they were not accepted in a pub. So, we arranged a protest with Gay Liberation Front in and it was a sit-in inside the pub.  All of us ended spending one night in prison. We were accused of disorderly conduct. Nobody was physically hurt by the cops or harmed, and we got little tiny fines while were told not to do that again. Of course we all went in drag to court!

Back then there were far more venues and LGBT spaces than now, mostly because of the fact that we were being chased so much. If you opened a copy of the Gay News newspaper in the 1070s called you would find endless columns of LGBT places all around the country.

Was it difficult to be gay in the 60s?

One big difficulty was the lack of knowledge growing up gay in the 1950s and 1960s. The subject was almost unmentionable. Your parents never spoke of it, the newspapers never spoke of it, except for the cases when someone was put into trial and was found guilty of homosexuality. In this case, the address of the person along with their full details were published in the newspaper and most probably, the person would lose their job. You never read anything good about homosexuality. This shows how difficult and dangerous was to be a gay person back in the day. Also, this is why the Gay Liberation Front begun in New York in 1969 and was here by 1970. Even though the law had changed three years ago and we were supposed to be more safe, we found was that we more unsafe than before.

When did you come out?

Some people knew they were gay and they were out about it with extreme bravery. In my case, I began to wonder more and more about my sexuality around the age of 25, when I was in end of an affair with a woman. I was attracted to the looks of other young men and I began to talk to some other friends that I had about these feelings. And then I moved to Soho to come out and I was out by 1969. I finally recognised what kind of person I was after the law had been changed.

How did the Section 28 and Thatcher era change the life for LGBT people in the UK?

It did have a big impact. No public figure was out in Britain until after 1967. Only somebody who would have been caught, arrested or sent to court or prison was out by that time. Nobody was voluntarily out.  The greatest changes occurred during the 1970s as more and more people said it out loudly that they were LGBT. Margaret Thatcher and Section 28 was the political reaction against that. It was a right wing and religious reaction against our claims for freedom. And it happened right when people were supposed to have a little bit of freedom.

It was wonderful fun fighting against Section 28, because the tide fell with us and not with the government.

You marched at London’s first pride in 1972. How was this experience and why do we need pride today more than ever?

It was fun. The fun was completely different to what you imagine now. People remember different numbers of how many people were there. I seem to remember a few hundred people, some of them even coming from the pavement. The wonderful thing about this pride march was that it was organised by the youth group of the Gay Liberation Front.  There were no barriers, as the numbers of participants were so small, and a lot of police arrived. At moments it felt like there was more police presence than pride marchers. But, they were not doing anything to us. I still wonder. “Was it to protect us? Was it to protect the public from us?”. The youth group of the Gay Liberation Front wanted to ensure that there was not going to be any nuisance by older LGBT people in the parade as it remained illegal until 1972 to have gay sex under the age of 21. We were not threatened by the police nor by people from the public.

There were a lot of nice incidents from that day. One of them was with the policeman who turned his shoulder to us in a way that his colleagues could not see his face and gave a great big wink to the marchers! That was probably the first gay Metropolitan policeman. A few people also left the pavements and joined the march. This does not happen now, as the number of marchers is much bigger, of course.

Lumsden linking arms with Michael James, a GLF Radical Queen protestor, dressed in drag, in 1971. 

Do you think that Pride marches are something that should continue to exist?

I want them to continue as long if people wish to hold them. I wish them to exist and I always go to the London one. I don’t want various kinds of organisations to be invited to our pride marches simply to raise money in order to finance the marriage. The worst thing is the companies who are engaging in unethical businesses like armourments coming to pride parades and marches to pinkwash the people and wave banners for their companies. We fought for pride in 1972 and this not what we envisioned.

Do you think LGBT people are more privileged now than people in your generation?

No I don’t. Our generation was extraordinarily privileged. It was wonderfully exciting to find people prepared to fight against the state and change the terrible attitude that culture had towards us. It was done in circumstances that were easier than for young people today. You were entitled to squat by law in 1970s. You can’t legally squat now. Also, the housing situation is quite appalling now as it was 50 years ago. Benefits are far harder to negotiate and to receive now. People might have been very poor and had bad landlords, but it was better back then than now. However, the fight begun within our own community. And this is because the vast majority of the LGBT community was having such a hard time surviving that they didn’t want any trouble.

How did you personally experience the AIDS epidemic during 80s and 90s?

I was working for a gay newspaper when we first begun to hear in 1982 that something odd was going on in New York, and more specifically, that gay men were developing a very rapid disease. We were told it resembled pneumonia but it produced things like boils and skin problems and people were dying from it. In the beginning it was called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Disease) and it was getting worse and worse. We had again a naming difficulty. Our problems were again around names and this was another one. Then the deaths, really did begin. Some of our friends started showing signs of illness and it was terrifying for many years. It is still terrifying today, even though we have preventive measures and more information.

We thought that a great extermination had began and we were dying all over the world. I had several most dearly loved lovers who died of AIDS and we look like the lucky survivors. The fight against AIDS was astounding.

How did you decide to invent the Gay News in 1971?

I was working for The Times newspaper in London and I suggested at one occasion that they carry an article by me about this new thing called “Gay Liberation Front” and the editor of the newspaper forbade it at around eleven o’clock at night before the newspaper was printed. The name of the editor was Rees Mogg. The name might sound familiar, as the one who is in the right wing today is one of his children.

Then I suggested to the editor of the Daily Mirror who was selling three million copies per day and was aligned to the labour party, that one of their reporters covers the topic and they refused too saying that the story regarding Gay Liberation Front would not be of interest by the general public.

I was so outraged to be turned down by the most popular and the most influential newspapers in London that I decided to invent and create the Gay News to cover our stories. I was a part of it until 1971 when I decided that I wanted to stop being a journalist. I came back in 1982, ten years later, for about two years at the end f the newspaper. Gay News collapsed for money troubles in the years of AIDS. And then a newspaper called “Capital Gay” was created by journalists who were working in Gay News and became the best coverage during the AIDS epidemic.

Do you remember names of gay clubs in the past and any stories about them?

I remember many of those. One of them was “The Black Cap” that was a famous drag venue. Drag has always surged a lot of interest in this country and “The Black Cap” was the premier venue other than “The Royal Vauxhall Tavern”. I don’t know why it was called that. It is the place where I first met a professional drag artist and what happened was that I was having a drink with a friend in this place a night that it was very crowded, and then I see this incredible and impressive drag queen that comes down from the stage, walks towards us and looks at me saying “You don’t recognise me, do you Andrew? I am Jimmy from Gay Liberation Front meetings”. And it was one of the greatest shocks and pleasures in my gay life.

Do you feel like a pioneering LGBT rights activist?

In 1970 I would have avoided answering that. That would be a claim to a fame and importance. Now, I recognise that those of us who are still alive by a miracle because of the AIDS epidemic are pioneers, and, yes, I accept this.  But I have had 50 years to learn that the fight was harder in the 1930s, harder in the 1910s, it was harder and harder every further back you went. So, they are the pioneers, including many people who were executed and suffered in the 18th and 19th century.

How people flirted in the 60s and 70s?

I will tell you what I did. I started trying to meet gay people in 1968, went to leave in Soho for 8 pounds per week and I thought that somehow I would find my way, as Soho was the pioneer in the sex industry. I remember a small club in Soho where they were not attacked by the police, unlike other places and you could dance, as long as you didn’t snow. It was a very small place, just like Stonewall Inn. There you could flirt. But, I did not manage to flirt in that kind of space, as I am not a gifted or natural dancer, so I couldn’t do it with body language. There was another place close-by that was a rent bar and you could meet someone, pay them and be in control of what happens. I went there one night and I picked someone, I flirted with him and he lived with me for a little while in my flat in Soho. Until, he and a friend of his one day stole everything from my property one day that I came back from work to the flat. I called the police, since I was burgled by that young man, and the police did not attempt to persecute me or try to arrest the young man, but just wrote a report and did nothing. Many years later, I saw this young man in the tube in London and our eyes met instantly and he ran away.

What I loved most in flirting back in my days was meeting people who wanted to shake off all the feelings of shame. I also met other people and flirted with them outdoors, in places like Hampstead or Clapham Common. And in the summertime I found that so beautiful to meet people like that, especially during the summer nights with full moon in Hampstead Heath. I just remember how miraculously beautiful and erotic at the same time it was. That was how flirting was for me until I began meeting people who were out and proud.

Have you considered getting married?

I have a partner and we have never even discussed it. Getting married is not interesting for us. We don’t have any hostility to those who get married. I come from a generation where women were trying to escape from marriage and they find it oppressive. But it was also very oppressive for many men too. I have no personal longing to get the approval of the state. There are very few times I have been asked to a marriage too, though.

How is life now?

Life is wonderful. There was a long period when life was a matter of survival, earning a living and finding that someone was ill during the 60s and 70s. But, now, things are different and we are back in the company of the young.

What are your dreams for the future?

To bring an end to the worst sequence of politicians that I have known since Margaret Thatcher in the UK. I would live to live long enough to see these politicians shamed and out of office and see more justice and equality in this country.

What are you most proud of?

I think I am most proud of being proud.

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