Queer History: The L in LGSM
by Caspian Curry
The queer community had long been the “enemy within” before Margaret Thatcher declared the miners to be such during the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike. The Strike came as a result of the threatened closure of 20 collieries, amounting to around 20,000 jobs being at risk. The fear was that more would follow and so the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), lead by Arthur Scargill, called on its members to strike. This was not without controversy as no national ballot had been held but as time wore on, and the threats became actualised, increasing numbers joined the strike. Beyond the mineworkers, other groups recognised a commonality in their plight. The queer community was no different and this moment in history created the possibility of new alliances of solidarity. Sian Jones would go onto proclaim in the documentary All Out! Dancing in Dulais, “you cannot sympathise with an oppressed group until you’ve actually been a member of one.” Perhaps many would disagree with this statement but one thing can be sure; a group of gays and lesbians came out in support of the miners and neither group would ever be the same again.
In 1974, Edward Heath’s Conservative government had crumbled after actions from the NUM forced the occurrence of a three day week and subsequently a General Election. Thatcher was intent on preventing such an occurrence happening again and in the lead up to the Strike coal was stockpiled, flying pickets banned and the police force equipped with riot gear. This was explicitly laid out in the Ridley Plan, written or at least overseen by, Sir Nicholas Ridley. The Conservative government made it clear in this document that they were “countering the political threat” of the unions. They would first go after the smaller unions such as those of health workers and then they would come after the NUM whom had had such a profound impact on the collapse of Heath’s government. This was a war on the working classes, on the power of the Unions and was not simply about closing the collieries.
Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) was founded in the September of 1984 around six months after the Strike had begun. Marcus Warchus’ 2014 film, Pride, brought this most unlikely of unions into the public eye. It told the story of solidarity against a common enemy. The film is wonderful but has its limitation; the major one being the failure to centralise the role women played in LGSM. Women were integral to ensuring the Strike lasted as long as it did. In the mining communities they ran soup kitchens, food banks, chaired communities and organised funds. Beyond this many women were taking part in what Harriet Bradley has called the “post-war march of women “coming out of the kitchens.”” Lesbians in LGSM, and later the breakaway group Lesbians Against Pit Closures (LAPC), used the opportunity to spearhead their issues and address the failings of the mainstream gay movement. This Strike was not only about coal. It had profound impacts on the Gay Liberation Movement and their understanding of the need to fight together with other oppressed groups. With the Strike ultimately unsuccessful in its core aim of protecting the coalfields, Lucy Robinson has noted that it was important for people to “salvage their own success from the experience.”
LGSM has often been viewed only in relation to the Miners’ Strike but their politics and impact extend beyond this. They need to be situated more broadly within the Gay Liberation Movement and the Left. In this regard LGSM, and subsequently LAPC, held discussions around gender and race. Within their documents, held at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre (LHASC) in Manchester, we are able to discover a picture of a group for whom politics beyond the limits of the Strike were always central to their aims. As early as November 1984 there are minutes of a meeting regarding the involvement of lesbians and Black people within the group. Present at this meeting were various members of the group, including a number of women. Concerns were raised over the involvement of women in the group; ‘…these meetings and intimidating men in this group DO oppress women.’ It was questioned by some if inclusion of lesbians and Black people needed to be a specific aim of the group. One attendee sums up why this approach to queer activism was so important; ‘Ray implies black and women aren’t part of the working class. Their experiences of oppression mean that we must have the links.’ Polly, an LGSM member, makes the important point that the working classes are not exclusively white and male. In this brief statement she nails down the absolutely vital importance of fighting against the systems of oppression together.
LGSM were not always successful in their attempts at inclusion, as LAPC demonstrates, but they continued to work together even after the split. LGSM’s minutes often ended with the statement, “LESBIAN AND GAY LIBERATION — THE MINERS [sic] FIGHT — ONE PEOPLE, ONE STRUGGLE.” This was the crux of LGSM and LAPC’s goal and the lesbians in both groups were keen to ensure this was the case for all involved. LGSM fought for the ideal that liberation for gays and lesbians could not come at the cost of other oppressed groups.
Solidarity between the miners and LGSM was used to counteract Thatcher’s violent individualism in which there was “no such thing as society”. Thatcher had a resolve, according to Hannah Dee in her book The Red in the Rainbow, to smash “anything that could become the form of opposition.” This led to attacks on the so-called “looney left” which the queer community and miners were considered a part of. As Mike Jackson, one of the founding members of LGSM, told me she wished to atomise society. Instead two communities were brought together who might never have been otherwise. The Strike brought to life the concept that systems of oppressions interlock. The lesbians of LGSM and the women of Dulais community, taught gay men that they were all victims of ‘the cultural and ideological phenomenon’ that is sexism which ‘manifest[s]…as male supremacy and heterosexual chauvinism.’ Lesbians in LGSM and LAPC took part in key political and strategic decisions. They forced changes to the wider movement in regards to women’s issues. These concerns had been the short-falling of the earlier Gay Liberation Front in the 1970s and had been one of the reasons for its collapse. They were keen not to repeat mistakes of the past.
There is a great irony of failing to centralised women’s voices, and especially Black voices, within any queer movement as it is Black women and femmes to whom we owe the most. It is significant that the men in LGSM were being encouraged to confront the exclusion of Black people and women. Sadly racism and sexism continues to be a problem within many gay men and within the community more widely. The misogyny they perpetuate at times can be attributed to the type of homophobia which they experience which they then project back to lesbians and others. The work done by the lesbians in LGSM and those who sought autonomy elsewhere played a small role in shifting perspective of at least some gay men.
Women’s activism was being taken more seriously and their impact on the Strike was being recognised. There was a genuine sense that the way to win and subsequently move forwards with gay rights was to ensure the voices of those marginalised within the movement itself were raised up. As much as anything LAPC and LGSM acted as tools of education, not only within their own community but also within the mining communities whom they supported. Just as Sian Jones said, they learned the commonality of their struggle and she would further express the importance of the need to comprehend the oppression of others by listening and engaging in a dialogue. This is a lesson which remains true to this day as people grapple with how best to support those facing oppression within their own countries and across the world.
Beyond the realm of the personal impacts made by LGSM, the solidarity shown by the lesbians and gays to the miners lead to Labour enshrining support for queer rights in their manifesto for the first time in 1985. It was, in part, down to the NUM who voted on mass in support of the change. The year before this they wrote to the Labour Campaign for Gay Rights (LCGR) saying: “To LGCR and Labour Movement Lesbians, We support civil liberties and the struggle for lesbian and gay people. We welcome the links forged in South Wales and other areas. Our struggle is yours. Victory to the miners! From the National Union of Mineworkers.” Lessons can, again, be learnt from this in today’s struggles. Supporting others who are different from us is not a weakness but is in fact an incredible strength. As Audre Lorde said, “it is not our differences which divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.” People saw what LGSM were trying to do and reached out to them. When the women of Greenham Common were evicted they contacted Martin Goodsell of LGSM to offer their food to the Strike. The struggle, be it against nuclear armament, for the protection of the coalfields, or against the demonisation of the gay community, was recognised to be one struggle against something much bigger than any of these groups alone.
For all the positive impacts of LGSM, there were limitations. This was demonstrated most visibly by the formation of LAPC, who were founded following the discussion on women’s involvement in November 1984. They broke away stating they “celebrated…common wins as lesbians and gays” whilst wishing to retain female autonomy. To the credit of both groups, the issue was not compounded and they continue to work side by side through the remaining months of the Strike. That same discussion from November 1984 also looked to address Black involvement in the group and this is really where the group, indeed groups, show the largest shortcomings. LGSM and the queer movement during the Miners’ Strike were incredibly white and here we have a short falling which too often plagues the movement. Those involved in the Strike learnt that liberation of one group cannot come at the expense of another. This same understanding must be extended beyond whiteness or it means nothing. As Marsha P. Johnson said; “no Pride for some of us without liberation for all of us.” Some small attempts were made; letters between LGSM and Wilmette Brown, a Black activist, are found in the archives. In these letters they organised to speak at events to express solidarity. The same was done with women’s groups such as Women against Pit Closures (WAPC).
That it took a moment of incredible social change for men to take note of women’s issues is interesting. In the moment of adversity and struggle, lesbians and queer women were able to win a new level of understanding of their plight from queer men. In doing so it enabled them to forge a new position within their own community. It should not take any group ‘proving’ themselves to another in order to be valued. This is why understanding our histories is so important, without it we a doomed to repeat our mistakes and continue to leave behind those whom have paved the way for progress. For all that women played a vital role in the Strike and were considered to be important by all who have written about the Strike, it predominantly comes from an “overwhelmingly one-sided male perspective…in which an active female voice has been largely silent.” What LGSM and LAPC tried to change has not fully been realised.
Lesbians within the Gay Liberation Movement seem to have taken this moment in history to no longer accept the oppression which they faced from their own communities. Although it would be amiss to say they ever “accepted it” rather that the Strike was another flashpoint in the continuous fight against oppression. As outlined in this piece, the politics and impact of LGSM and LAPC stemmed beyond the battle to save the mines. It was was never about coal. For Thatcher it was an attack on the working class and a means to tackle the power of the unions, specifically the NUM. If this was the government’s outlook then, for the miners and their allies the Strike was about protecting a way of life which was under threat. A way of life not simply in respects of their job but in terms of their social lives and their sense of identity. The coal mines were the backbone of the communities in financial and social senses. Coal was the lifeblood for them.
LGSM and LAPC understood this and understood the links to the threats which they faced. AIDS was beginning to rear its head and the government were quick to demonise gay men for it. The AIDS Crisis and later Section 28 showed just how right they had been. Thatcher saw both miners and queer people as the enemy within and acted as such. The issues of the working classes and queer people were, and are, not mutually exclusive. Many of the founding members of LGSM were working class themselves. They understood the battle was with Thatcher, not against one another, and she understood the potential power and threat of these communities. They threatened the new neoliberal ideology which she and others, such as Ronald Reagan, were ringing in. The work of LGSM and LAPC played a role in advancing the rights of queer people. The friendships they forged with the mining communities changed the way many viewed queer people. Women were at the core of this and it was often they, like Sian Jones, who took the lessons they had learnt to heart. Jones went onto become the first woman to be MP of Swansea East. Everyone, for at least a moment, understood that there truly is power in the Union.
About the Author:
Caspian’s greatest love has always been football. They grew up playing it and thinking about almost nothing else. When they came out as non binary at 20 suddenly football wasn’t as much a part of their life. They’ve recently rediscover this love of the game through writing and access to mixed gender sport.
Caspian’s experience of sexism, transphobia and homophobia in sport have driven a passion of raising up the excellence of marginalised people as well as drawing awareness to the struggles they face. They write about sports, history, social justice and everything in between!
After working in HE for a number of years following graduating, they now work in the heritage industry as well as running a blog and podcast, Usually Football. You can find them on Instagram @usuallyfootball!