Exploring queer history through the Gryphon archives
Archives aren’t all dusty books and crumbling manuscripts -research into past issues of the Gryphon
(including in its former life as ‘Leeds Student’) can give us valuable insights into how it felt to be
LGBTQ+ and at the University of Leeds in decades gone by. We investigate some of the lesser-known events and experiences of UoL’s queer history, getting a sense of how representation, visibility, and day to day life was for LGBTQ+ people on campus at time points in time.
A note on language
Some of the extracts below contain outdated and potentially offensive language – such as
‘transsexual’ instead of transgender ‘transvestite’ instead of crossdresser and ‘homosexual’ instead of gay or lesbian. Where these terms are featured, they had been used as self-identifiers at the time.
1971– Gay Liberation Society is formed at the University of Leeds. Originally advertised as a
discussion group in 1970, the group became a registered University Society in 1971. It was an offshoot of the nation Gay Liberation Front movement, formed in a basement in LSE in autumn 1970 as a response to the Stonewall riots that had taken place across the Atlantic, and formulated initial demands that ‘all discrimination against gay people, male and female, by the law, by employers and by society at large should end’.
In March of 1984 the society changed their name to Lesbian and Gay Society, and by the mid-90s it
had become LGB Soc, eventually being renamed in the 2000s as the LUU LGBT Society we all know
1972– A small callout for the Beaumont society appears in the Personal
Column of ‘Leeds Student’– founded in 1966, it was the first official
support and social group run by and for the trans and gender-variant community. The organisation originally had a primary focus on MtF cross-dressers and ‘gender-motivated transsexuals’ and later came under fire for its early policy of distancing itself from gay identities- as a tactic to be taken more seriously by the public and dispel the stereotype that members-only dressed up in women’s clothes to be more attractive to gay men (many attendees of the society had wives or girlfriends who joined their partners at society functions). The Beaumont society are still running and have moved towards a more inclusive target demographic- anyone who identifies under the trans umbrella, including AFAB and nonbinary folk.
1974– National trans academic conference held in Leeds. This small ad in the 74th edition is the extent of its coverage in Leeds Student – there is no retrospective report on the nature or success of the conference. Titled ‘Transvestism and Transsexualism in Modern Society,’ it was organised by the Beaumont Society and was the first academic gathering focusing on trans and gender variant issues that was organised by members of that community, for members of that community. Whilst it only gets a footnote in ‘Leeds Student’, the conference was a revolutionary event- nothing similar had taken place in the UK, and quite probably in the world at this point. The main aim was educational- organisers wanted the public and those in healthcare and social professions to get a better understanding of trans issues, reducing the prejudice and barriers to support that trans people faced. The conference was followed by a 185 person strong disco- we can only imagine the joy this would have brought when practically all mainstream venues and many gay bars/clubs were exclusionary or actively dangerous spaces for gender non-conforming people.
1970s- The rise of fascism.
The 1970s saw a stark increase in far-right activity, with the National Front setting up as a party
(even winning some local council seats) in traditional politics, and galvanising hatred against
immigrants and minorities such as LGBTQ+ people. Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech,
and other unashamed racism from high up politicians only emboldened groups who organised on a
political level, as well as through creating a violent and destructive presence on the streets of the
UK, carrying out attacks on property and people. Past issues of the student newspaper give an
insight into hat this meant for openly LGBTQ+ people on the Leeds University campus.
In 1974, Leeds Student reports on a brick being thrown through the Gay Lib office window. This
vandalism was attributed in a later issue to the National Democratic Freedom Movement- a small
and notoriously violent Leeds based group that was active for a short period in the 70s. Interestingly, the paper also prints that the Union was attempting to bill the university for the damage- on the grounds that they had been given sufficient warning that Gay Lib were likely to be a target, and had done little to protect their office. A 1977 issue of Leeds Student chronicles an arson attack on the Gay Liberation Society office for which responsibility was claimed by local far-right groups (named as the BNP- a different, Leeds based group to the one we know today- and the National Front). Known as the Gay Information Centre, it was based in the Union building and provided a safe space for members to meet, organise and carry out business. No one was hurt but the office became unusable after the attack.
1978 – saw an increase in fascist voice on campus, with stories about fascists attending Union
meetings-both of the University of Leeds and other Leeds colleges- and spouting homophobic abuse.
This happened against a backdrop of the NUS dropping their ‘No Platform’ policy for fascists-
whereby Unions were supported in their right to ban anyone likely to espouse far right views from
speaking on campuses. The procedure of (actually achieved or just attempted) ‘No Platforming’ still
causes controversy today- with recent cases for discussion including Germaine Greer for her
transphobic insistence that trans women aren’t women.
2015 – The Gryphon’s first LGBTQ+ issue.
Despite the first national LGBT History Month taking place in 2005, the first LGBTQ+ issue of the Gryphon didn’t come out for another decade. It features articles such as coverage of the ’First exclusively LGBTQ arts exhibition to open in Leeds’, first-hand community accounts of LGBTQ+ life (including the experiences of nonbinary and asexual) and features of LGBTQ+ representation in sport.
Despite illuminating-although often brief- references to notable events in the LGBTQ+ history of
Leeds, there was plenty that either the student newspapers don’t capture or are omitted from the
recorded history due to gaps of collecting in the archives. These events were arguably more
significant than the countless comments on campus life or society antics and their exclusion
represents a wider trend in archival material towards chronic underrepresentation of LGBTQ+
history. Here’s a few that we think should have been reported on…
1981– The first UK pride outside of London takes place in Huddersfield, a mere 30 minutes from
Leeds. As a response to harassment and mistreatment by West Yorkshire Police, who frequently
raided the popular gay bar ‘The Gemini Club’ with an end to shutting it down, the location of
national pride was moved to the West Yorkshire town, and the community organised in solidarity
with a turnout of approximately 2000. The pride took place against a backdrop of rising fascist
sentiment in England- reportedly, groups of skinheads appeared when the march started to
disperse, with attendees resorting to using the supports from their banners as battering rams to
make it through the violent crowds. Despite the significance of this event, Leeds Student makes no
mention of it.
2006– The first Leeds pride takes place. … Once again, the University of Leeds student newspaper
fails to recognise or mark this historic event- raising questions about the value that was placed on
the LGBTQ+ rights movement at the time.
Speaking of gaps in the archives…..
Special Collections and Galleries is running an LGBTQ+ Archives Project looking at representation and
accessibility of LGBTQ+ narratives in the University Archives collection- which is everything that
relates to the history and present of UoL. Much like in the above exploration into the student
newspaper archives, we have found that whilst there is some great content, there’s also huge gaps
in the representation of LGBTQ+ communities and their contribution to the University of Leeds.
Want to help?
We would love to do some contemporary collecting so if you have anything relating
to LGBTQ+ experiences and identity at the university that you would like to see immortalised in the
archives, please get in touch! This might look like photos of events, society materials, essays, or
materials relating to a project you have worked on. We would also love to hear from LGBTQ+
identifying students and staff who would be willing to take part in focus groups around inclusive
Header Image Credit: University of Leeds