‘Well really, have we come to that?’: Excerpts from UCL’s LGBT History
By Sarah S Pipkin, on 15 June 2021
Colin Penman, Head of UCL Records, writes about the internal documents that sheds light on the history of LGBTQI+ student life at UCL.
In March 1972, Jamie Gardiner, a PhD student in the UCL Department of Mathematics, now a lawyer and human rights activist in Australia, founded the Homophile Society, or Gaysoc at UCL. As far as we know, this was the first gaysoc to be founded in a UK university and affiliated to its student union.
This Thursday, 17 June, Dr Luciano Rila, who – appropriately – teaches in the Mathematics department, will give a talk on Zoom, ‘Gaysocs: a brief and incomplete history’ partly based on the registration file that is preserved in the College archive to help tell that story.
I don’t want to cover the same ground as Luciano, but thought it might still be interesting to share a few images from that file, and why we have these records (and why we don’t have others).
Regarded as an object, the file is as dull as every other UCL administrative file of its time. It’s one of many others recording the registration of affiliated societies, the kinds of societies that students have always liked to form: political and social, serious and frivolous. But this file is a bit different. The title of this piece comes from a letter written by Dick Bishop, Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, to the College Secretary, Arthur Tattersall, demanding to know ‘Who decreed that it is in the general interest that the College should be identified with sexual predilections in this way?’
And J.T. Aitken, Professor of Anatomy, was ‘disturbed … I cannot understand why people should be allowed to make a parade of their aberration’. Tattersall shared these concerns, and involved the Dean of Students, Professor Eric Brown, who wrote to the President of the Union, Pete Johns, about the ‘risk of offending individuals in the College’. Fortunately, Johns declared his absolute opposition to suppressing Gaysoc, suggesting that the authorities should surely be more concerned about those societies that were based around socialism and anarchism, which are dedicated to ‘overturn[ing] the whole fabric of society itself’.
As I’ve said, we have records of a lot of these societies, because there happened to be an established process for authorising them, which meant the central bureaucracy kept files meticulously, with reference numbers, information about who has consulted them, everything properly attached, and every page numbered. They are usually very slim files, containing only one or two pages, just recording the foundation, subscription, office-holders and so on. The Gaysoc file, on the other hand, contains a whopping 22 pages, and it’s not hard to see why: nobody cared much about the Northerners’ Society or the Brewing Society, but some members of UCL were definitely alarmed by the ‘Homophile Society’.
In other words, it’s only where there’s been some kind of trouble that there’s a bit more information. And this is how an institutional archive like the College archive tends to work. We have a lot of registers, minutes of Council and other administrative bodies, staff and student personal files and so on, because that’s our main function. But there are other aspects of life at UCL that, in the past, we were never required to preserve, the unofficial side that would tell us more about how life was actually lived. The Gaysoc file happens to contain a Freshers’ Week programme for 1972, which I think is unique in this series of files:
It was originally preserved as evidence of ‘concern’ about ‘homosex’, but now it can tell other stories, about gay social life at this time, about links with the Gay Liberation Front and Campaign for Homosexual Equality. We are lucky to have in the College archive other material that tells these unofficial stories of staff and student life at UCL: rag mags, periodicals, campaign literature, photographs. But these have come to us in a really unsystematic way, sometimes without any context. For example, we don’t know why we have a copy of this wonderful poster by Alan Wakeman, published by Gay Sweatshop:
or this terrifying account of gay-bashing, in a 1976 leaflet:
We’ve recognised that this has implications about representation in the archive, that doing only ‘top-down’ collecting silences important voices and stories. We have a rich collection in the College archive, but will certainly be doing more ‘ground-up’ collecting to ensure those voices can be preserved and heard for the future.