Theodore (Ted) Brown is a Gay Liberation Front veteran and the main motivator of Black Lesbians and Gays Against Media Homophobia. He’ll be speaking at the ’40 years on: Where are LGBT rights?’ conference on the 19th of May*.
In this exclusive interview, Ted Brown shares his feelings about his early days of involvement with the GLF and his best and worst memories of the time and reflects on the current issues that need urgent attention of LGBT activists.
When and how did you first get involved with the Gay Liberation Front? Were you involved in gay rights activism before joining the GLF?
As an American-born black male living in England I’d often been confronted with racism, even as a very young child. Growing into a teenager and realising I was sexually attracted to other guys added to my apprehension about the future. I did know that, if ever identified as homosexual, I was liable to be treated as an outcast, insulted, physically attacked or even imprisoned. But I did not know any other gay people for support against this bigotry. However, I can still remember seething with anger upon reading the virulently homophobic article ‘How To Spot A Possible Homo’ in The Sunday Mirror (April 1963). But there seemed nothing I could do to protest this garbage, which was similar in its ignorant, negative stereotyping style that also applied against black people frequently in those days.
I first became aware of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1969, when I was 19 years old. After reading a short and flippantly condescending article in another Sunday newspaper, which joked that “queers” were setting up a protest group, I cart-wheeled all around the living room – even though there were no details supplied about when and where this was taking place. The following year I went alone to see the American film ‘Boys In The Band’ at the Odeon Cinema, Leicester Square in London. Though far less negative than any previous Hollywood movie mentioning gays, it was still a depressing experience, since it portrayed mainly sad, vindictive and self-hating ‘fags’. Depressed, leaving the cinema, I met some people demonstrating against the film. I was handed a leaflet announcing the new group, The Gay Liberation Front – and I went to its next meeting, held in Middle Earth (Covent Garden, London).
Anyone interested in looking up the short but remarkable history of the GLF should refer to Lisa Power’s book ‘No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front 1970-73’.
What would you say was the biggest achievement of the GLF?
Establishing and encouraging homosexual people to be proud, happy and open about our sexual orientation, while simultaneously challenging society’s homophobia.
What is the best and worst memory that you have of your participation in the gay rights movement?
Best is living in one of the GLF Communes for almost 3 years (where I met and began living with my current partner, Noel). Worst is the surprisingly patriarchal attitude of some gay men towards women and their general lack of multicultural openness on issues of sexuality.
Do you see links between racism and homophobia and would you say that the struggle against both has been concurrent and supplementary?
Racism and homophobia rely upon spreading vicious lies about, seriously denigrating and removing the rights of their victims. Certainly, at least in America, the Black rights movement has been instrumental in helping change people’s attitudes. Check out the openly gay black activist Bayard Rustin’s work and relations with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and Martin Luther King’s and his wife Coretta Scott King’s statements on gay rights.
Even Huey P. Newton, Commander of the famously radical Black Panther Party wrote:
“Whatever your personal opinion and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements amongst homosexuals and women as oppressed groups, we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion…….There is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary…quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.”
(Quoted from ‘A Letter From Huey To the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters About the Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Movements’ and ‘Brother To Brother’, Alyson Publications 1991)
Would you agree that the mainstream LGBT movement in the UK and US is still quite ‘white-centric’?
How big a role has the black community played in the LGBT movement that you have witnessed?
I’ve no statistics about the proportions, but the story of the coming out of the black footballer Justin Fashanu (the only professional football player yet to do so) was significant, as were the organisations such as the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre Project, Rukus, Black Lesbians & Gays Against Media Homophobia.
You have been involved in work around media and homophobia. It is still not uncommon to come across homophobic jokes in the media. Why do you think it has proved so difficult to encourage the media to promote homosexual friendly messages?
Several thousand years of Judao-Christian cultural homophobia does not completely disappear in one generation. This firmly established homophobia might have been eradicated centuries ago if many more LGBT people had come out and challenged it in the past. There have always been a few people ready to stand up against the bigotry, but sadly they were outnumbered and ignored. An example I’ve found is in the National Archives in Kew, West London. There’s a scroll, dated 1749 written by Thomas Cannon, titled ‘Ancient And Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified‘. In the scroll Cannon composed gay stories, translated ancient homoerotic text and argued “Unnatural desire is a contradiction in terms; downright nonsense. Desire is an amatory impulse of the inmost human parts”. But after its publication, both he and the publisher had to flee England, because then the death penalty was applied against those who ‘promoted’ or performed homosexual behaviour. Today, unfortunately, some of the campaigning impetus for LGBT rights has lessened because too many of us have become blasé and take the successes we’ve won for granted, so are no longer struggling for progress.
What do you think is the most pressing issue for the LGBT community today?
Getting more people to come out proudly, fight for our rights, and oppose ongoing homophobia here and internationally (for example, proposed anti-LGBT death penalty laws in Uganda).
*The conference ’40 years on: Where are LGBT rights?’ has been funded and organised by STICERD, LSE Africa Initiative and Departments of Sociology, Social Policy, Geography and Environment, Gender Institute and the LSE Library. For details about the conference, please contact – firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com