Veteran gay activist Ted Brown, who came out before LGBT people had any rights in the UK, has dedicated his life to combating racism and homophobia since joining the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1970, after meeting a group of activists picketing The Boys in the Band in London’s West End.
Ted Brown had been aware of his feelings for other boys at school when he was 11 or 12, but it was the discovery of a Tom of Finland book in a Popular Books store in New Cross, London, when he was 15 that convinced him this was not a phase. “I remember very distinctly seeing the picture: it’s two very butch guys, one is a motor cyclist and the other is down on his knees scrubbing bike oil from the other one’s jeans. I walked all the way home with an erection! And that was the week I told my mother there is no doubt what is going on here,” he recalls.
His mother was supportive: in the US, she had been active in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), which had been discussing gay rights as early as the 1950s in the US, partly thanks to the pioneering work of openly gay activist and strategist Bayard Rustin, who would later go on to organise the 1963 March on Washington, when Martin Luther King delivered the 20th century’s most famous anti-racist speech, ‘I Have A Dream’. “Part of the reason I knew I could speak to my mother was because she had been involved in these discussions in New York,” Ted says. (His Jamaican-born mother had been deported from the US when authorities took advantage of her overdue visa to expel the NAACP activist.)
But as the year was 1965, two years before partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales and four ahead of the Stonewall uprising on the other side of the Atlantic, Ted’s mother knew her son was facing a hard road ahead of him. “Her attitude was, ‘Woe is me, woe is you’,” he says: her child was going to have to deal with homophobia as well as the racism they had already encountered outside their home at Deptford Church Street, which was just a couple of hundred yards from The Albany, where we will be premiering our new show, We Raise Our Hands In The Sanctuary, in February 2017. (In accordance with the ever-increasing speed of the evolution of London’s socio-geography, the house has since been demolished to make way for a motorway). Back then, the National Front was an active force, stoking racial tensions between some sections of the indigenous white working class community and the new generations of black British people trying to make a life for their families. “We had shit pushed through our letterbox,” he recalls. On another occasion, he and his mother were chased down the street by thugs throwing rocks at them.
As Ted came out to his mother inside the home, within the solace of bricks and mortar, they cried on each other’s shoulders. “She couldn’t tell anybody, I couldn’t tell anybody else,” Ted recalls – including his younger sister (then aged 11) and brother (five), whom he didn’t want to burden with the news. “If I had told them, they would have had to bear this knowledge, this secret, which anyone who’d found out would have interpreted as, ‘You have a brother who’s sick’,” he says. Six months later, Ted’s road became harder still when his mother died, and the children were split up in different children’s homes.
Soon after he arrived at Stonefield, the boys’ home in Blackheath, Ted realised he wasn’t the only gay teen there – another boy who had been on the rent scene for two years took him up to the Piccadilly Circus cruising area one evening. “I got stopped by the police and warned off. He was arrested because he’d been caught before but they let me off because they could see I was naïve and innocent: it was obvious I didn’t know what was going on,” he says.
Ted wasn’t the only gay pupil at school either. “There were two other guys I thought were gay, but again we couldn’t talk about it because it would have been just unbearable – one or two kids were bullied incessantly and called sissies, yet teachers wouldn’t protect them,” Ted says. He’s sure that the two pupils who committed suicide during his schooldays did so because they couldn’t stand the homophobia aimed at them.
Ted himself tried to take his own life as a teenager – twice. “I remember thinking, ‘My life is going to be a disaster’. I had read about how lots of enslaved Black people committed suicide during the slavery days in the USA – not in the sense that they felt there was something wrong in being Black but because the future, for them (and for me) was something not to be tolerated,” he says. But after the second failed attempt he realised he had to keep going – for his siblings, if nothing else. “I thought, ‘Hold on, no – I’ve got a younger brother and sister that I need to think about, to look out for: at least until they’re older, I can’t do this.”
The siblings were re-united first in the same children’s home and then fostered by Ted’s English teacher from Eltham Green Comprehensive. It was one night in 1967 that he left his foster parents’ home and spent his first eye-opening evening in The Coleherne in Earl’s Court (one of the oldest gay bars in London until it was re-opened as a gastropub in 2008). Back in ’67, it was pub with a varied clientele. “On one side were angora sweaters and cigarette holders and people talking about the theatre and on the other side were people in leather jackets and jeans talking about their motorbikes and they almost regarded each other as being from different gay worlds,” he says. “That’s where I met a guy that I had a really good scene with for the best part of ten years: he worked as a milk deliveryman and a bus driver. He was very sexually experienced, a lot of fun, on the leather side of the bar.” That was Ted’s entrance into the gay scene, although he never became a weekly regular at The Coleherne. “I went to the pub less frequently because I was usually one of the very few Black guys in there. Sometimes the atmosphere became awkward because unfortunately the gay scene wasn’t that much better than hetero society was on race issues – and also I didn’t have the gear: I didn’t have either the angora sweaters or the leather jackets!”
While the Race Relations Act (forerunner of the 2010 Equality Act) had proscribed discrimination on grounds of race in 1976, this was still the era when The Black and White Minstrel Show remained a BBC Saturday night primetime staple (it was only cancelled in 1978). And the far right was emboldened and organised: the National Front attempted to march through multi-racial Lewisham in summer 1977, protected by 500 Metropolitan Police officers (and confronted by at least as many anti-fascist protestors); a year later, the old Albany Empire, which had hosted many Rock Against Racism gigs, perished in flames as a result of an arson attack by opponents of its commitment to diversity; in January 1981, 13 Black teens were killed in the New Cross fire, widely believed by locals to have been an arson attack.
It was in this context that Ted encountered myriad forms of racism on the gay scene. “I had to run the gauntlet of some gay guys who were into Black guys for sometimes rather dubious reasons,” he explains. “There would be men who thought they could ‘show me civilisation’: we’d go out to dinner with a guy and he’d try to show me how to use my knife and fork – that kind of stuff still happens. Then there would be somebody who wanted to compensate for the way white people have treated Black people – ‘I’ll show you that I can treat you as an equal’ – I can understand it in principle but it’s not the basis of a relationship, either sexual or otherwise. Or you would get the impression from others that they thought they weren’t ‘good enough’ for another white guy – but they could date a Black guy’. This would all exist: there are all sorts of trips with racism that complicate sexuality.”
The patronising liberal sympathy of the era was almost as bad, he remembers. “The idea of treating Black people as different or exotic or social climbers was much more acceptable. Some people would be surprised that I was reasonably articulate or educated: they’d think that I could step up in life only with their help,” he says. “Think about it in terms of dealing with someone who’s openly hostile about your being gay and somebody who thinks they’re being liberal about your being gay,” he laughs. “Sometimes the liberal thing can be actually worse because they’re being patronising, think they’re being kind, or they’re feeling sorry for you, or they forgive you for your ‘sickness’ – sometimes it’s easier to deal with people who say, ‘I hate queers’.”
For a Black gay man, experiences in gay places then varied according to location, environment, social geography, he says. “At The Coleherne, they would sometimes have racist skinheads in there, and you’d get occasionally nasty remarks, but toned down, because even a gay skinhead in a gay pub does not want to start a confrontation with anybody, because if the police turn up, all the gays there would be in trouble – and also because of the mix of people: things got a little bit better over the years as more racial integration occurred between the races and cultures.”
The pub benefited from its primarily residential surroundings, he says. “The Coleherne had flats above and both sides, and people living there, so again people had to be discrete and much more careful. But at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern you didn’t get many people passing by and fewer straight people wandering by, so people found it easier to be a little more uninhibited. Because the Vauxhall is located near a railway bridge by a small industrial wasteland a little off the beaten track, guys could be much more open. People at the Vauxhall would take their drinks outside. To passers-by, mainly in cars, it would simply look like a bunch of straight men drinking outside a pub – the drag queens were inside, on stage.” The downside was that the venue was much more isolated if anything did kick off. “If you got your nasty skinhead in there, they could be much abrasive because they were much less worried about the police turning up.”
After his first fateful encounter with the GLF outside the 1970 Mart Crowley / William Friedkin film The Boys In The Band, Ted spent more time in activist politics than the pubs and clubs of the ’70s and ’80s. “They were demonstrating outside the cinema, protesting that the film was a negative portrayal of gay men. I took a leaflet and went to the second meeting at Middle Earth in Covent Garden. And that’s where I met my partner Noel, who I’m still with – although when we met, I was still illegal, because you had to be over 21, so we had to keep that quiet. Once I joined GLF, that was my social life and my sexual life really.”
After leaving his foster parents’ home, Ted moved into one of the GLF communes in Bounds Green, where the debates about how to live gay liberation burned with an intensity that has all but disappeared today. Some GLF activists argued that Ted’s partnering with his lover Noel was just imitating the nuclear family, and others criticised him for not embracing drag: “I told them I didn’t come into gay liberation to be told what to do: I can see the argument but I didn’t feel I had to wear drag or a wig to liberate myself as a gay man,” he says.
When GLF activists set up what was then London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard in 1974, Ted put in many hours as a volunteer on the phone lines in a cramped office above Housman’s bookshop in King’s Cross (the radical bookshop has survived the gentrification of the area). “I still remember some of these calls: ‘I’m 50 years old, I’m homosexual, I’ve never had sex with anybody – I just want somebody to talk to.’ Or, ‘I’m having an affair behind my wife’s back.’ Or, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ These were calls from people who had no one else to talk to about their lives as gay people.”
Ted moved to the USA for a few years in 1980, looking for his elder sister (who had not come to England with the rest of her siblings in 1959), and started an affair with a truck driver he met in a bar in New York, not far from The Stonewall Inn. “In 1981, I got an enormous swelling in my glands that became painful – it was the size of a small egg. I couldn’t afford to have anything done about in New York. I had to move to his home in New Jersey before a doctor could look at it – they couldn’t make out what the hell it was and after several months it disappeared.” It was only when he returned to London in 1984 that Ted was diagnosed with HIV. “Because I’d already lost several friends who’d died from AIDs then, the afternoon I was diagnosed I was so freaked out that I actually lost my way home – I got on the wrong train,” he recalls. But apart from an episode of TB and a bout of pneumonia, he has remained well. “By 1997, I was one of only 27 people in England who have been diagnosed positive from 1984 onwards and not died,” he says.
By a bitter irony, his most dangerous hospital episode had nothing to do with his positive status but was the result of a viciously homophobic attack in December 1992 for leading the campaign against reggae musician Buju Banton’s anti-gay hit Boom Bye Bye, which called for the execution-style killings of gay men and lesbians (“Boom bye bye / Inna batty bwoy head / Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man / Dem haffi dead”). Black Lesbians and Gays Against Media Homophobia (BLGAMH), the group that Ted founded, persuaded the international festival WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Drama) to withdraw its invitation to Banton to play at its events, campaigned against the song’s radio airplay and hooked up with the US-based Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to lobby TV companies not to book him. But after a TV appearance on Channel 4’s The Word to speak about the campaign, Ted was attacked in his home by three men (two white, one Black), who forced their way in and beat him so badly he was hospitalised for several days.
Now in his mid-sixties, Ted remains active in the struggle for equality, convinced that his double-minority status has given him a truly radical insight into how things could really be. “Me and other Black guys that I know, we both feel one of the reasons we weren’t self-condemning about our homosexuality was because of our awareness about racism,” he says. “I had been raised by my mother with the knowledge the whatever the authorities say about Black people or women, it doesn’t necessary stand right, whereas I can see a white child whose mother and father and everybody accept society’s hostility against Black people and gay people as being normal: I’m the outside looking in.”
© Daniel Fulvio & Martin Moriarty