What a sensational 1987 raid on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern reveals about the limits of 1967 gay law reform and the continuing struggle for queer equality today.
In part one of a three-part report, Ben Walters revisits the night Lily Savage nearly chinned a copper, and looks at how, after 1967, queers were told to be masc, be discreet, and be grateful – or face the consequences.
1. Home invasion
It’s January 24 1987, around 1am on a cold Friday night – well, a Saturday morning now – and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern is heaving. Lily Savage is adjusting her corset, boots and towering blonde ’do ahead of the late show. The dressing room might be a shoebox, and that might be a glass of chip oil by the mirror to take the slap off, but this is home.
In recent years, Lily – otherwise known as Paul O’Grady – has used her weekly residency at what she calls “the Royal Vauxhall Tavern School of Dramatic Art” to become queen of London drag. Outside, queers are falling ill, facing the sack, getting bashed or being vilified as plague-carriers and child-corruptors.
In here, Lily provides succour in the form of cutting wit, gravelly songs and tips on fiddling the gas meter. She wields a mean right hook too, if need be.
Suddenly, the dressing room door bursts open to reveal a young bloke in a police uniform. Obviously, Lily assumes it’s a stripper. She’s not in the mood but he’s persistent. “Come on, you,” he snaps.“Out!”
Lily’s lip curls. “Who the fucking hell are you talking to?!” Then she looks over his shoulder into the main bar space. If he’s a stripper, he’s part of a troupe. The place is a right scene: 35 coppers roam the bar, some carting punters outside to the waiting vans. Another fucking raid, barely a month after the last one. But what’s up with their hands this time? Are the police wearing… rubber gloves?
Lily gets turfed out of the dressing room and comes this close to belting a police woman. “I was fit to kill,” O’Grady later recalled to filmmaker Tim Brunsden. “I really wanted to chin her. I was quite happy to.”
A couple of bar staff bundle Lily behind the bar, probably saving her from being nicked even as she keeps up her tirade. “I nearly got put in the meat wagon. I think it’s because I was so lippy, they said, ‘Oh, let him go.’ I was flaming!”
Eleven others were arrested that night. Some of them said they were verbally and physically abused at Kennington police station down the road as they were being officially cautioned for the offence of being drunk in a pub. The Vauxhall Tavern’s landlord Pat McConnon was charged with permitting the drunkenness.
This was far from the first time such violence had been visited on queer people in their own spaces in that period. But this time, police oppression of London’s gay community would not be ignored. The legend of the rubber-gloves raid was born.
2. 1967 and all that, or tolerance vs equality
This is a big anniversary year for the UK’s LGBTQ community. It marks half a century since a major milestone for queer rights: the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which liberalised gay sex laws for the first time since 1885.
But this month also marks the 30th anniversary of another key moment in UK queer history – that 1987 rubber-gloves raid – which reminds us not to take too complacent a view of the march towards freedom.
It reminds us that, 20 years on from 1967, queers were still being violently oppressed by state and society. That legal progress is different from lived equality. That attacks on queer space are attacks on the right to queer identity. And that today, another 30 years on, these struggles – for lived equality, for queer identity and for the Royal Vauxhall Tavern itself – are far from over.
We’ll be hearing a lot this year about the Sexual Offences Act 1967, and rightly so. The Act marked a positive sea change in official attitudes to homosexuality by decriminalising some gay sex, a relief in certain ways to regulars of venues like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (whose queer use was already well-established by the 1960s and which became the UK’s first queer listed building in 2015).
But the Sexual Offences Act was hardly liberationist.
If you wanted to have gay sex and avoid prison, you had to be over 21 (for straight sex it was 16).
You had to ensure privacy (you’d be in the wrong if someone could peep into your room, or was simply elsewhere in the house, and lavatories definitely weren’t allowed).
You had to be in England or Wales (sorry Scotland and Northern Ireland).
A threesome could earn you two years inside.
A 22-year-old who had sex with his 20-year-old boyfriend could get five years (actually more than before 1967).
And women? What women?
Politicians who responded to campaigning and research to back the Act were sticking their necks out for a progressive cause and deserve appreciation for that. But they were still generally men of their time.
Home Secretary Roy Jenkins – a crucial supporter – referred to homosexuality as a “disability”. Lord Arran, one of the law’s main proponents, asked gay men “to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity”, noting that “any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful [and] make the sponsors of this bill regret that they had done what they had done”.
This was a step forward, then, but it was about toleration behind closed doors, not equality in life as a whole. The state would deign not to ruin your existence if you accepted second-class status without a fuss and didn’t behave as if your desires, your relationships, your culture and your identity were as valid as straight people’s.
Do it if you must, the law now said, but be masc, be discreet and be grateful – or suffer the consequences. And there were consequences. A lot more people went to prison for gay sex after 1967 than they did before.
Anything that could be considered “procuring” gay sex, including nightlife venues, personal ads or even flirting on the bus, was technically illegal. So chatting someone up at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern made you a criminal even if shagging them in the privacy of your flat didn’t.
Plenty of older laws could also still be used to prosecute gay men for “unnatural”, “indecent” sexual behaviour or public impropriety, and they were. This often involved active entrapment through the undercover deployment of so-called “pretty policemen”, assigned specifically to hang out near bars, cottages or cruising grounds and bust gay men who supposedly made a move on them.
As Peter Tatchell has noted, convictions for gay sex actually surged after the Act, from 420 in 1966 to more than 1250 in 1971. That year’s Misuse of Drugs Act also gave police powers to hassle venues if there was a chance certain substances might be around.
3. Culture wars, Aids and the assault on queer civics
The 1970s and early 80s saw something of a culture war. Government and mainstream culture continued to take a less than progressive view of sexuality and gender, while police and courts kept clobbering gay men for having sex, showing affection or unapologetically being themselves.
Media coverage of convictions was standard, often resulting in the loss of jobs, homes, families and, through suicide, lives.
But new kinds of affirmation, resistance and defiance also emerged, including activist groups such as the Gay Liberation Front, which organised the first Gay Pride march; spaces such as Gay’s the Word bookshop; and newspapers such as Gay News and Capital Gay.
A new gay civics was taking shape – a way of asserting the right not just to toleration but to equality and proud difference. Partial decriminalisation finally came to Scotland and Northern Ireland too.
Then came the HIV/Aids crisis – the biggest challenge faced by the community since 1967 both in terms of the human devastation it wrought and the virulent homophobia it unleashed.
The impact of the disease accelerated rapidly in the early 1980s but the crisis was initially met with minimal government action, widespread media hostility, a surge in homophobic violence and a police crackdown on queer civic spaces.
In 1983, the tabloids kicked up a stink around a children’s book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which dared to suggest same-sex couples existed and were sometimes parents, and was therefore corrupting young minds.
In 1984, the police raided Gay’s the Word bookshop on the basis of archaic obscenity laws.
In 1986, a major source of support for queer Londoners was lost when the Conservative government abolished the Greater London Council, the popular local government body lambasted by the tabloids as the “loony left” for supporting things like anti-racism and equal rights for gay people around health, housing and employment.
And 1987 in particular was a key point in the history of LGBTQ marginalisation. In a recent lecture focusing on that year,
Professor Matt Cook, a historian of queer London, noted that public attitudes towards homosexuality, which had been improving, went into reverse: in 1983, the British Social Attitudes Survey suggested that 62% of the population disapproved of homosexuality, but by 1987 the figure was 74%. (In 2010, it was still as high as 30%.)
Also in 1987, the annual death toll from Aids doubled to more than 600 and the HIV-positive population reached four figures. (The Daily Mail referred to the crisis as “a moral Chernobyl”.) The government launched an awareness campaign featuring ominous images of a tombstone-like monolith.
The year saw the proposal of Clause 28 of the Local Government Bill, a ban on “promoting” homosexuality or “pretended family relationships” that came into law in 1988, compromising schools’ and local authorities’ ability to broach the subject.
Homophobic violence also soared in 1987. That year’s report of the Gay London Police Monitoring Group (Galop) makes for shocking reading. Galop received more reports of homophobic attacks in the first three months of 1987 than during the whole of 1986.
Queerbashing gangs of up to 25 people wielded bricks, bottles and broken glass; jaws and noses were broken, people beaten unconscious and murdered.
Capital Gay newspaper was firebombed. “Quite right too,” was one Conservative MP’s response. “There should be an intolerance of evil.” A month later, Margaret Thatcher made her a dame.
Violence was often targeted at people, spaces or organisations that publicly affirmed the equal value of queer life – those who told mainstream society that we’re as good as you but not necessarily the same as you – that, no, we shouldn’t be denied access to mainstream institutions like marriage or the military just because of our sexuality – but yes, we also assert the right to cultivate our own institutions on our own terms.
In 1984, Chris Smith, Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury, had become the UK’s first MP to choose to come out as gay. He was highly active around community issues such as the raid on Gay’s the Word, and today he highlights how the claim to a proud, distinctively queer civic culture was perceived by some as a threat that needed to be shut down.
“Although we had decriminalisation in 1967, the absolute requirement was it was only in private,” says Smith (now Lord Smith of Finsbury).
“The problem with bookshops, pubs, clubs and cabaret venues was that this wasn’t private. It was what some people described as gay people flaunting themselves and during the mid-80s there did seem to be a determined push to marginalise the LGBT community.
“None of these venues were doing anything wrong but because it was gay people being open about being gay in public, it became the target of what was frankly homophobic attack.
“The rubber-gloves raid on the Vauxhall Tavern fitted into that pattern.”
Coming up in part two:
• the panic and persecution of policing in 1987
• the colour and life of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1987
• and a range of bolshy responses to the raid
• and why rubber gloves anyway?
The RVT Future campaign (of which I am a member) is fighting to secure the Royal Vauxhall Tavern as a site of LGBTQ community and culture. Learn more at their website and find out the latest at a free event at the RVT this Thursday January 19 including a panel, performance and partying.