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 two of a three-part report, Ben Walters revisits the shocking police homophobia of the 1980s, the community power of the RVT at that time, and the wide-ranging backlash to the rubber-gloves raid. Also: why rubber gloves, exactly…?
4. The problem with police
In 1987, 20 years after the Sexual Offences Act 1967 had partially decriminalised gay sex, some things had improved and some things had got worse. Too often, LGBTQ people (to use today’s terminology) were still being targeted as criminals and neglected as victims.
The attitudes and actions of the Metropolitan Police were crucial to this situation.
The 1967 reforms expected that queers should be grateful and discreet or face the consequences. That thinking often remained in place, not least around the criminal justice system. To put it mildly, it could not be assumed that the police and the courts would put queer people’s welfare at the heart of their operation.
Prosecutions for gay sex increased in the 1980s to a high of 2,500 in 1989. Entrapment was still going on, with ‘pretty policeman’ used to lure people into situations that could be portrayed as breaking archaic indecency laws. Men were often busted for kissing in public or just hanging around outside gay venues.
When it came to violence against gay people, police sometimes took quick, effective action to defend them. More often, though, they were indifferent or actively hostile.
The Gay London Police Monitoring Group, or Galop, was set up in 1982 to address homophobia around the criminal justice system and is now a broader LGBT+ anti-violence charity.
Rights we take for granted now were pipe dreams in the 80s. “With queerbashing, there was no hate-crime protection,” notes Peter Kelley, a Galop service manager of 10 years standing. “Generally people wouldn’t have gone to the police and wouldn’t have been taken seriously if they had. They’d have been likely to be judged and ridiculed.”
“Shut up, you queer bastard,” was one police officer’s response to a man trying to report homophobic violence, according to the 1987 Galop annual report. Other officers called LGBTQ people “freaks, queers, lezzies”.
One gay man who was hit on the head with a hammer in a fight was arrested and left in a cell with his wound untreated and the words “Beware AIDS” chalked on the cell door.
As noted in yesterday’s post, it’s hard to overstate the panic, both practical and moral, around HIV at this time. “There was real fear around gay and bisexual men and the idea of contamination,” Kelley says.
Police certainly weren’t exempt from this panic. The use of surgical gloves when dealing with the gay community was not a rarity. Sometimes, officers donned full-body anti-contamination wear, or ‘space suits’, when visiting gay men’s houses. Face masks were sometimes added “to protect against spitting”.
This view of queer people as dirty, feral and hazardous was backed up by rhetoric from the top. In December 1986, Manchester’s chief constable James Anderton described people with AIDS (among others) as “swirling about in a human cesspool of their own making”. He was praised by many for doing so.
Days before Anderton spoke, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern had been raided. Weeks later, it would be raided again by 35 officers, many wearing surgical rubber gloves.
5. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern – colour and life against the odds
“It wasn’t a good time to be gay, put it that way,” Paul O’Grady – aka drag legend Lily Savage – later told filmmaker Tim Brunsden. But if you were going to be gay, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was one of the most iconic spots to do it.
Built around 1861, the pub stands on the site of the Vauxhall pleasure gardens, arguably the place where modern leisure culture was born: the first spot in the country where different classes socialised together, where carnivalesque fun and artistic experimentation were available to all, where cocktails, bandstands and pop songs made their UK debuts.
In the post-war years, the Vauxhall Tavern became known for its drag acts and queer clientele, and it was at the forefront of the drag boom that came on the heels of the 1967 Act. Since 1979, it had been run by Pat and Breda McConnon, an Irish couple who lived upstairs with their kids.
Pat and Breda fully renovated the pub, adding its now-famous stage. They supported queer performance and community and charity work, including a riotous annual sports day featuring a drag relay and 100-yard mince. In 1984, the Vauxhall Tavern hosted Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and their striking Welsh comrades, an occasion immortalised in the 2014 film Pride.
“It had a much more colourful feel than other venues,” recalls Chris Smith (now Lord Smith), who in 1984 became the UK’s first MP to come out. Smith knew the Vauxhall Tavern as a punter if not quite a regular. “Most of the places I visited were either serious drinking or serious dancing but the Vauxhall was more of a burlesque place. It had more colour and life.”
As O’Grady recalled, the Tavern was a key community site in the HIV era. “There was so many funerals held – so many funerals – in the Vauxhall.” Drag acts such as Lily, Adrella and the Trollettes took their work seriously. “We were the Vera Lynns of south London. You know what I mean? Keeping morale up.”
The threat of violence was constant too. “You’d get, like, three straight lads come in and they’d start getting lairy and I’d be sat on the stage. Next thing, they’d have a boot in their mouth… If you came in and tried your hand, well, you know, you got it bitten off. And deservedly so.”
Nor was the pub a stranger to police attention. Following a report in the Sunday Telegraph about the sale of poppers, which were not technically illegal, the Vauxhall was raided on December 17 1986. Pat, Breda and three staff were arrested. The cells were especially stressful for Breda, who was so claustrophobic she needed medical attention.
“The doctor said, ‘I’ll give you a Valium, take it when you get home.’ I said, ‘I’m bloody taking it now!’,” she recalled later. “I was in such a state. I didn’t know my rights… There was two policemen sat beside me and they said, ‘This is all wrong but we can’t say anything’. They were gay but they could say nothing and do nothing.”
Pat was charged under an 1861 statute but the case was eventually dropped – though not before causing huge stress to the McConnon family and Tavern staff and regulars. Venues across London had also stopped selling poppers just in case.
Less than a week after that raid, a gay man was murdered while cruising in nearby Kennington Park. The police appealed for help – but when a local straight couple came forward with information, they were raided and arrested. The wife was denied access to her medication and interrogated about whether her husband buggered her.
6. The rubber-gloves raid: wake-up call, turning point, myth
By the time those rubber-gloved police officers poured into the Royal Vauxhall Tavern that night in January 1987, interrupting a Lily Savage show and arresting 11 punters for the crime of being drunk in a pub, patience among regulars was already running low. For others, the raid was the incident that finally nudged them out of passivity.
Galop’s Peter Kelley suggests that actions against venues were seen as a higher level of oppression than the targeting of individuals. Such raids left little doubt about the Metropolitan Police’s essentially hostile attitude towards the community at that time.
The surgical rubber gloves epitomised this attitude. According to the Home Office, they were used “to protect officers from the risk of infection by Hepatitis B or Aids as a result of accidental injury from any drugs paraphernalia”. The police also said they were worried about absorbing poppers through their skin – though since no one was actually searched for drugs these were not exactly convincing excuses.
Instead, the gloves seemed like a perfect symbol of oppressive marginalisation, speaking to a deep-seated abhorrence at queer bodies. They hinted at both a deep fear of ‘dirty’ blood and the willingness to shed it.
But they also had tremendous camp value, looking rather prissy in themselves and being just a dash of poetic license away from the rubber gloves used for washing-up – a classic accessory of feminised domesticity at odds with the blunt butchness of a conventional copper.
The rubber-gloves raid immediately caused more of a splash than the force could have anticipated. According to Galop, it caused “relations between police and gay men in the area to hit an all-time low”.
Within days, Adrella delivered a strident rallying call from the Vauxhall Tavern stage, slating “some superintendent down at Kennington nick [who] seems to have a little bee in his bonnet about the fact that he raided the pub for the sale of poppers and he hasn’t got a case”.
To huge cheers, she reminded regulars of their community identity, shared experience of oppression and mutual obligation to each other. “If you see anyone taken away in a police van at any time, hang around, watch what happens and then go down to the police station, because you are their witness, and if there is going to be harassment in this pub, it’s your duty to look after your own.”
This being drag, Adrella also demonstrated a novel form of resistance to further police attention: a bottle of red paint. “Should they arrive, I will merrily sling this around and all you have to do is say to the policeman, ‘Oh my God, I’m bleeding’, and all of the policemen will faint.”
There was wider support too. Gay MP Chris Smith attended a public meeting at the Tavern in the wake of the raid, reporting rumours he’d heard in Westminster and Whitehall that the police were trying to close down many gay venues, perhaps leaving as few as one operating in each division. Local Vauxhall MP Stuart Holland wrote to the Home Office demanding it account for the raid as well.
A TV documentary was made about the event and there was sympathetic coverage in the South London Press and in the Guardian, which reported that the raid “increased fears in the gay community that Aids is leading to a campaign of harassment of homosexuals by the police. Scotland Yard was unable yesterday to give any explanation” of the raid.
In the article, O’Grady says the “surgical gloves, the aggressive attitude and the lack of any apparent reason made it seem like harassment to me”.
A local councillor, Allison Higgs, wrote to the Guardian criticising this “disturbing new development in the history of police attacks on our gay community”, calling it “a tactic by the police to give public acceptability to the notion of ‘queer-bashing’.” She signed off by wondering whether some of the officers involved were aroused by rubber – but sarcastically dismissed the idea because, “as we all know, there’s no faggots in the Met”.
As a result of the raid, landlord Pat McConnon was charged once again, this time with permitting drunkenness in his pub. This case was thrown out of court because the police failed to submit any evidence. Perhaps open season on the gay community would not last for ever after all.
“The police who decided to do these raids were behind the times,” says Chris Smith. “Society was already moving towards acceptance. It was one of the last gasps of dying social attitudes.”
The raid soon entered the queer lore of the city. At the pub itself, Lily Savage delivered a rendition of The Night They Raided the Vauxhall to the tune of The Night They Raided Minsky’s (“Fifi from gay Paris” becoming “Breda from County Cork”).
A satirical cartoon showed a cop in shocking pink Marigolds declaring, “This is a police raid! Nobody bleed!”
A too-good-to-be-true yarn did the rounds claiming that Lily herself was carted off to the nick and, when told to give her real name, replied, “Lillian Veronica May Savage”.
And there’s an account of the raid in Kate Pullinger’s 1989 novel When the Monster Dies, during which an officer yells: “ ‘Fucking pariahs. Wouldn’t touch you if they paid me.’ He shook a rubber-gloved fist in the air.”
More recently, the raids on the Tavern have inspired routines by alt-drag sensations the LipSinkers and young queer performer Jade Pollard-Crowe, who created an act while at Duckie’s alt-cabaret summer school that put a whole new spin on police action in Vauxhall…
In the final part: the positive shifts since 1987 in policing, legal reform and social attitudes; and the grave challenges to queer equality – and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern itself – that remain in place today
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.
Anyone affected by hate crime, domestic abuse or sexual violence can contact Galop via their website or on 020 7704.