Erimus: Uncovering Teesside’s missing LGBT+ history

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By Luke Myer

There’s an odd stereotype about our LGBT+ community on Teesside: that we don’t really exist.

It’s not true, of course – our LGBTees network alone has over two hundred members, and this is just a fraction of an estimated 13,400 LGBT+ people across the Tees Valley. We’ve always been here – but how much of our history can we read about?

Instead, what we can read is a lot of commentators saying Teesside couldn’t possibly be a place for LGBT+ people. As with most dodgy opinions, you can find examples of this on Twitter. When the government announced it was going to hold a global LGBT+ conference, the Spectator journalist Jonathan Miller tweeted that it would be irrelevant to ‘everyone in Hartlepool.’ Before that, in February, a man called Anthony tweeted that ‘traditional voters in Redcar’ dislike ‘gender identity politics’. The same view about ‘voters in Redcar’ was tweeted out by a bloke called Michael the year before, and the journalist Helen Lewis the year before that. The problem with all this is that Helen is from Worcester, Anthony is from Norfolk, Jonathan is from France, and Michael is an expat from Yeovil who now lives in Turkey. None of these people, as far as I can tell, have ever even been to Teesside. Their average distance from us is about 760 miles, although I imagine Michael’s doing most of the legwork there.

The challenge here is that for decades, we haven’t been able to tell our own story. It’s been written for us, mainly by those who Jeff Stelling might describe as guacamole-eating latte-drinkers. The truth is that there is a rich, diverse history across Teesside; we’ve had feminist pioneers like Marion Coates Hansen, Alice Coates and Red Ellen Wilkinson, all the way through to Mo Mowlam or Steph McGovern. We’ve had anti-racist campaigners from the Stockton trade unionists through to today’s activists like ‘Chief’ Bradley Mafuta or Georgina Chinaka. So too have we had generations of LGBT+ folk.

That’s why, as we prepare for our post-pandemic Pride, it’s a good opportunity to take a look at just some of the LGBT+ Teessiders left out of our history.

Esmé Langley (b.1919)

Guisborough is a quiet East Cleveland town, perhaps best known for its beautiful ruined priory, home to monks during the 12th century. But in 1919, a woman was born in Guisborough who would go on to lead a less-than-monastic life.

Esmé Langley had a happy childhood, and moved south at the age of sixteen. After working on cyphers at the War Office during WWII, she became a writer and publisher. She had a strong desire to fight for minorities, and in 1963 she founded the UK’s first lesbian group, the Minorities Research Group. Her first task for the MRG was to set up a new publication – Britain’s first lesbian magazine.

In spring 1964 the first issue of Arena Three was published, and Langley took on the sole legal and financial responsibility for it. The magazine provided a lifeline for lesbians and bisexual women across the country; the former secretary of the Homosexual Law Reform Society, Antony Grey, later wrote that Arena Three was pivotal in ‘breaching the public wall of silence and bringing lesbianism into the arena of public debate’. Esmé risked loss of employment, abuse and ostracization from family to do it.

Arena Three ran until July 1971, before morphing into a new publication called Sappho, first published in April 1972. Sappho was the dominant means by which lesbian and bisexual feminist voice was developed in the UK, until its final issue was published in 1981. The two publications were directly responsible for establishing key LGBT+ organisations, such as the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and KENRIC, the UK’s longest-running lesbian social group. But indirectly, the impact of Esmé’s work was in huge strides of social progress for lesbians and bisexual women. By the time she passed away in 1991, homosexuality had been partly decriminalised and Stonewall were amassing public opposition to the Conservatives’ vicious Section 28 legislation.

That progress circled back to Teesside. A Teesside Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) group was founded in November 1970; by 1972 there were three separate CHE Groups across the Tees Valley. Under Labour’s Mike Carr in the 1980s, Middlesbrough Council set up its first equal opportunities committee and donated £750 to fund a lesbian telephone helpline. The council was branded “Looney Left” for doing so, and the Evening Gazette published a whole page of complaint letters. That didn’t stop the community from growing. A small LGBT+ scene started to emerge in Middesbrough, and older folks in the community will remember a tiny club called Paradise in the 1980s, as well as gay nights at The Grand Astoria, The Hog’s Head (now a Tesco) and Centrefold (now being turned into flats).

Reverend Christopher Wardale (b.1946)

Esmé had been born in the midst of a post-war baby boom – and 27 years later, there came another one. From the rubble of the Second World War came the NHS and the modern welfare state, and a new generation came with it too. Two and a half million babies were born in the years directly after the Second World War; one of those babies was Christopher Wardale.

Christopher was born in Saltburn in 1946; his father was the boss of Saltburn Motor Services, a major bus company in East Cleveland which ran 44 vehicles transporting I.C.I. workers, builders and tourists. This upbringing allowed him to go to university to study fine arts. At 30, he was accepted for training to the priesthood.

“I never thought of myself as a priest who ‘happened’ to be gay,” he would later write. “I was called by God as a gay man to be a priest.”

After being ordained in 1979, the Reverend Wardale became an energetic, pioneering leader across the North East – turning around churches from Boldon Colliery in Tyneside to Cockerton in County Durham. He served as the minister of Holy Trinity Darlington for 14 years from 1992. It wasn’t always easy; he was spat at and called the ‘anti-Christ’. But his ability to preach with joy, fun and compassion led to his description in The Northern Echo in 2006: “respected by many”.

In the late 1980s, Christopher met his long-term partner Malcolm, an academic at Northumbria University. After twenty years together, the couple celebrated their civil partnership in 2005. They were among the first civil partnerships in the country, and although the church nationally didn’t approve, their local church held a thanksgiving celebration service where the former Bishop of Durham blessed the couple.

After his 60th birthday in 2006, Christopher retired. Hundreds of local well-wishers turned out at his church in Darlington, and even the Mayor came along to give Christopher and Malcolm three cheers. Since then, Christopher and Malcolm have continued to work to change attitudes in the church across the UK and Ireland. Same-sex marriage is currently not allowed in most Anglican churches, although change is coming; the Scottish Episcopal Church approved equal marriage in 2017, and the Church in Wales this year. In July, the Methodist Church also voted to allow same-sex marriage, following the United Reformed Church and the Quakers.

Elisha Lowther (b.1966)

By the time Christopher retired, the community across Teesside was starting to thrive. Local LGBT+ bars included Annie’s, The Oak, Cassidy’s and Desirez in the 1990s and early 2000s – predecessors to today’s clubs like Tiny and Sapphire’s. In 1997, the Rainbow Centre community group was established, which became Hart Gables in 2005. Several local support groups started to emerge, and at the heart of at least five different support groups was one woman, Elisha Lowther. I interviewed Ellie last year.

Ellie grew up in the 1960s in a mixed-race family of six, living in a tiny two-bedroom terraced house in the centre of Middlesbrough. 

‘I remember when I was a kid,’ she recalls, ‘there was one person on my street who got ridiculed all over the place for “dressing like a woman”, in the standard of then. Where we are now, we’ve made so much progress.’

‘The youngsters today, who don’t fit into the binary, they’re going to take a baseball bat to all these ‘-isms’. The youngsters see a sense of urgency in making the world a more inclusive and cleaner and fairer place.’

Elisha founded a wide range of local support groups, including Middlesbrough Survivors, Teesside Survivors, Cleveland Transgender Association and Trans Aware. Trans Aware operated the “Our House Project”, which provided a safe living space for trans Teessiders, as well as an online peer support group. The oldest person to receive support from Ellie’s group is 80 years old.

Today, she is the CEO of Essential Learning Curve LTD, delivering cultural awareness and diversity training.

‘I’ve had transphobic people come on my sessions. And at the end of the session, they’re not transphobic any more. They actually understand it. They understand the sandpaper feeling of dysphoria. They understand where it comes from, they understand how it interacts. So I think in that way, bit by bit, we’re changing things.’

‘For me, it’s about being in the position to make change… and I think the change is coming. We were born to make history, every one of us.’

Making history

There are hundreds of stories like these, going back to Teesside’s very beginnings.

There was the Bainesse Gallus, a gender-non-conforming Roman priest who lived in North Yorkshire in the 4th century. There was Anne Lennard, daughter of the Duchess of Cleveland, who had a lesbian relationship with the Italian mistress of her father King Charles II. There was William Metcalf, an elderly resident of Sir William Turner’s Hospital in Kirkleatham who was expelled for ‘sodomy’ in the 1770s. There was Sir Edmund Backhouse, an eccentric bisexual scholar from Darlington who alleged he’d had affairs with Prime Minister Archibald Primrose and the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi. There was Harold Macmillan, MP for Stockton and future Prime Minister, widely considered to have been bisexual. There was Harry Coen and David Thornton, flamboyant gay journalists in Redcar in the 1970s who were arrested for organising an illegal 3,000-person gig for the Edgar Broughton Band, fresh from playing the Keele student occupation. There was Denise Mosse, a trans woman who grew up in Skelton in the 1960s and became Redcar’s chess champion. There are Victorian accounts of Saltburn fishermen dressing in drag to catch unsuspecting seals, sixty years before New York’s drag balls took off in the 1920s. There are LGBT+ veterans of North East mining communities, like Bob Bell, who can tell stories of the queer encounters some had while waiting for seams to be blown. Later, during the miners’ strikes in 1984, the Gay Scotland magazine published a letter from ‘Lance’, a 21-year-old North Yorkshire miner.

‘I’m gay,’ he wrote, ‘but some don’t believe it! Why should I keep quiet? I have as much right as anybody else to express my feelings!’

LGBT+ Teessiders have always been here, and we aren’t going anywhere. It’s as Middlesbrough’s motto says: Erimus. We shall be.

There’s another motto that exists on Teesside, of course: ‘Progress In Unity’. These were the words stitched into Teesside’s crest of arms more than fifty years ago, emblazoned in red beneath images of ships and seahorses and billowing wreaths in silver and blue. The message was simple: that only together can we move forward.

It was an unlikely idea, borne out of the hopes of generations of workers and families who had put differences aside to build a place they could call home. Less of a motto, and more of a promise: a vow to their children and their childrens’ children that one day it would be real. Teesside has not always lived up to this promise. But throughout the stories is a common thread of hope. We may come from different places, look different, and carry different identities with us, but for all of us this little corner of the world is home. That’s who we are – and who (Erimus) we shall be.

Article by Luke Myer is a writer and campaigner from Redcar & Cleveland who runs LGBTees, a Teesside LGBT+ network with over 200 members.

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