Research Fellow at Swansea University
Dr Leeworthy delivered a version of this paper in a research seminar to mark LGBTQ+ History month at Bangor University on February 5th, 2020.
Open the pages of Broadsheet, a newsletter published by the Leeds branch of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in the early 1970s, and you’ll find mention of the long-forgotten Bangor GLF. Gay liberation arrived in Bangor in the aftermath of the National Union of Students coming out in favour of lesbian and gay rights at their Easter conference in 1973. In those days, if you wanted a pint in an LGBT-friendly environment and studied at Bangor, you had to travel to Llandudno. Known to some as the Brighton of Wales, there were a couple of the hotel bars which were known as being safe – most notably the Rembrandt Bar at the Washington Hotel. The convenor of Bangor GLF was Simon del Nevo (or perhaps del Novo, the sources were never consistent) who was the central figure involved in establishing the LGBT civil rights movement at the university almost fifty years ago.
But 1973 was not the first step that Bangor took on the road to achieving civil rights for LGBT people, either locally or across Wales and Britain as a whole. Instead, we must look to a young lecturer in English Literature who was working at Bangor in the 1950s and early 1960s: A. E. Dyson. A graduate of Cambridge University, where he got to know the poet Thom Gunn, whose 1992 collection The Man with Night Sweats vividly described the HIV/AIDS crisis, Dyson took it upon himself to co-ordinate a letter in the spring of 1958 calling for decriminalisation of male homosexuality. Signed by figures including former Labour prime minister Clement Attlee and published in The Times, Dyson’s letter marked the beginning of almost a decade of campaigning which resulted in the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexual relationships between men.
Remarkably, Dyson had written to would-be supporters using (as Bangor was then known) University College of North Wales headed notepaper, which not only identified Dyson’s place of work but also exposed him to potential blackmail if his correspondents turned out to be hostile to his request rather than sympathetic. In the event, not only were Attlee and others, sympathetic, they agreed to support Dyson in establishing the Homosexual Law Reform Society – the first of the post-war LGBT civil rights organisations. In other words, the long march towards equality, in Wales, at least, began not in Cardiff or Swansea, as might be expected, but in the English Literature Department in Bangor. That deserves a blue plaque. Or, even better, a rainbow one!
The story did not end either in 1958 or 1973. By the 1980s, Bangor was beginning to develop a modest gay scene of its own. Pubs like the King’s Arms and the Union Hotel were recognised as gay friendly, and student lesbian and gay groups met there or at Ty Gwydr (the Green House). The Green House was home, too, to the local advice lines and telephone counselling services such as the Lesbian Line. Eventually, in 1983, Bangor had its first gay bar – at the student union. It was the brainchild of the LGBT society’s then secretary, Simon Moss, a biology student. No more travelling to Chester or Liverpool, as did students in the 1970s.
There remains much more of this history to uncover, of course, and many stories of those involved in developing the LGBT groups and facilities in Bangor in the 1980s and 1990s need to be captured for the future: either written down or recorded. But even a short sketch of the contours of Bangor’s more recent LGBT history shows, I think, just how rich this often-hidden aspect of the past happens to be. The essays in this special issue of 1884 confirm it.