Gay Life in Edinburgh 1977 - 1980
It was the early summer of 1977. By now it was clear to me that I was attracted to other men. I called the Samaritans and they referred me to the Scottish Minorities Group (SMG).
I called the SMG Befriending Service, which was well established and, as I recall, operated most evenings. Two of their team met me in town and we went for tea where we talked about being gay and what it meant for me. It was really helpful and professional and obviously a well-established non-directive counselling service with trained volunteers (the Samaritans clearly saw fit to recommend it and I assume they had done their due diligence). My befrienders were John Compass (who was an established estate agent and also the person who had project-managed the acquisition of the gay centre in Broughton Street) and a guy called Ted who was a teacher. I remained friends with John for many years. Both of these wonderful men have now long since passed away. I saw many others come into the community via the Befrienders. I joined the Befriending team myself some years later.
Shortly after I met John and Ted, I was invited to come to the Gay Centre in Broughton Street. This was August 1977. I am completely clear about this date. It was on two floors at 60 Broughton Street. When I first went there it was fully up and running and I think I recall being told by John that it had been so for at least two years so that dates it back to 1975. [In 1974 the Scottish Minorities Group had bought the building to set up a Gay Centre in Edinburgh.]
On the upper ground level there was a coffee shop and 'information centre', which contained a small bookshop and some leaflets about matters of interest to LGBT people. The befriending team used a room at the rear of this floor. The front window contained a large Lambda sign and the words 'Scottish Minorities Group' clearly emblazoned around it. The centre was, I think, open 7 days a week. It was open to casual callers, regulars seeking sanctuary, interest groups and more than the occasional brick through the window (a local glazier got a lot of business from us!).
Downstairs there were meeting rooms for the political activities and further group meetings. I recall that there was a busy diversity of social groups but with a big emphasis on groups for lesbian women and transgender people. Downstairs kind of became the women's area.
Edinburgh in 1977 also had a vibrant commercial gay scene. The Kenilworth in Rose Street and the Nelson in the New Town area were well-established gay bars. Life also revolved around 'GHQ', a public toilet in Princes Street. MSC Scotland had regular wild leather parties in its den of iniquity off the Grassmarket. There were many private parties. ABBA released 'The Album', John Travolta strutted his stuff on the disco floor, SMG released its charter for gay equality and we all made great tea and coffee and were there for every gay and lesbian person who needed someone to reach for.
However, I was a teenager. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 did not apply to Scotland then, and Scots law was not brought into line with this until 1980. A number of the men in the gay centre were very worried that the presence of teenagers in the Centre was dangerous for them. My befrienders were concerned that my pals and I should not be seen in the gay bars or GHQ. So they created a gay youth group at the Edinburgh University Roman Catholic Chaplaincy.
So the gay youth group came into existence and reached, at its height, perhaps 15-20 regular participants and met every fortnight. We were young kids then. We just did what teenagers do, but with a gay twist. We went about together, played stupid games, went swimming, went camping, bickered and bragged, had visiting speakers on topics such as feminism, transgender identity, how to deal with rejection and bullying. My memory is of a warm friendly group but I knew then and know now that some of those kids had been rejected by their families and not all endings were happy. One poor lad - Stuart - was kicked out by his family, ended up in a filthy squat and died from carbon monoxide asphyxiation at the age of 18. I am still in close contact with one of my friends from those days.
I cannot recall clearly how long the group ran but I think it lasted about 18 months at George Square before the Gay Centre people started to feel more at ease with us and let us back into Broughton Street. Besides, Edinburgh's gay scene was growing. The New Town Hotel became gay, then the Laughing Duck in Howe Street and Fire Island Disco on Princes Street. Lavender Menace bookshop opened. Who wants to play Monopoly when Divine is playing a gig at Fire Island?!
I came out at school (George Watson's) on my 17th birthday by walking in with a badge saying 'Yes I'm homosexual too'. That is evidence of the support I felt I had from the gay community and the gay centre in particular which I came to frequent. In 1979 I attended my first London Gay Pride parade along with a coach full of loud and proud gay people. The previous year the Scottish Minorities Group became the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group and the sign in the window stuck its chin in the air and took even more bricks. We were tough enough to take it, all of us. The men and women of the Edinburgh Gay Centre, in the period 1977 to 1980 (when I left to go to university), took beatings, rapes, murders, condemnations and all manner of bullying. I was beaten up twice within 20 yards of the gay centre. But, by contrast, my wild and whacky transvestite friend Charles spent a sunny afternoon modelling bridal gowns on the steps of the gay centre to the delight and confusion of several busloads of Edinburgh folk passing by, so it wasn't by any means all bad.
So you see, you have this wonderful gay centre in Edinburgh in the mid-70s, a city with a gay scene then that would still hold its head up in 2019. Please don't let it be airbrushed out of the history books. The men and women who fought for all that we have today, and who took so much pain to achieve it, deserve to be remembered.
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