Carrying On

5 07 2009

[You can listen to this radio letter here, or subscribe by searching ‘James Townsend’ on iTunes Store]

Balance is a great thing. Several correspondents have noted that the letter I broadcast last week focussed heavily, perhaps negatively, on ‘last times’. Well, without wanting to set a precedent of inviting listeners to drive the agenda, let me begin this letter with a first time. It is a very satisfying first time, and one which should cause us all to rejoice.


This week, for the first time, the two main political parties were directly fighting for the gay vote. You may say, and no doubt somebody will, that this is a bad development. We don’t need any more petty vote-grabbing in politics. Well, you are probably right. But what this does signal is that the gay community is no longer a pity case – a minority group requiring special attention. They now stand on their own two feet and can expect parties to recognise them like they do the rest of the population – as nothing more than potential votes. It’s not Martin Luther King territory, but a significant milestone nonetheless.

The fuss at Westminster was triggered by the desire to make a good impression ahead of this weekend’s Gay Pride march in London. This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which form the symbolic start to the politicisation of the gay movement. The procession of drag queens, scantily glad men, and bike-riding lesbians that made its way through London on Saturday seems a far cry from the violence of New York City in 1969.

Of course, Pride marches today are often intended to celebrate and poke fun at the many stereotypes associated with homosexuality. But, as we have seen, there is still a political element and the spirit of Stonewall lives on.

The Stonewall story is often given too little attention in the popular retelling of the Civil Rights movement. There are no great heroes, no inspirational leaders or symbolic gestures. This is a gritty story, which is unpleasant, and makes us all feel a little uncomfortable.

The 1950s and 60s were, as we all know, not humanity’s shining moment in terms of Civil Rights. Just as black men and women struggled against oppression, so did the men and women of the gay community. Of course, while black people couldn’t hide their skin colour, a person’s sexuality could be disguised.

So in New York, a small number of establishments could be found, where gay men and women were able to express themselves freely. Although illegal, these places survived by an arrangement with the police. The bars could stay open on the condition that a surprise raid would be carried out once a month and that the police could keep all confiscated liquor.

These gay bars were few in number already, but the Stonewall was the most attractive, on account of a unique quality: there, and there alone, you could dance. It was not an appealing place. With no running water, glasses had to be cleaned by passing them through a bucket of cold water. A system of codes was established in the event of a police raid.

Undercover officers were known as ‘Lily Law’ or ‘Betty Badge’ and as soon as a tip-off of a raid was received, the dark, pulsing gel lights were replaced by regular white lights to signal to customers that they should stop dancing and touching. Women were required by law to wear at least three items of ‘feminine’ clothing.

During a raid, the liquor was of course confiscated and customers lined up outside. Anybody without identification, or dressed in drag, would be arrested.

Well, early in the morning of the 28th June 1969 two undercover policemen of the Public Morals Squad announced that a raid had begun. The usual procedures began to take place, and everybody traipsed outside to be lined up.

But this did not turn into a normal raid. There was no plan, no organisation or decision that this would be the moment. One anonymous lesbian triggered the whole thing. She was being dragged, handcuffed, into a police van kicking, screaming and attempting to punch. Once pushed in, she noticed that the driver door was unlocked, and she escaped.

This one woman put up such a fight that it encouraged others to get involved. Within minutes, the atmosphere had transformed. The peculiar assortment of transvestites, lesbians, drag queens and effeminate men turned on the police and forced them to retreat. You can imagine how humiliated the New York City police must have felt.

Well, the riots continued over the following four nights and started a movement, which has brought the gay community not only the right to equal treatment under the law, but also the right once a year to hold up the traffic on Oxford Street. And surely that means more than any amount of equality legislation.

2009 also marks another anniversary. It is ninety-five years since Sir Ernest Shackleton commenced his grandly-titled Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914. Shackleton never made it across Antarctica. He never really managed to start. Before he even hit land, his ship – HMS Endurance – was crushed by ice in the Wedell sea and sank.

You might think that losing your ship in the middle of a polar sea, with 22 men and a cat to look after is a pretty hopeless situation. Well, Shackleton got his men off the ship before it sank, and they camped on the ice for two months, in the hope that it would float to paulet island. It didn’t. So Shackleton and his crew hauled two lifeboats recovered from the endurance to the edge of the ice. Whereupon they sailed for five days in open boats to Elephant Island.

By now it was November 1915, and the expedition had been away for over a year. But Shackleton didn’t rest – he brought together a small group and sailed to find assistance. In a remarkable feat of navigation, Frank Worsley guided their small boat all the way to South Georgia, but due to a hurricane was forced to land on the wrong side of the island.

Again, not resting a moment, Shackleton set about scaling the cliffs of South Georgia to get to the whaling station on the other side of the mountainous island. With nothing more than a length of rope and two companions they managed it. Once they reached the peak of the island, they used each other as human sledges to descend the other side.

The next successful crossing of South Georgia was in October 1955, by the British explorer Duncan Carse, who travelled much of the same route as Shackleton’s party. In tribute to their achievement he wrote: “I do not know how they did it, except that they had to—three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them—and a carpenter’s adze”.

As soon as he arrived, Shackleton arranged a rescue boat to return to Elephant Island and save the men of his expedition. As he stood at the prow of the boat he called out to the shore for a report on the situation: ‘All’s well, boss. All’s well.’

Shackleton had made good promise that no man would die in his responsibility. The only fatality in the whole expedition was that of Mrs Norris, the ship’s cat.

Why do I choose to tell the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton? Well we are currently seeing an increasingly desperate government, some might say hopeless, scrabble about for some small victory. Hence, they are so keen to appeal to the gay vote.

I cannot pretend that this form of politics is appealing, or in any way noble. The government have an admirable record on gay rights. There can be no doubt that Labour have more to be proud about in this area than any other party

Sir Ernest Shackleton never bothered about what his men thought of him. His priority at all times was that they should be returned home safe. Sir Ernest didn’t appear in the Prime Minister’s book ‘Profiles in Courage’. Nevertheless, Mr Brown may be able to learn a helpful lesson from him.

Put more simply, I am tempted to use the word of Winston Churchill. K.B.O. Keep Buggering On. But considering the content of this letter, that might be viewed as inappropriate.




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