Burnley’s industrial past is impossible to miss. I’m writing these words from one of countless converted mills within the Lancashire town’s former weaving district. Outside, towering chimneys continue to dominate the skyline.
150 years ago, Burnley was producing more cotton cloth than anywhere else in the world; the population boomed, but prosperity faded with the industry that fuelled it. Generations later, that proud history remains at the heart of Burnley’s identity. Yet it also possesses a hidden and widely unknown history, one of which it can be similarly proud of.
Paul Fair-Weather, the face behind Lancashire’s efforts to document Burnley’s role in the LGBT rights movement, tells us that “there was activity in Burnley from the 1970s onwards.”
“It was very difficult being gay in Burnley in the early 70s. There was a huge amount of hostility here at the time. Partly why it was important is a guy called Allan Horsfall, who’s from Burnley. He led the campaign for homosexual law reform in the North West. He was a key local figure in Burnley.”
As early as the 1940s, Horsfall would meet regularly with gay friends at the Thorn Hotel in central Burnley. The hotel is now a Costa Coffee, where old newspaper clippings reference his activism in Burnley.
Peter Tatchell describes him as one of the truly great pioneers of LGBT equality in Britain, and he dedicated his life to campaigning – from the 1950s right up to the 1990s. Towards the end of the 1960s, he advertised a support line for gay people in local papers – almost a decade before the more famed London Switchboard answered it’s first call.
Around the same time, he was proposing safe spaces for LGBT people. By 1971, plans for a club in Burnley had progressed significantly; a venue had been found – but opposition groups rallied to prevent it opening. A priest raised concerns about its impact on children, and that it might attract violence.
Burnley town council voted strongly against it, citing “the biggest petition we have ever had” in opposition to the club in asking for special powers to ban it. During a one-sided debate, one councillor told the room: “The ratepayers of Burnley would be prepared to pay a little bit to keep them out of this town”.
Its fate was secured when the building’s owners withdrew. “We don’t want [to be] involved in any controversial subject such as this.”
But rights movements are defined by those who stand up, who refuse to be beaten. An anonymous citizen wrote to the local paper in support of the club: “I can hear the cries of ‘shame’ and ‘smear on the town’ before the plan gets properly under way. But all it needs is a few genuinely concerned people to help this pioneering move to ease the burden on the less fortunate.”
Activists organised a meeting at Burnley Library, where a capacity audience took part in a ‘stormy’ discussion.
The venue was heavily policed, and a group of local ‘skinheads’ attempted to intimidate proceedings. For more than two hours, speakers for and against the club had their say. One told that spaces for LGBT people were a step towards a “safe and civilised society”, while a supportive local politician attacked the council: “Using power to oppress minorities is how fascism starts.” When a member of the local Christian group spoke of his belief that “homosexuality is a revolting and filthy habit”, there was ‘uproar’ until he sat back down.
“It was very significant,” Paul tells us. “You had the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Gay Liberation Front working together – and on the other side quite a strong group of evangelical Christians. In that sense, it prefigured some of what happened across Britain in the 1980s and 1990s. It had a big impact on the town. And for local people, the attempt to set up a space for them in Burnley was very important.”
Later that decade, a local called Mary Winter stood up with her own act of defiance. She defied pressure to hide her sexuality, and chose to wear a ‘lesbian liberation’ badge while working on the busses. She was fired – and her union said they would only support her if she agreed to stop wearing the badge.
“I am not rejecting union support – I am demanding it,” she told the Burnley Express newspaper. “But I am not prepared to take my badge off to get that support. This badge is my protection.”
Her case demanded national attention – and intense debate locally. “The fact remains, surely, that to a majority of people – particularly in East Lancashire – homosexuality is distasteful,” reads one letter in the local paper.
With no rights, she could have been alone. But she called for supporters to petition the bus company, and was joined by many protesters outside the bus station. They rallied fiercely and in full voice, holding up banners replicating her badge. “We are not looking for trouble, we are just stating our point,” she told reporters.
There were a series of cases nationwide whereby people were fired for their sexuality, and there was very little they could do about it. The protests in Burnley highlighted the need and desire for employment protection.
The mills in Burnley connected everybody in the community, but these events were incredibly divisive. Burnley was a leader in the manufacturing industry, but here its council actively stood in the path of LGBT equality. The town can be proud that its people stood up for their rights – but there’s also an element of shame for the systematic and organised oppression they faced.
Either way, it’s clear that the people of Burnley played a vital role in the LGBT rights movement throughout the 1970s. Not only in terms of legislative pressure – but also, and perhaps more importantly, changing attitudes within rural Lancashire. They all contributed to a sense of things happening not only in London and big cities, but also in towns and smaller communities. In their community.