Bob Cant

In the early 1970s I taught young people over the age of sixteen but had only come out to a handful of my colleagues, and coming out to my students seemed unimaginable. I began going to the London Gay Teachers Group (LGTG) in 1975, and I felt energised by spending time with other teachers who had similar dilemmas to mine. Coming out at work was challenging enough in itself for us, but it was often overlooked in the early gay liberation movement.

When John Warburton was dismissed by the Inner London Education Authority for coming out to his teenage students, the LGTG took the lead in publicising his case. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) had been slow to give him their support, but the LGTG’s campaign eventually forced them to support their member. Teaching in a Further Education College, I was in a different union, but I was not convinced that my own union would have been any more proactive than the NUT had been. Trade unions were supposed to represent all their members, but it seemed likely that most of them would need some guidance as to how best to support their gay members once they had come out. Some of us began to realise that there was a place for a gay group within the union itself.

‘Come Out Come Out Wherever You Work’ from Bob Cant and and Nigel Young, ‘The Gay Workers’ Movement’, Gay Left, no. 2, (Spring 1976), p. 19. John Warburton, Open + Positive: An Account of How John Warburton Came Out at School and the Consequences, London: Gay Teachers’ Group, 1978. Campaign for Homosexual Equality, ‘What About The Gay Workers? A Report of the Commission on Discrimination’, London: CHE, 1981.

There was no collective memory for us to draw upon. My friend Brad and I were vaguely aware of other trade union gay groups in the public sector, but there was no way of contacting them unless they happened to be personal friends. We sensed that most of them had been established by people who had come out in the gay movement and, like ourselves, expected to be openly gay at work too. London Gay Switchboard had been set up in 1974 and might have seemed an obvious resource, but at this time its information files focused more on social venues than anything else. We had no idea that in the USA there were similar attempts by gay people to set up groups and campaigns to protect and promote the interests of gay workers. We felt rather isolated, and some of our friends thought that we were crazy to even approach the unions, but our experiences in the gay movement had been of setting up things from scratch and so we didn’t feel daunted.

Brad and I placed an advert in Gay News. We sat in the kitchen of my house one Sunday afternoon early in 1976 waiting to see if anyone would turn up for the inaugural meeting of this unofficial union gay group. Ten years later this group would be calling itself the Teachers in Further and Higher Lesbian and Gay Group, but at this point in time our focus was just on making contact with other people like ourselves.

‘Is that the door bell?’ I asked nervously.

Brad jumped up and was back within seconds.

‘Next door,’ he said.

We sat there fiddling with imaginary objects, sometimes we were silent and sometimes we talked over each other.

‘Is that clock right?’ asked Brad.

‘A couple of minutes fast but there’s still plenty of time for the masses to arrive.’

‘Maybe the Victoria Line has been playing up again.’

‘The bell!’ We both said at the same time. Brad leaped up again to welcome whoever was on the other side of the door.  He brought in a nervous looking young man and introductions were exchanged.

‘Would you like some tea?’ I asked.

‘Or coffee?’ said Brad.

We were both trying terribly hard to be helpful.

We waited for the kettle to boil. Eventually, we gave up speculating about faults on the Victoria Line and reconciled ourselves to the fact that this inaugural meeting was going to be very small. We didn’t really establish what our visitor wanted from our group and we never heard from him again. We realised that our plan to set up this group was going to require a long haul but it felt worth doing and a tradition of Sunday afternoon gatherings began to take shape. Both women and men took part. Partly these were social events to strengthen social networks and combat any sense of isolation; partly they were opportunities to discuss political interventions in the union.

Alliance building

Our next step was to find allies in the quest to persuade our union, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), to represent the needs and aspirations of its gay members. Most power seemed to rest in the hands of the National Executive and, as with many such bodies then, there was a strong Communist Party presence. Brad and I were both supporters of another union network, Rank and File, which represented some of the open-minded idealism of the student revolts of 1968. They were broadly in favour of making the union more democratic and less centralised. Mostly white heterosexual people, it was my impression that when it came to gay politics they supported the reforms of the Wolfenden Report of 1957. They wanted, in other words, to see an end to the criminalisation of homosexuality but had never thought any further about the extent to which gay people might shape their own lives. In my gay liberation-oriented circles to describe someone as a Wolfenden Liberal was somewhat of a put down, but we also recognised that the open-mindedness in Rank and File made it possible to consider working with them.    

Rank and File hoped to advance its agenda through policy resolutions at the annual conference of NATFHE. We discovered that there was a proposal at the 1976 conference for the development of an anti-discriminatory structure within our terms and conditions agreement. This should, we thought, include a specific reference to gay people in view of the growing number of cases where people had been dismissed solely on account of their homosexuality. People should be able to come out without fear of the consequences, and we thought that the union should likewise come out in support of its gay members.

At a pre-conference Rank and File planning meeting we spent most of the afternoon involved in a discussion about whether or not to include sexual orientation, along with race, gender and disability, within the anti-discrimination structure. It soon became clear that many of our comrades who could deliver lengthy revolutionary orations on the war in Vietnam at the drop of a hat turned into stumbling teenagers when they tried to talk about sexual politics. Many of them had never spoken about sexuality before in a political context and lacked even the grammar and syntax to do so. They did not understand the concept of coming out and they seemed determined to keep us in a policy closet.

One of the problems which we had not foreseen was the re-emergence of Leninism. Although Rank and File was a broad-based non-sectarian network, some of its members were involved in wider discussions on the Left to set up a new Leninist party. Nothing had been agreed at this point, but some of the comrades were already flexing their Leninist muscles. Democratic centralism is a core concept in the organisation of Leninist parties and while there were growing signs of centralising there were rather fewer of democracy. The open-mindedness, which had attracted me to Rank and File in the first place, was definitely endangered by the advance of their democratic centralism. Gay politics were not on this new Leninist agenda.

The debate was protracted, but it was also very fluid and rather confused. No-one argued against our right to come out, but there was widespread unease about the extent to which the union should be involved in what some regarded as a ‘private matter’. I was astounded to see people whom I had regarded as good friends, people who had allowed me to buy them a drink, arguing the case for abstaining on our proposal. Who ever heard of revolutionary abstentionists!? I was too polite – but also perhaps too opportunist – to tell them what I thought about their sexual politics.

‘They’re behaving just like a bunch of Wolfenden liberals,’ I muttered to Brad. ‘They really are indistinguishable from their sparring partners in the Communist Party.’ If I had been really malicious, I might have said that these new Leninists and the Leninists in the Communist Party were like Shakespearean twins separated at birth. Open-mindedness, however, carried the day and we won the vote to include sexual orientation in the proposal about anti-discrimination at the annual conference that spring.

NATFHE Conference 1976

Union conferences can feel like a hot air bubble and the 1976 NATFHE conference became particularly heated on the question of anti-discrimination. Brad and I had put together a leaflet, in the name of the still tiny gay group, calling for support for the amendment to include sexual orientation in the anti-discrimination policy. The headline on the leaflet asked the question: ‘The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?’, which came from the Tom Robinson song, Glad To Be Gay. It was a way of challenging the widespread notion that the decriminalisation of homosexual activity marked the end of any need for gay political action. Framing this in a song that was unquestionably positive about homosexuality also made it clear that gay identities were shaped by more than any victimization which we experienced.

We distributed the leaflets to delegates as they made their way into the conference chamber. No-one actually spoke to us about its contents, but some people gave us supportive smiles. One red-faced gentleman screwed up the leaflet in front of us. Others were left speechless by the sight of a leaflet that mentioned the word, gay; it was clearly not something they had come to expect at a union conference.  Brad made a fine speech, probably the first time that anyone had uttered ‘gay’ publicly in this union’s history.

The National Executive were sitting behind a table on a raised platform at the conference and that made it easier for them to dominate the proceedings. They were all besuited, white, middle-aged men and, whatever the political affiliations of individual members, they had far more experience of using centralising Leninist tactics than the budding Leninists from the Rank and File meeting. The Executive had decided that there was no need to list all the categories of discrimination; a more general recommendation was as far as they would go. So, there would be no specific reference to sexual orientation. This omission was what the new Leninists had been arguing for at the Rank and File meeting just a couple of months previously, and I was scared that gay politics would fall victim to a Leninist stitch-up. In fact, they were now falling over themselves to insist that sexual orientation was openly included in the anti-discrimination framework. Had they seen the light about gay politics or were they unable to resist a scrap with these older Leninists?

Conference papers were being waved in the air, and the atmosphere was thick with words like ‘betrayal’ and ‘prejudice’; briefly gay people had become the left-wing flavour of the moment. There was such uproar that there had to be a card vote.  A card vote from each delegate on an amendment to a resolution which previously everyone had imagined would go through on the nod!

A Red-Haired Ghost

Standing at the back of the conference, while the votes were being counted, I find myself in conversation with a red haired woman whom I have not met before.

‘It’s all so amazingly predictable,’ she says.

In ten years time, these older Leninists on the platform will be replaced by the younger Leninists who are making so much noise now. They’ll be middle-aged by then and using the same kind of procedural arguments to stop the next generation of activists from advancing whatever cause they are trying to advance. Mark my words. Just so predictable.

She is shaking her head.

I am not quite sure where to start. Should I tell her that I am not a Leninist? Should I tell her that gay politics is a new kind of politics which questions the very foundations of political life?

She must sense my hesitation. She puts her hand on my arm.

Don’t upset yourself too much. There is a kind of inevitability about the conflict between generations. It’s all a question of group dynamics. I should know because I’m a Christian. We have a long track record of splitting away from people who were once our friends and fighting them to the death – and beyond.

With that, she sweeps off never to be seen again.

I began to wonder if she’d been a ghost.

****

It was agreed, by a majority of four, to include sexual orientation on the list of categories to be discussed in relation to anti-discrimination. People were (almost) hanging from the rafters in their excitement. I didn’t allow myself to think too much about the fact that this vote might be just one foray in an ongoing struggle between different generations of Leninists. But on that day the younger Leninists had been useful allies for us. It had been a free vote and the majority of delegates had voted in favour at least of the spirit of coming out. The fine print of the resolution would continue to be argued over but something significant had happened. While this might not have been a great leap forward in sexual politics in our union it was certainly a step in the right direction.

The next step would be the presentation of the gay issue in negotiations with the employers.

Bundism for beginners?

‘You sound just like a Bundist!’

It was said not in obvious anger, but it was definitely intended as a put down. It had been part of a discussion some years previously about the relationship between socialist politics and gay liberation politics. I didn’t know what a Bundist was but I soon found out that the Bund had been a Jewish Socialist Party in Russia, Poland and Lithuania at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were not Zionists and favoured working for social change in the Jewish communities as well as collaborating with mainstream socialist organisations. The attractive feature, as far as I was concerned, was that it did not see the working class as one monolithic bloc.

Organising in community settings as well as the workplace seemed quite a good idea to me. I was later to discover that the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union in USA in the 1930s had also defined the working class in a non-monolithic way, and their organisation was proudly left-wing, multi-racial and gay-friendly, but at this time I’d never heard of them. We were not the first political activists to question the monolithic view of working people favoured by many centralised bureaucratic bodies.

Our re-defining approach seemed to be at odds with the organisational ethos of the British trade union movement. In 1981, COHSE, a health workers union, said in response to a survey by the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE):

We represent those who are homosexual, whether lesbians or gay men, from the point of view of having the same service as other union members. In fact, we do not have heterosexuals or homosexuals in our membership – we have members.

While we saw our work as part of a process to help the trade unions engage with the wider social realities in which their members lived, the more traditional sections of the trade union movement saw our campaigns as divisive. The traditions of the British trade union movement were, of course, shaped by their history, but as far as we were concerned the processes of giving shape to the movement were not at an end.

We were ambitious. It wasn’t just a matter of  obtaining a few well-meaning policies or getting a couple of malleable tokenfolk on to the occasional committee. I wanted nothing less than different voices to be heard in the shaping of the politics in which I was involved.

This piece is an extract from Bob’s upcoming memoir focused on the period 1967-1981. The named individuals have been given pseudonyms.

Bob CantBob Cant has been a teacher, a trade unionist, a community development worker, a Haringey activist and an editor of several collections of LGBT oral history. He now lives in Brighton and his first novel, Something Chronic, was published in 2013. Bob tweets from @bobchronic



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4 Comments

  1. Thanks so much, Bob, for writing this important story. I’m going to proudly come out as the “Brad” you talk about and say that I was very fortunate to be able to work together with you and be one of those “different voices” in the union at that time. I learned from you about how trade union politics worked then – and how the union saw us lesbians and gays as irrelevant and a distraction from their bigger class struggle. That 1976 conference in Buxton was an important start (by only 4 votes!) but it took too many more years for the union to take discrimination against the LGBT lecturers seriously.

    I’m also happy to say that we’re still friends 45 years later! Glad to be gay indeed!

  2. Miriam Frank

    BOB CANT: This introduction to a review of queer trade union politics is solidly stated and enticingly clear I’ve read your comments on this topic in other versions but this continuous and honest venture into focused historical narration yields a rousing, provocative and balanced review. From the earliest emergence of queer politics in the labor movement, to the enduring stability of trade union ethics, to the left road ever beckoning and all the arguments in between you have put together a great beginning of what I hope you’ll keep thinking about and developing.

  3. Miriam Frank

    PS, quite likely a ghost, at the very least a ghost of grace.

  4. John Warburton

    As one of the ‘named individuals’ that hasn’t been a given pseudonym, may I suggest Mirabell MacAdam?
    Other than that, an interesting piece, Bob, and for me a rather dispiriting recollection of too many union meetings in the 1970s where gay rights were a football much more often kicked into touch rather than into goal. I respect those who continued the fight long after I lost the will to argue the cause in those sorts of settings.

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