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Politics, Poofs & Parties

November 15, 2014
by Linda Wilkinson

In her sixth of seven stories Linda Wilkinson traces a fragmentary history of gay life in the East End

Diamond Lil, Queen of Columbia Rd

One imagines, given the proximity of the docks, it would prove an easy task to tell the history of gay life in the East End, that stories aplenty would pepper the archives from newspapers of the past. But it is not the case. As in many other places over the centuries, divergence from the norm was criminalised here and therefore buried.

Yet I persisted, and I uncovered not only the stories I sought but also a hotbed of political activism of which this borough should be deservedly proud. First indications that sexual activities were rife came in 1690 with the foundation of the Society for the Reformation of Manners in the East End.

For fifty years, the Society sought out brothels and secret clubs called ‘Molly Houses’ where gay, bisexual and transgender men met. Many were jailed or put into the stocks as a consequence of discovery. In 1728, the house of Jonathan Muff – alias ‘Miss Muff’ – in Black Lyon Yd, near Whitechapel Church, was searched and nine male ‘Ladies,’ including the ‘Man of the House,’ were arrested.

Moving into the twentieth century, after World War One, the phenomenon of ‘drag’ became an established part of East End life. It is commonly assumed that cross-dressing originated in Elizabethan times when men took on female roles in the theatre and, of course, pantomime and music hall traditions include transvestites both male and female. But it is to the all-male concert party troupes of World War One that we can look to for the origins of drag as we know it.

During the War, the performers cross-dressed as a matter of necessity but the continuation of these groups during the more-liberal nineteen-twenties and thirties saw them composed almost exclusively of gay men.

I was born in the nineteen-fifties when drag acts in the pubs of East London were taken for granted. In fact, during the war, our own Columbia Rd ‘Diamond Lil. had kept everyone’s spirits up and her signature tune, “I want a boy,” was known by all.

Yet Diamond Lil was safe in the bubble of the East End. The West End was a more dangerous territory into which she seldom wandered. In the nineteen-fifties,  Daniel Farson, who owned a famous pub called the Waterman’s Arms, said, “When I moved into Limehouse [in the 1950’s] the East End was a No-Man’s-Land for the rest of the capital, yet gay East Enders lived in a world of their own.”

Tolerance was not something East Enders were known for but, if you were part of the tribe, the tribe looked after you. It was far from Nirvana for gay men, yet even for Ronnie Kray, before his violence made him a person to fear, his queerness gave no cause for alarm.

Not being of the tribe and landing in Bethnal Green could be problematic. In the nineteen-seventies, when the Gay Liberation Movement was emerging, Bethnal Rouge Commune was established at 248 Bethnal Green Rd. These men were part of the Radical Feminists who grew out of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality in support of lesbians whom they felt were being subjugated. Dressed in glorious and outrageous drag, they were at first looked upon with some suspicion until, as I was told recently by one of the former members, “The publican of the nearby Marquis of Cornwallis discovered some of us could play the piano, it was all right after that.”

In more recent years, the political lobbying group Stonewall was founded by a group of East Enders sitting around Ian McKellen’s dinner table in Wapping and the renaissance of East London has brought a new wave gay culture – Glyn and Amy of Sink the Pink call themselves accidental activists. Their party nights at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club grew from their own desire to have a good time. Bored with the sterile nature of the gay scene that they encountered in the West End they sat down and drew up a list of what would make a good night out for them. They discovered there was a need and appetite for the kind of events they arrange, which often attract more than a thousand in a night.

As Glyn said to me, “These aren’t just a thousand people coming for a look – these are people who feel that they exist on the edge of society, who really want to push boundaries and find that they can do that with us. We find that freedom of expression is being scrutinised and parodied. Being gay has been marketed and, if you are not a cuddly gay, you are not acceptable.”

The scale of their popularity has even seen them become the subject of a PhD thesis at Cambridge University entitled, “We Are Family: Ritual Structure & Pop Music’s Role in the Creation of an Egalitarian Community at Sink The Pink,” written by Jacob Mallinson Bird (AKA Dinah Lux). It garnered a first.

Splinters one of the all-male concert party troupes that evolved from World War One

The Deuragor was famed, as were many pubs, for their drag acts. The poster on the wall advertises Gaye Travers, who was famous in the East End

The Bloolips were a subversive political force that came out of the East End

Sink the Pink at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, 2013 – in the centre of this picture is Glynnfamous

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The Trannies of Bethnal Green

Russella, London’s Top Tranny

2 Responses leave one →
  1. November 15, 2014

    Fascinating read, Linda. Thanks.

  2. sarah ainslie permalink
    November 16, 2014

    Diamond Lil has always been one of my favourites of Columbia Rd and to have more background and politics to the gay scene is so interesting.

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