50th anniversary celebration of first LGBT+ protest in Britain

Police threatened £10,000 fines, despite us following lockdown rules

London, UK – 27 November 2020

Friday 27 November 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the first LGBT+ protest in Britain. But the police banned our memorial vigil and threatened us with a £10,000 fine, despite our event conforming to lockdown rules.

“27 November 1970 was a watershed moment in British LGBT+ history. Directly challenging police persecution for the first time, it ignited a LGBT+ protest movement that in the following five decades rolled back straight supremacism and eventually won the repeal of anti-LGBT+ laws.”

Peter Tatchell, an activist in the Gay Liberation Front 1971-74.

Quotes from other Gay Liberation Front veterans follow below.

Peter Tatchell writes:

The original 1970 protest was against police harassment. It was organised by the newly-formed Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and took place in Highbury Fields north London on 27 November 1970, following the arrest of the leader of the Young Liberals, Louis Eaks. He was charged under an ancient 19th century law that criminalised consenting same-sex behaviour and carried a maximum penalty of two years jail. It was only fully repealed in 2003.

Veterans of the Gay Liberation Front (1970-74), me included, had planned to mark the 50th anniversary last Friday in Highbury Fields with socially distanced two-person vigils with face masks, walking around the fields taking “exercise”, all of which is allowed under the lockdown regulations.

But the police ruled that this would be illegal. We disputed that, arguing that we were acting within the regulations. Protests are not explicitly banned and can be seen as a “reasonable excuse” under the rules. The police, however, told us that we could all face fines, including of £10,000 for the organisers.

The right to protest and celebrate historic anniversaries is a fundamental human right and should not be infringed during the pandemic, providing face masks and social distancing are maintained.

The police are using harsh interpretations of the lockdown legislation to suppress legitimate protests and events. This must be resisted. Defend freedom of expression and the right to protest!

A plaque commemorating the protest on 27 November 1970 was affixed to the former public toilet by the LGBT+ group OutRage! and Islington Council. It was unveiled on 25 November 2000, on the 30th anniversary of the UK’s historic first LGBT+ demonstration. The unveiling took place in the presence of then Culture Secretary Chris Smith MP, local MP Jeremy Corbyn, the Mayor of Islington and GLF veterans.

Quotes from GLF veterans 1970-74:

“In 1970 I suggested that the Gay Liberation Front’s first demo ought to be in Highbury Fields against the arrest of Louis Eaks. I’m now 86 and send my love. I remind everyone that the word for the Highbury Fields demo, in the slang of 1970, was a ‘zap’, meaning a bolt of electrical energy. Highbury Fields forever! In solidarity and disgrace.” Eric Thompson

“From the dark of Highbury Fields to the light of the pub afterwards, we saw each other anew. We had shared our beliefs and convictions in public and acted them out in the world. We had made the first ever openly public demonstration in this country by homosexuals. Whatever barriers there were between us were let down that night. An emotional connection of solidarity and respect, for ourselves and each other was forged. It remains palpable to this day.” Stuart Feather, author the GLF memoir, Blowing the Lid.

“Highbury Fields was a UK defining moment in a global LGBT+ uprising and revolution against oppression and for liberation with sexual liberation at its heart.” John Lloyd

“In 1970 gay men, lesbians and trans people protested together on Highbury Fields, not just about police abuse of power and unjust laws, but also for liberation, including sexual liberation for everyone – a revolution. Love and liberation.” Nettie Pollard.

“Marking the 50th anniversary of the first LGBT protest in London is of paramount importance today in bringing together queer individuals spanning multiple generations in order that we can celebrate and learn from those who have continuously fought for our rights over the last 50 years.” Graham Martin