THE LOG BOOKS
Season 2 Episode 10 - “Crude form of censorship”
Presenters: Tash Walker, Adam Zmith
Contributors: Graham McKerrow, Alison Hennegan, Sali, Neal Cavalier-Smith, Ezra Sibyl Benisty (@br8kblowburn), Martha Kate and all the speakers, Switchboard volunteers and callers who made this episode possible
Producers: Shivani Dave, Tash Walker, Adam Zmith
Music: Tom Foskett-Barnes
Artwork: Natalie Doto
[telephone dial tone, music, sound of answering telephone]
Speaker 1 (0:37): This is a log book entry from April 1984. It's a printed press release from Gay's The Word bookshop, taped into the log book by a Switchboard volunteer. ‘Lesbian gay community bookshop raided. On Tuesday, April 10th 1984, officials from HM Customs and Excise raided Gay's The Word bookshop, 66 Marchment Street WC1. They left with over 800 books. Gay’s The Word is unique to in London, as a serious bookshop catering for the lesbian and gay men's communities. It stocks a wide range of biography, history, political and social books, to science fiction and poetry. Its directors take no profit from the business, stating their primary objective as, ‘improving the accessibility of literature for and by lesbians and gay men.’ The Customs officials detained the shop’s two workers, Amanda Russell and Paud Hegarty, denying them access to legal advice. They took off the shelves, all the books imported from the United States, eventually moving from the premises, a third of the bookshop’s stock. During the course of the day, two of the shop’s directors were questioned and had their homes searched. Amanda Russell's home was also searched. Personal belongings removed from two of the houses. The raid has shocked the lesbian and gay men's communities. It is considered an arbitrary and crude form of censorship. It’s also seen as indicative of an escalation from harassment of individual lesbian and gay men, to the groups and organizations set up by us. The response has been angry and swift. The Defend Gay's The Word campaign was launched by a meeting two hundred people at County Hall on Sunday, 15th April, afternoon.’
AZ: This is madness!
TW: It’s- I can’t- I can’t believe it! (laughs)
AZ: (laughs) Yeah… Imagine just being in the bookshop, waiting for customers to come in and then a whole bunch come in- well they’re not customers- they’re law enforcement taking your books away.
TW: It's- yeah it's just insane, you know. This is someone's shop, their livelihood and having your shop raided- it feels to me like- when I first heard this log book entry, something much more similar to the- you know, Oscar Wilde’s era.
AZ: Yeah, yeah it is. It's- it is like something from the Victorian period.
TW: Yeah. Yeah I think it’s interesting as well, you know, when- this is in the ‘80s. We think about now, 2020- this just absolutely doesn't happen here in the UK, but of course that is just, you know, very much a Western experience and, you know, I think it's worth us acknowledging that across the world, so many LGBTQIA+ people are having their work censored.
AZ: Mmhm. Mmhm.
TW: You're listening to The Log Books, stories from Britain's LGBTQ+ history and conversations about being queer today.
AZ: In partnership with Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline. I'm Adam Zmith
TW: And I'm Tash Walker. In this season, we're reading through the notes made by the volunteers who took calls between 1983 and 1991.
AZ: Episode 10: “Crude form of censorship”
TW: In this episode, we're gonna be hearing about actions of the state to stop people from seeing things that were considered obscene. We're gonna hear stories from someone who's erotic magazines were seized, a lesbian who had to account for imports of pictures of men giving each other a blow job, and one person who was running the campaign that sprung into action after Gay's The Word bookshop was raided by Customs in 1984.
Speaker 2 (4:19): What customers were interested in was what they termed indecent but it soon transpired that they had regarded anything gay and lesbian as indecent. So- and that included novels, poetry, sociological research is included, The Joy of Gay Sex and The Joy of Lesbian Sex- it included novels, it included poetry, it included W. H. Auden, and Gore Vidal, and Verlaine, and a 14th Century devotional work by a nun, and on and on it went, really. I mean just unbelievable… unbelievable.
[slow piano music, sound of a page turning]
Speaker 3 (5:02): This is a log book entry from July 16th, 1984. ‘Another confiscation of lesbian and gay US imports. Customs and Excise have written to Balham food co-op, informing them they have seized their latest order. Caller from Balham food co-op has contacted Paul at Gay’s The Word and got info regarding their campaign, but Balham food co-op can’t afford the huge solicitors’ fees involved, and Gay’s The Word have taken the fight as far as defence fund is concerned, so we didn't know if they'll be fighting Customs and Excise. What is the fucking state doing?’
Graham: The Customs had been seizing books for- for a long time from um- imported books. So they’d seized books from Gay News to- ‘cause Gay News had a mail order service. By and large, Gay News just let it ride because it was expensive to go to court. I’m Graham McKerrow. I'm 65, and I was one of the coordinators of the Defend Gay's The Word campaign in the 1980s. They took away thousands of books, and later they issued seizure notices, and they did it in stages. So they started with a seizure notice for some, and then they got more and more. In the end, I think there were 144 titles and about 2000 books, and one can imagine the value of those, you know, if you think each book’s worth, what? £5… £10… or something? Maybe more, you know, so we're talking tens of thousands of pounds worth of stock that's been just taken, and there was a whole range of, you know, what the books were. The shop, you know, was set up with political and social purposes. It was a gay and feminist bookshop, so it had a policy of no racist, sexist, or pornographic material, and they had long debates about what- what was pornography and what wasn't, but so there was sexually explicit material, certainly, but not pornography. Yeah- Operation Tiger. I mean this sort of ludicrously macho name that they've given was sort of- was farcical. I mean, they- I mean for a start, I don’t know- we were used to police raids. You know, the police would generally turn up in their uniforms. You know, and we’ve all seen customs officers in uniforms at airports and docks and things, but these were people in, you know, patterned shirts and- and just casual clothes and it was very odd, and they- they didn't know what they were doing. They hadn't heard of- you know, the serious authors. They- they had never heard of Verlaine, you know. They had no idea. They were used to dealing with magazines with photographs, not books with pictur- er with- with words, so they went over to ask Paud Hegarty, the shop manager, what was in the books. So, first of all, he had to help them divide the- the imported books, from the- the books published in this country because they had no jurisdiction over books published in the UK, erm- being customs, they only dealt with importations, and then they wanted to know from him what was in the books, so it was just sort of- they were farcically incompetent, right from the beginning.
Alison: I- I remember mixed feelings. One, of course, was complete outrage at the- the terrible infringement of personal liberty and the right to choose one’s own reading, but also the mental aspect of people seizing books which they clearly had no idea whatsoever were amongst the standard texts of canonical English literature. Anyway- there was no knowledge there so, you know, Oscar Wilde or E.M. Forster was as likely to be seized as er- you know, Tom of Finland. So that’s what I mainly remember. It was a mixture of outrage that they should- you know- the assault on intellectual freedom, and the patheticness of doing it so badly.
AZ: That was Alison Hennegan, who had been the Literary Editor of Gay News.
TW: What would you have done though, Adam?
AZ: If I was a bookseller? I did used to be a bookseller.
AZ: -and er- the shops I worked in never got raided erm- (laughs) by customs, just by people who, like, really rampantly needed Harry Potter books. Umm- they would come in at midnight on the launches when the new books were released.
TW: That’s amazing. I actually um… worked in a bookshop as well, in an Oxfam. My job was pricing the rare books upstairs.
AZ: (laughs) Wow!
AZ: Did you, like, decide to price some of them really low so that you could then buy it?
TW: Err- I will not support any of that on record.
AZ: Okay. (laughs) It is crazy though, just imagining being there in the bookshop, which are usually, like, pretty quiet places, and then suddenly, like, a whole bunch of people coming in um-
TW: They’re a refuge, I think, bookshops.
AZ: They are, yeah.
TW: They’re just full of possibility and opportunity and… and obscenity-
AZ: -and obscenity, it seems! But the thing is that, like, you would just not imagine that this is what was happening when that was unfolding. Customs officers coming in and saying, ‘Right, we need to seize 2000 books here and you need to tell us where is your Gore Vidal? Where is your Oscar Wilde? Um- and you need to tell us what's in them and we're gonna take them all away.’ I don't know what I would have done.
TW: I don’t think that there’s anything you could do-
AZ: There’s nothing that you could do, just- you have to let that happen.
TW: I guess the next logical step is to start fighting back-
AZ: That's right
TW: -and there were, of course, 9 people at Gay’s The Word who did fight back, but they don’t like to speak individually
AZ: So that's why we've spoken to Graham McKerrow, who was one of the people running the campaign and, like, somewhat of a spokesperson for the campaign, and we've got more from Graham coming up.
Speaker 3 (10:35): This is a log book entry from April 11th, 1984. ‘Gay’s The Word Defence Meeting. 3pm. County Hall. Ask at desk for room booked in name of Andy Harris. Gay’s The Word bookshop informs us that the Capital Gay story, on the raid this week, will ask readers to contact us for details.’
Graham: Gay’s The Word and Operation Tiger. The raid happened on the Tuesday. We had in the paper on the Friday, and there was a public meeting in county hall on the Sunday. The meeting happened. It set up a defence campaign. It set up a defence fund and so, you know, within less than a week, there was a properly organised defence happening. A community was involved. The word was out there, and I think it initially- it had something like 500 quid. I mean, I didn't join the campaign till February ‘86 so, you know, the raids were in April ‘84, so that’s er- 2 years. I joined as a coordinator. There was already one coordinator, David Northmore, and um- he and I worked downstairs in the basement under Gay’s The Word and- in this windowless office, err- which they kindly painted sky blue to brighten it up and remind us what we were missing upstairs. The defendants were dealing with the legal defence, so they were in meetings with lawyers and so forth and our brief was to organise a political and media campaign and er- and I'd done all sorts of demonstrations. I’d zapped pubs and I’d, you know, been on kiss-ins and pickets and demonstrations and challenged pub licences and all sorts of stuff, but I’d never actually run a campaign like this before so it was a question of, you know, finding out… on the job how to do it.
[music, sound of a page turning]
Speaker 4 (12:38): Log book entry 10th August 1985. Volunteer’s called Bieter. ‘Gay’s The Word trial. They have been committed this afternoon on all hundred charges. Trial will be at Old Bailey. No date set yet. Probably in 1986. Customs get to keep all the seized books until the trial. The magistrate said, ‘Committed homosexuals might hold that a detailed account of homosexual behavior was a legitimate thing. The question is not what homosexuals think but what others might think.’’
[music, sound of a page turning]
Speaker 4 (cont’d): This is a log book entry 29th December 1985. ‘You read it first here. Gay’s The Word trial has been fixed for October 6th 1986 at the Old Bailey and will run for some 6 to 8 weeks. Sew the sequins on the placard now, folks.’
TW: I love that call to arms at the end: ‘Sew the sequins on the placards now, folks.’
AZ: (laughs) Yeah- and it's just crazy to imagine that these 9 people would be going to trial for this, you know, and imagining, like, how would that trial unfold? What would the- the legal defence be? What would they be- what would witnesses be saying in the box about these books?
TW: It feels like a play, doesn’t it?
AZ: It does, yeah. Yep.
TW: But, of course, it's- it is serious stuff. These defendants were all on the line.
AZ: Yeah exactly and the bookshop as well, like, this is- Gay’s The Word is still a super important, like, location and- and, you know, part of the LGBTQ+ community in the UK and in London, and it- it was, you know, totally important in 1984/’85.
TW: I remember going to Gay’s The Word, you know, not in the ‘80s, you know, in the ‘90s but it was, like, a big- it was a big step for me. I thought it was an amazing place.
AZ: One of the great things about this story is that 9 of them committed together and said, like, ‘Look, we’re the people who run Gay’s The Word, and we're going to stand up against this together and fight this.’
TW: As a community, because at the end of the day this is a real- really big statement against the LGBTQ+ community and that's how we have to respond
AZ: Yeah exactly. So it's totally serious, but on the other hand it sounds like from Graham, the campaign head, quite a little bit of fun with this as well.
Graham: There was this one guy came in and he said he'd like to help, and I asked him what he’d like to do, and he said- and he, you know, he had that surprised look on his face, and he said, ‘Well, I'll do anything you want. You know, I’ll- you know I’ll make the tea. I'll hand out leaflets. I’ll collect money, whatever,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but what would you like to do?’ and he kinda looked really confused and I said, ‘Okay, so what do you do for a living?’ and he said, ‘I'm a- I work in the theatre,’ and I said, ‘Well, what do you do in the theatre?’ and he said, ‘I'm a director,’ and I said, ‘Really? You’re a theatre director. That's interesting. What do you- what do you direct?’ and he kind of started talking to me in a monotone as thought this was all irrelevant. He said, ‘Well I- you know, I- I direct comedies and tragedies and Shakespeare and musicals and all sorts of stuff. I work at the, you know, Stratford East,’ and I said um- ‘You direct musicals?’ and he said er-, ‘Yes,’ and there was a long pause and he said, ‘Why? Do you want a musical?’ and I said, ‘I’d love a musical.’ I just thought- I was thrilled at the idea of a musical. I thought it was so gay, and so funny, and it could be so political, and it would send them up, and it was- the whole idea was- we wanted to- we wanted publicity, and we wanted to humiliate customs, and we wanted to raise money, and, you know, a musical just ticked every single box that was going, and he said, ‘Aha! Well that would be easy!’ He said, ‘I’ve got so-and-so who can act, I’ve got so-and-so who can do this. I’ve got so-and-so who can play the trumpet. I’ve got somebody else who's a great lyricist. Give me a few days. I'll come back next week and I'll let you know how I get on,’ and he came back the next day, and he said, ‘I've got a band. I've got a cast. It’s gonna be at the- (laughs) Piccadilly theatre and we're gonna call it Operation Tiger: The Musical.’
AZ: I just love this idea of a musical about this crazy er- caper.
TW: I- yeah. I mean, come on, it sounds amazing. I can feel, like, your excitement right next to me. (laughs)
AZ: (laughs) Well actually I have a little surprise for you, because erm- because I knew we were gonna be talking about this, and so I was riding my bike and I was composing-
TW: (laughs) Oh my god
AZ: - in my head- what would a song from Operation Tiger: The Musical be like?
TW: (laughs) Oh my god. I was so unprepared for this
AZ: (laughs) So I was thinking, like, imagine the scene, you know, curtains open. There’s a lonely bookseller, just waiting for customers all day long-
TW: (laughs) Oh my god, okay
AZ: -I've been there- and then suddenly, like, all these people burst in, and er- you know, the- the lights- the lights change. The orchestra starts. (sings) ‘Bookshop rush, it's a bookshop rush! 22 customers, it's practically a crush. One wants Verlaine, one wants Oscar Wilde. He wants Gore Vidal, he's really rather mild. Bookshop rush, it’s a bookshop rush! 22 customers, it's practically a crush. You might be interested in this little old text, ‘cause I think that you came here for books about sex.’
TW: (laughs) Oh my god!
AZ: (still singing) ‘-in the habit of doing it like a rabbit. The writing’s so hot, it's like the centre of the sun. Yes, it's a devotional text from a 14h century nun.’
TW: (laughs) Oh my god (laughs)
AZ: (still singing) ‘Bookshop rush! It’s a bookshop rush! 22 customers, it's practically a crush.’ That's as far as I got.
TW: Oh my god. Shout out the nun.
AZ & TW: (laughs)
TW: Adam, I… I feel so overwhelmed with emotion. Um and just- I think what I'm experiencing right now is just pure joy-
AZ: Right, right-
TW: So thank you very much-
AZ: -musical trembles, yes.
TW: Woah… What a preview!
AZ: We are huge fans of musical theatre here at The Log Books podcast, and if anyone wants to um… collaborate on that then-
TW: Oh yeah 100%
AZ: Yeah let's do it.
Graham: Somewhere, in someone's bottom drawer, there's a musical called Operation Tiger: The Musical. It may be half written, it may be further on than that, I don’t know. It would be nice to hear from you.
TW: Let's get back to it, so (laughs)
TW: Switchboard and Gay’s The Word were all part of this bigger LGBTQ+ community and they supported each other. Gay’s The Word always had Switchboard’s number and leaflets and little bookmarks posted around the bookshop, and- and put into the different books, um- that were up on the shelves. I think it still is the case today that the volunteers at Switchboard get a Gay’s The Word discount.
AZ: That's amazing! That’s so good.
TW: Yeah it is amazing.
AZ: That’s so good.
TW: But shall we get back to the Gay’s The Word raid?
AZ: That's right, because we know that the trial date was set for the defendants, so now we have to move to the next stage in the story.
[music, sound of pages turning]
Graham: This is a press release from the- Well, I sort of thought it was from the Defend Gay’s The Word campaign, but it just says from Gay's The Word, on the 27th of June 1986. ‘HM Customs and Excise today agreed formally to withdraw their action against Gay’s The Word, and it's 9 directors, and to drop all criminal charges arising from the infamous Operation Tiger. This brings to an end almost 2 and a half years of customs harassment, and represents a magnificent integral victory for the Defend Gay's The Word campaign. Customs have finally admitted that the laws governing the importation of books are now in total disarray, and have given Gay's The Word an undertaking that from now on imported books will be treated in exactly the same way as books published in the UK. This humiliating decision results from a realisation at ministerial level that current customs law in the area of literature is totally unworkable. Gay's The Word will definitely start importing literally hundreds of titles published in the US since 1984, and which have been denied to British readers because of customs threat. It is absolutely clear that this major gay rights victory would quite simply not have been possible without the overwhelming support we have received. The knowledge that the community was 100% behind us kept us going when things looked pretty bad and there were a lot of times like that.’ And then, yes- scribble from a volunteer: ‘This is the best present for lesbian and gay people we could possibly have. Linda.’
Graham (cont’d): Nobody thought that anything was going to stop the trial at the Old Bailey. The campaign was gearing up, and we were doing everything we could to get publicity, and they will have been reading the media and knowing what we were doing. They suddenly dropped all the charges. They returned all the books, most of them to Gay's The Word, some of them abroad, but they didn't ever send a fat cheque. (laughs) There was no fat cheque, erm- but the defendants were delighted… erm- a) there was an end to the trial, so personally they were- they were safe; b) it was a total victory, because the books were all returned, and it just showed that customs had been wrong all along. We'd been saying that, you know, the law was an ass, and it showed that it was. Most of the books were returned to the shop to be- for sale. A few were sent back and the ones that were sent back were the ones that customs said they thought contravened domestic obscenity legislation, so while there was champagne in the- in the shop initially- There was a big party at- at the hippodrome in Leicester square, and it was Pride. It was- it was the anniversary of the Stonewall riots that they er- that they dropped the charges, 26th of June, and that year the Pride march was on the 4th of July, I think. So er- or the 5th of July, and so er- it became the big celebration for Pride.
AZ: The- and the case was dropped for three main reasons. The first one is the one that Graham mentioned, which is that the campaign had been putting pressure on customs and prosecutors
TW: Then, the second reason- you've got this new government minister, who wanted to make their mark, and were doing that by reviewing cases, dropping any outstanding ‘problem’ cases that they I didn't want to inherit
AZ: And the third one is the most interesting, from a legal point of view. It was this case called Conegate, which was a company which was importing sex dolls and sex toys into the UK, and the customs seized those. The case went to the European courts which ruled that because those sex toys could have been made in the UK, er- they should have been able to be sold in the UK as well. Erm- and that was, like, a European single market er- case basically. So the customs couldn't stop them being imported into the UK, erm- because they could have been made in the UK in the first place. So that then took the wind out of the sails of the government's case against the importation of these obscene books.
TW: Yeah and I- I think it's sort of harks back a bit to the- the Balham Food Co-op that we were, you know, we heard earlier, and the customs making seizures there
TW: And it's just giving us a bit of a context on what's going on in this period of time in the ‘80s where the state is start- starting to take a view on what a person should or should not be able to see.
AZ: Which is the thing that we've seen in all these conversations and stories about Section 28 about er- public authorities not promoting homosexuality in- with books in libraries and stuff like that.
TW: It wasn't always the books that were seized. It was lots of other types of material that were considered obscene by the state. We found this log book entry from September 1991, which is entitled, ‘Ob - Seen Out?’ and Seen Out was the- this monthly lesbian and gay magazine which was being heavily censored from left, right, and centre. Specifically, for reproducing a copy of a pioneering safe sex poster with an image of one man sucking off another and carrying the message, ‘Sucking OK. Take it out before he comes.’
AZ: And this press release that was in the log books has this quote from the lesbian editor, Lee Allen, who says, ‘All we’re trying to do is help promote an important safe sex message, but we end up getting banned. Even some gay outlets have refused to stock this magazine issue. Are we still so closeted after all these years? It's sickening.’
Sali: When I then went on to volunteer at Switchboard and helped with the HIV liason work there, we did one of the first lesbians and sexual health leaflets, and we did a lot of work around promoting positive images and we had a international exhibition of HIV posters, aimed at gay men. I was visited by Customs and Excise on that ‘cause I was gonna be charged with importing pornography, but luckily they dropped the case. Hi, I'm Sali. I'm a parent, and a lesbian, and a vegetarian. Working in sexual health, it's really important to look at how you are putting your messages across, particularly within the gay male community, so vanilla, very safe images of people holding hands over in the distance is not gonna work, so we wanted to show what was happening around the world, in terms of explicit direct messages, which were going to be more relevant to people, particularly some of the posters from Germany and Australia, so we gathered together a range of these posters for our exhibition, and it was one of the German posters that I had delivered which created a storm because it was two chaps having oral sex, and apparently on one of them, the penis was at the wrong angle, and therefore it was contravening whatever law it was, so Customs and Excise visited me and said, ‘You know, this is borderline pornographic,’ and I explained to them what it was for, and a little bit about me, and that I would not at all be interested in whatever two chaps might be getting up to, and they dropped the case, and we had the exhibition, and we got full page coverage in Time Out which was very nice and helpful.
[sound of a page turning]
Speaker 5 (27:47): This is a log book entry from September 24th, 1991. The volunteer who took the call was Rupert. ‘Caller from Bristol reported that Customs at Bristol Airport had nabbed him for importing videos, driven him back to his home, searched and seized the videos, taken him back to the airport and fined him £700 on the spot, saying the case would be closed if he paid up. Blimey! Do Customs officers have unlimited powers? Anyone know if this is legal?’ Added by Glen: ‘Customs have very draconian powers, in some ways, more power than the police. For example, they can search and take away material without a warrant. The on-the-spot fine is a new and alarming development.’
AZ: So it was all going on in Bristol!
TW: Yeah well I spent a couple of years of my life- In fact, that's where I got into working for LGBT helplines, working for the Bristol Switchboard.
AZ: Aha! Were you also importing er- VHS pornos?
TW: Only in my spare time-
TW: How did you get your porn?
AZ: I remember taping stuff off the TV. The late night Channel 5 erotic dramas that they- (laughs) that they had, and I also remember a private shop in my hometown, Cleethorpes, you know. It was one of those, like, shops with, like, no frontage and it just literally said private shop, and I knew that that contained material that was, like, taboo or obscene, and definitely when I was, like, younger and a bit more Victorian in my attitudes, I used to think that, like, oh god- that was kinda, like, scary and gross and bad and stuff, and that was because that was how it was presented.
TW: Yeah totally. The echoes of this period of time sort of bleeding into the-
TW: -the ‘90s and the noughties, but I think it's really important to think about what this material is, especially for LGBTQ+ people in a world- in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, where it was- it was censored. You know, often it’s a person’s first step or, you know, the first door that they open into having a sexual life
TW: -or understanding their sexual identity more.
AZ: Yeah. So, we've got another story coming up from Neal Cavalier-Smith
TW: Who was a Switchboard volunteer
AZ: Right, and was also one of the founders of Prowler Press, which was making gay magazines with nudie pics er- not porn, with the explicit aim of normalizing gay life and gay bodies by getting those magazines into mainstream news agents.
Neal: We learnt that most of the newsagents in the country belonged to somebody called either Singh or Patel, and they didn't really mind much what was on the top shelves, so long as it sold, so it was really a question of using commerce rather than politics to get it in there, and once they saw how well things sold- well. My name is Neal Cavalier-Smith. I was a volunteer at Switchboard in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. We had a warehouse in Highgate village, where I happened to live by then, and Peter lived, that did our subscriptions and our mail order and we had added books from the Gay Men's Press, and we were bringing across underwear from the US. We had this warehouse where we were dispatching a vanload a day by, you know, within a few years. You know, the business came to turn over millions. We- we had a very intimate relationship with our customers. We understood that for some of the customers- a lot of the older customers, um- they were perhaps not in a relationship, this is before the internet, and so we became their relationship. We became their sexual outlet and the- all the people who worked for us understood that this was an important mission. When you're packing an order, it matters whether you put in a Euroboy or a Hunk because the person waiting at the other end is literally waiting for this to drop onto their map- onto their lap, because that’s their sex life this weekend. We've- we took that- we took that mission with real pride and passion, completely unashamedly. We had an alarm system that was connected to the police station, and it went off and the police came, and the police woman who’s- who came in took one look at everything we had and- and called the station, and they all came piling down there and emptied the entire warehouse out into their vans, and took the whole lot away, because the police were still stuck in the mindset that gay was dirty, that gay was illegal, that gay was bad, and as a sexual liberation campaign, we were obviously first in the firing line, and we struggled to explain that this was perfectly legal stuff, and they just couldn't understand it, even though right on the shelves next to them was- was identical heterosexual stuff. The only difference was that ours contained men and theirs contained women. You know, there were magazines- like, big ones, um- and I'm talking about tits here rather than men, er- and we weren’t even showing erections in those days. It was very mild, charming erotica, with stories of, you know, people meeting, you know, sailors coming on leave and- plumbers being seduced. It was all real life scenario stuff. I feel that the establishment at that time viewed homosexuality as dangerous, as bad, as dirty.
Alison: I suppose I see a connection in the sense of an intense unwillingness, in certain sections of British society, to acknowledge that change is happening and has happened and, of course, it was so much tied in with the particular unpleasant personality of the woman who- It was Teresa Gorman, wasn’t it? -and she did manage to get Section 28 through and she was a very very nasty piece of work, and she expressed her delight and pleasure er- at the arson attack on the Capital Gay offices. She was a toxic piece of work, absolutely toxic, erm- but I think she’s representative of a particular stratem in British society, which is usually just a nasty mess about all aspects of sex and sexuality, and is also particularly frightened of any way of life or any pattern of ethical codes which challenged their own.
Neal: So this was the beginning of the ‘90s and, if you could picture the scene after we'd been raided and the warehouse is empty of stock, none of which is going to be much use to us two months down the line, because we’ll have published our next magazines and our next magazines, except that it was so much stock that it really did threaten the survival of the company, and the livelihoods of the thirty or so people that we employed at the time. Fortunately, Stonewall had just started and was able to help us out. We were big supporters of Stonewall, and they now did us a solid by- Angela Mason took me for tea at the House of Commons with Barbara Roach, my MP, who was a big supporter of gay rights and one of the sponsors at the Age of Consent Bill, and over a very motherly conversation in the House of Commons- There were four tarts and we had one each, and then there was one left and they both sort of shoved it towards me and said, ‘Go on, dear. We know you want it, and yes we'll help you get your magazines back,’ and so Barbara wrote a- managed to persuade the police that they had acted outside the law, rather than us, and the magazines were returned. There were a couple of prosecutions for poppers around the same time, early ‘90s, where poppers wasn’t a drug, the wasn't listed as a- as a substance, but they again wanted to oppress the gay community, and so they dredged the bottle- bottom of the barrel of legislation. If I remember rightly, one of them was the zipper store in Camden, another was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, and the judge in one of those cases certainly handed down a sentence of something like £18.12, so he found them guilty but con- but fined them £18.12, which was the year of the legislation, and so that was a comment from the judge, which is that he had no choice but to find the case guilty, but it was bloody ridiculous, and that’s how the establishment started to make their feelings that this was oppression rather than actual- um- and you could feel things starting to shift when that started to happen.
AZ: We first heard of that raid at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Episode 3, on the height of hostility due to HIV/AIDS. The establishment was maybe changing, as Neal suggests.
TW: In our period that we're looking at in this season, 1983 to 1991, but also before and since, the British state has taken a really close interest in deciding what its citizens should and should not see
AZ: And one thing that few could have dreamed of in that period is the internet-
AZ: -that we have today and, you know, it's the power to publish almost anything and see almost anything wherever you are. So we wanted to bring this theme up-to-date by thinking about: where are the boundaries of taste and obscenity today? And who is policing them?
TW: Yeah and, for example in Russia right now, there's this case against queer artist Yulia Tsvetkova, who was arrested during 2019 for drawing body positive pictures of female reproductive organs, which were deemed to be production and dissemination of pornographic materials, which is illegal there, and remember again Episode 3 in Season 1, where we spoke to the people behind Aphrodyki’s club night, whose posters, featuring the naked goddess Aphrodite, kept getting censored and deleted on social media.
AZ: So censorship remains. To bring us up to date, we spoke to Martha who is part of the volunteer collective behind Fringe! East London’s Queer Film and Arts Fest, and Ezra, who starts this section.
Ezra: I am an artist who has an online platform on Instagram, called ‘break blow burn’, with an 8, and I make polaroids and poems- short poems that are erotic and sexual, and beside that I'm also a doctorate student in Literature. I started a year or 2 years ago doing erotic polaroids and for me that came- that project came from first of all being a sex worker and wanting to take care of myself and so I moved from sex working and, you know, like, physically with people to something where I could keep using my body politically and sexually in a way that would give me more space for myself. I've always been interested in any sorts of art and writing and photographs, and so I ended up combining polaroids with poems and for me one of the best platforms to have visibility was Instagram. My account was actually deleted 7 times, and so the first time that one of my pictures was deleted was a small polaroid on which you could see pubic hair and an open jeans with just a pubic hair coming out of it, so there was no sexual organ visible. There was nothing that was remotely close to pornography or to anything properly sexual, or nudes, and it was just hair, and this picture was immediately deleted within the five seconds, and then after that I tried to repost it and that's one of the few pictures that I was never able to post, which is ridiculous compared to other accounts on which you can see nudity, but unfortunately most of the time straight, and, you know, idealised kind of beauties, nudity and sexualised women for the- for the male gaze, and mostly skinny white people who are gender normative, and so that was the first time that a picture got deleted. I felt really frustrated, mostly because you have no way of getting into a dialogue with the person if- well with the person- the computer in front of you, because the message as it gets- you have no way of replying to it. The only thing you can do is click on a button that says, ‘This was a mistake,’ and you get an automatic email saying that they will take your request into consideration, but that's it. You only dialogue with automatic answers, and so I remember being really frustrated, and as someone who is very vocal and very activist in terms of queerness, I know that the second thing that I felt was just anger and just feeling, you know, like not only frustrated but as an artist, you know, feeling muted and not being able to do what I do.
Martha: Hi I'm Martha, one of the Heads of Festival for Fringe! Queer Film and Arts Fest. Well, as a film festival exhibitor, running a queer film fest, we have to think of quite a lot and kind of navigate a few things to be able to show the content that we want to show. One of the things- obviously we, in cinemas, are kind of restricted, and it's not super clear what the rules are there, because it can differ, you know, from an indie to a larger institution, and also whether they will be aware fully of the content kind of makes a difference as well, but for us because we're able to make our own hub, that's the space where we can- we can have a bit more freedom, but there's also certain things that are unclear within that: what is porn? What it's just a sexual content in a film? What's just a narrative film with simulated sex? You can see that people showing art have way less restriction in that sense, just as they do with, like, licensing and things. They are kind of able to kind of go over those concerns, whereas I think there’s just a- much more of a legal presence in exhibition- in film exhibition, and yet a lot of the exhibitors don't seem to know exactly what those rules are. With bigger films where we follow the industry practices as normal, we can do that. They’re quite easy to observe. Certain things within our own space, within other aspects of the program, we can treat it as art, or we can treat it as performance, and then the rules are based on the actual effects to an audience, so as long as you're aware and sensitive to people's responses, I think it's- it makes a lot more sense if you're able to- that level of control. We are showing maybe twenty films with sexual content each year, short films for free that are people’s true, like, explorations. People, you know, where there isn't sexual convention, trying to create new and honest experiences, or description- or depictions of sex and it's all pretty much ethically regulated, by a community that sort of self-polices, so it's known that there is better content and that also the people who are making it are working and deserve to have it, at the least, seen, so it feels like pretty important work to get it to people, and also because you know that there's nothing in it that’s more explicit and certainly nothing that's damaging compared to mass culture.
Ezra: After being censored by Instagram, I decided to move on OnlyFans, because that was a space where I could finally put some content without being censored, and also for me it was practical because, at the same time, I wanted the full nudity to be somehow private and accessible not to everyone, but to the people who consented to seeing it, but again we can feel the same kind of problems sliding in from Instagram to OnlyFans. People- you would hear stories of people who starts talking about OnlyFans either censoring people or sliding from the content of sex workers to a content that is more mainstream, more popular. OnlyFans is slowly shifting their image towards something that is closer to a platform that can be compared to YouTube, for example, where you would have- you would find videos of people discussing their art, discussing their music, or showing private content or, you know, exclusive content, for example.
Martha: I know that a lot of our friends in the community, and peers have had their, you know, their whole work would be affected. They’re lost huge amounts of money just because of the threat of people who’ve been riled up in culture war, so these things are really still able to affect people, and actually every time that you exhibit something, it could be that someone feins outrage and shoots it down, and actually we have no control over that.
Ezra: And actually the comparison with censorship of a bookstore is very accurate because for me today, I see online platforms, especially for people who have art galleries or businesses. I see online platforms as some sort of stores. The pictures that you put on, on Instagram, for example, are basically your window shop, and anyone who gets their accounts deleted or their content deleted is, to me, equivalent to someone coming to your store or your stop and shutting it down, and we have seen a lot of Instagram users who have a store online, who have lost all their customers, all their visibility, just because their account was deleted. In the future, I do hope censorship will be lifted, and that people will be able to express their gender and bodies and sexuality, without having to fear the censoring coming from normativity, whether it is a state or a private company or industry, and I think that the answer to that, is to maybe go back to something that is more local, or to smaller visibilities that don't have to be threatened by a capitalist outcome of it, that doesn't have to rely on money, that doesn't have to rely on having possessions and popularity.
AZ: Since recording the interview with us, Ezra deleted their OnlyFans account due to the problems they spoke about, and focused more on their website at br8kblowburn.com. We'll put a link in the episode notes, because the web address includes numbers and letters. It's fun like that. Tash, what's next?
TW: Log book entries about people who are not born in Britain, but are here, would like to stay, and are looking for a mutually convenient arrangement to help them with that, but to close this episode, we wanted to give a special mention to the booksellers at Gay’s The Word, who had the courage to stand up to the intimidation from the British state.
AZ: It's a message that comes from all of us at The Log Books, and from Graham McKerrow.
Graham: I'd really like to name the defendants because they never hesitated and they- right from the very first, they weren't prepared to put up with this. They fought it. The more they fought it, the more Customs hit back at them and they stood firm at every stage. All the way through what must have been a very difficult, worrying time for them, so they deserve recognition. In no particular order, as they say, the late Dr Jonathan Cutbill, Charles Brown, the late John Duncan, Leslie Jones, the late Paud Hegarty, Peter Dorey, Glen McKee, Gerard Walsh and Amanda Russell. Everybody who wants to read any important material in this country, or to feel that we deserve equality before the law, owes these people a great debt of thanks.
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AZ: Calls to Switchboard are confidential, so to bring The Log Books to life, we've changed the callers’ names. The Log Books is produced by Shivani Dave, Tasha Walker and Adam Zmith, in partnership with Switchboard, the LGBT+ helpline.
TW: If you think other people would like The Log Books, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. These ratings and reviews really help others to discover the show. You can send us your feedback and stories to email@example.com or join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #thelogbooks.
AZ: Our music is by Tom Foskett-Barns, and our artwork is by Natalie Dotto.
TW: Thanks to Stef Dickers and team, at the Bishopsgate Institute
AZ: The BFI National Archive
TW: The folks at Acast
AZ: MACE, the Media Archive for Central England
TW: Peter Zacaroli at West Digital
AZ: Content is Queen
TW: The staff and volunteers at Switchboard
AZ: And all the contributors who shared their stories.
TW: Switchboard continues to take phone calls from 10am to 10pm every day. If you're affected by any of the issues in this podcast, or need to discuss anything to do with your gender identity or sexuality, you can call Switchboard on 0300 330 0630, email firstname.lastname@example.org or instant message via switchboard.lgbt, where you can also donate money or time to help.
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