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A whistle-stop tour of some of Lancaster’s gay social meeting places over the years by Lizzy Hare.


Posted by Elizabeth Hare

Tuesday evening at the Ring o’ Bells, sometime in the early 80s: all the ‘girls’ are seated in the bay window to the left of the door, talking and drinking, no touching. All the ‘boys’ take up the rest of the bar. Through the back, two women are playing pool with their gay male friend. There is a hum of conversation, and quiet music in the background. At the bar, women are being served pints in pint glasses, no problem. A couple of younger men come in through the door and start distributing leaflets protesting about Clause 28. Unnoticed by the customers the landlord picks one up off the bar and reads it. He bangs a spoon against an ashtray for silence. Everyone turns and looks at him. ‘Right you lot,’ he says, ‘out! All of you! And you!’ he adds, turning towards the women. Obediently, we troop out into the street. We stand around discussing what has happened for a few minutes, assuring the men who were giving out the leaflets of our support. We have no recourse but to leave it there and go home.

It’s one Friday in Kizzy’s Bar, about 18 months later, up on Castle Hill – Lancaster’s first proper gay-owned and gay-run bar. It is quite posh in an 80s kind of a way, below street level with cosy sofas. On the night in question, Kizzy’s is hosting the opening of an art exhibition by a local lesbian artist. The walls are hung with her paintings and the bar is crowded with her friends, drinking wine and celebrating. The evening is a great success and for couple of years Kizzy’s remains a favourite venue, until the boys lose their license, or don’t get it renewed, and guess what? No one is prepared to tell us why.

Let’s fast forward now to the Yorkshire House. It is the late 80s/early 90s and the coming of WILD – Women in the Lancaster District – with its own long running newsletter, which gave birth to Lavender Lounge and Dancing Divas, (still going strong!) Friday nights once a month Upstairs at the Yorkie. Imagine it, jammed to the doors, thick with smoke, ‘someone open the fire escape door; we’re choking in here!’  and roaring with women drinking and laughing and singing along to the cabaret. The tiny stage hosts a number of talented acts, and some not so hot, compered by women from WILD. Wild nights indeed!

With the approach of the Millennium comes a new movement, ‘Women at the Millennium.’ It began in the late 90s with International Women’s Day at the Phoenix Working Men’s Club, the ‘must go’ event. From ballroom dancing to salsa nights to cabaret with Manchester’s Rosi Lagosi, Lesbian Vampire, and comedy with Barbara Nice, these evenings rock the century out. The 90s also sees Lancaster’s first Gay Pride and yes, they fly the rainbow flag at the Town Hall – something I never thought I would see in my lifetime; a long way from the Ring o’ Bells.

In the following years we hold our social events, pies and pints, quizzes and auction nights and dance the small hours away, upstairs at the Farmers Arms. Now it is the Penny Street Bridge Hotel, where unknowing guests sleep where once we bopped. If only they knew!

Then early in the 2000s the Lunettes arrive at the Gregson: the core of lesbian social life here, meeting once a month at the Greggy and connecting us with lesbian networks in Cumbria and elsewhere. If you are new to Lancaster then it is easy to find the Lunettes. After the civil partnership and equalities legislation of 2004, at last we can be out and about without being afraid.

Recently I read an article in The Guardian asking if there was still a need for gay bars. In my view there is: progress has been phenomenal; however, we still carry our history, our political activism against deeply ingrained homophobia, and also our memories of great nights out against the odds.

© Elizabeth Hare 2014