On 13th October 1970, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) held its first meeting in the London School of Economics. The movement quickly gained momentum and featured a host of grassroot activities across Britain including ‘gay days’, street theatre, festivals and sit-ins. However, undoubtedly their greatest and most enduring success was the ‘coming out’ movement – making the personal political by encouraging LGBT people to publicly announce their sexual identity and, in turn, refusing to henceforth be oppressed by internalised homophobia.
Coming out was a deliberate and political decision to embrace non-heterosexuality outside of the private sphere to where it had, in recent years, been banished. Prior to the 1970s non-heterosexuality was hidden in repressed worlds. The followers of the 1963 Minorities Research Group (MRG), where lesbians could arrange to meet, were only identifiable by their first name and phone number. A similar story is told by GLF member Micky Burbidge who blamed the self-denigrating attitudes gay men had adopted on the language used against them, resulting in in a perpetual closeted community within which Burbidge could only meet fellow LGBT people through cottaging of private spheres.
Coming out, then, quickly became an appropriation of the language surrounding LGBT people that had developed homophobic connotations. In celebrating the word ‘gay’, the GLF granted empowerment to a world of previously tabooed language. In 1970, the GLF’s paper “Come Together” was entitled “We’re coming out and proud!” They hosted political demonstrations called ‘Gay-Ins’ or ‘Gay Days’. The historian Epstein argues that LGBT identities were ‘reverse affirmations’ of social labels previously used to control and stigmatise, which became even more prevalent in the 1980s through the ‘Queercore’ music movement. In fact, the coming out movement developed a range of physical manifestations; in its first year the GLF sold 8000 badges with slogans such as ‘Gay Power’ or ‘Gay is Good’.
The coming out movement of the 1970s transformed the stigma of the non-heterosexual in public language. This can best be demonstrated in the progressive language of personal ads, which became less vague throughout and beyond the 1970s. From the reclusive nature of the MRG to the 1979 Lesbian Magazine ‘Sequel’, Britain’s lesbians developed an openness. For example, Sequel published a personal ad for a ‘woman, middle-aged likes women’s company, not necessarily physical contact.’ This practice, originating in the seventies, would later truly embody the ‘out and proud’ ideology. By the 1990s, in the LGBT newspaper ‘Pink Paper’, personal ads saw lesbians refer to themselves using words like ‘Dyke’, ‘Sex Queen’. Here, we see, the coming out practice of openly sharing experiences and desires saw the individual’s self-liberation achieved, and later celebrated.
So, the GLF managed, through identity politics to flip the narrative on words describing the LGBT community. In proudly and outwardly ‘coming out’ the GLF proved ultimately that private and public can be interchangeable within social movements.