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Still battles to be won, 50 years on from Highbury Fields gay rights demo

Protest attended by 150 people came after man was arrested in park by undercover police

11 December, 2020 — By Helen Chapman

A Gay Liberation Front march to Trafalgar Square in 1972. Photo: LSE Library

THE first gay rights protest in the UK has been celebrated 50 years on at an event in Highbury Fields.

The park in Islington was a popular cruising spot in 1970 when Louis Eaks, a Young Liberals member, was arrested by undercover policemen for “importuning for an immoral purpose”.

In protest at his treatment by police, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) held the first LGBT demonstration, which was attended by 150 people. A plaque was erected in 2000 close to where Mr Eaks was arrested.

At the time, homo­sexuality was partially decriminalised under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 but campaigners say even after this law, men were convicted for just smiling and winking at other men in the street.

Dan Glass, Gay Liberation Front activist, said: “Cruising was essential because you couldn’t have relation­ships elsewhere.

“Homosexuality was only legal in private spaces. Now we have fully legalised homo­sexuality in this country, the movement has come very far in some ways but there is still a hell of a lot to do. It is looking at freedom for all.”

Campaigners gather in Highbury Fields to mark the anniversary

Mr Eaks was arrested after he lit a cigarette and joined in with men using their cigarettes to attract the attention of others. At last Friday’s gathering, two-metre long cigarettes marked out the positions where people should stand to ensure social distancing and as a symbolic commemoration.

John R Lloyd, who was at the original event, said: “A large number of people present here 50 years ago were women. It was an amazing occasion because of the solidarity from women over gay men’s issues. Women’s oppression was doubly so, but it was invisible. It was amazing.”

He added: “We’ve achieved legal equality but that is only a means to an end. The end is what we wanted originally – system change.”

Speakers at the anniversary event included Josephine Jones, the first trans designer to show a collection at London Fashion Week; Ted Brown, founder of Black Lesbians and Gays Against Media Homophobia; and former Islington Council leader Terry Stacey.

Ejel Khan from the Muslim LGBT Network spoke at the event, saying: “I’ve come here today in commemoration of him [Louis Eakes] and what he did for people like me.”

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