The Oxford Campaign for Homosexual Equality (OCHE)
Established in 1972, the Oxford branch of the CHE was Oxford’s first local queer organisation. It continued well into the 1980s, organising local events, a student group and producing a journal, BLAST.
Here is an excerpt from vol. 2, no. 1 (c. July 1975):
Oxford is undoubtedly unique. It is an industrialised market town with a reactionary, male dominated university of formidable size right where the City Centre should be. It is both gentle and cruel, both soft and hard. It is a haven for eccentrics. The gay scene, however, is not, basically, any different in its structure from that of any other city of comparable size. It has its booms and its slumps, its peaks and its troughs, its attractions and its pitfalls. The ‘commercial’ gay scene centres at present on the Stage Club, on only 3 nights a week. The rest of the time there isn’t one. OCHE runs an office, a telephone service, a counselling service, social functions, and, until recently, ran a disco. This has been temporarily suspended owing to a fire which damaged the Community Centre in which it was held. The discos will recommence soon, when the new venue has been adapted. Following the AGM on June 17, at the Cape of Good Hope, the newly-elected Executive Committee met for the first time on Monday, 30 June, and a new and exciting programme is being developed for the coming year. A full report will appear in the next issue of BLAST, while the interim diary is included in this issue. One particular matter, however, was highlighted, and that was the difficulties in interrelation between older and younger gay people, and those of different sexes. This will be borne in mind by the EC in formulating the new programme.
It is encouraging to see how courageous efforts to establish gay squats in Oxford have succeeded. The concept alone, on the established frame of reference, is challenging enough! It is, perhaps, significant that it is their atmosphere of total informality and disregard for convention which has enabled barriers, which apparently exist elsewhere between gay women and men, to be broken down.
The Stage Club
The Stage Club was Oxford’s first official gay venue during the late 1970s. Situated on the corner of George Street and Victoria Court, next to the Apollo (now New Theatre), the venue traded as the Clarendon tea rooms by day, transforming into ‘70s gay disco glory by night. Required by law to serve food as well as alcohol, punters were given numbered tickets upon arrival which later entitled them to a meal, usually bangers and mash.
This vintage photograph shows the Clarendon Cafeteria (the sign of which is just visible beneath the first-floor window) opposite the Apollo (now New Theatre). © Images & Voices, Oxfordshire County Council (photographer unknown).
According to The Cherwell (5 November 1976):
At the Stage Club, there is a disco every night for Gays, and although non-University people are in the majority, students are equally welcome. The rumours of hustlers, orgies, fights and raids by the National Front are totally spurious and are perhaps further indications of anti-Gay feeling in Oxford.
The Stage Club closed within months of the opening of the first Coven on Oxpens Road.
Oxford Gay Switchboard
Following the success of London Gay Switchboard, Oxford Gay Switchboard was established in 1975. A piece in Cherwell from November that year reads:
Oxford Gay Switchboard is an information and befriending service for homosexuals in the Oxford area. Run and financed entirely by volunteers, it is in touch with all local gay groups and has up to date information on discos, meetings, discussions, and so on. A man and a woman are on duty every evening from 7-9 p.m. Sundays to Thursdays, and from 7-12 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
The early existence of the Switchboard was far from smooth. The organisers received vicious phone calls and the Switchboard’s offices were broken into and vandalised on a number of occasions. A potentially fatal incident was averted when one of the organisers noticed his motorcycle was making a strange noise—it transpired that it had been tampered with. Oxford Gay Switchboard continued serving the community well into the 1990s.
‘Oxford Housing’, Central Television (1982)
A unique document of gay rights campaigning in Oxford during the early 1980s can be found in a short news report, now available to view for free on the BFI website. It was originally broadcast as part of Central Television’s Left, Right and Centre magazine programme on 22 March 1982. The report concerns move by Oxford City Council to extend the right to register for council housing to same-sex couples who were aged over 35.
The Jolly Farmers
The Jolly Farmers, on Paradise Street, Oxford’s longest-established gay-identified pub. The Farmers can trace its history back to the 1600s, although a brewing licence on the site dates back five hundred years earlier. The venue opened its doors as a gay pub in 1983 after which it was the only gay bar in Oxford for much of the rest of the decade and into the 1990s.
OXAIDS: A Community Responds
Editions of the Oxford Gayzette document the dawning awareness of AIDS in the local LGBTQ+ community.
OXAIDS was set up in 1983 to provide information, help, and support to local people with HIV and AIDS. It began when a group of gay men in Oxford read about the effect of AIDS in America and realised that few people in Britain were doing much about it. In 1983, there were only a handful of HIV+ people in the Oxford area; within a decade there were over 400.
In 1999 OXAIDS merged with the national charity Terrence Higgins Trust to form an Oxford branch of THT at 43 Pembroke Street (THT now provides services through the Oxford Integrated Sexual Health Service at Churchill Hospital).
34 Cowley Road
The Oxford Women’s Centre (later, the Oxford Women’s Community Centre) was set up in 1984 and was situated at 34 Cowley Road. The Centre had a café and a crèche and many women’s groups in Oxford used it as a meeting place. They included a community workers’ support group, a discussion group, a writing group, a student lesbian group, lesbian mothers group, rape crisis, women and homeless group, and the claimant’s union women’s group.
Numerous courses were held at the Centre, such as assertiveness training and bicycle repair workshops. A women’s night bus service also operated for a while on Friday and Saturday nights. A rape crisis phone line and a lesbian phone line—Lesbian Line—were set up and operated from the women’s centre to provide information and support. 34 Cowley Road also provided space and a focal point for the Oxford Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Oxford Friend. The Centre was partly supported by Oxford City Council but relied primarily on its own fund-raising activities, donations, and rent from groups using parts of the building. Sadly, the Centre had to close in 1991 due to lack of funding.
Project October / Northgate Hall
Project October was set up in 1986 to attempt to rectify a pressing need for local facilities for lesbian and gay residents of Oxford. Documents held by Oxfordshire Studies evidence the large amount of time, energy, and money that went into the project.
Project October resulted in the setting up of the Oxford Lesbian and Gay Community Centre (OLGCC) at Northgate Hall (on St Michael’s St). Opened by Ian McKellen on 31 October 1991, OLGCC was one of the only community centres of its kind in the country until its sad and much lamented closure in 2005.
On 15-16 March 1993 Paddy Ashdown (then Leader of the Liberal Democrats) visited OLGCC where he spoke to local gay men and lesbians about how they organised themselves to take action in the community. His reflections on this visit form chapter nineteen of his book Beyond Westminster: Finding Hope in Britain (1994). The chapter still makes powerful reading and stands as a testament to the tenacity and courage of Oxford’s lesbians and gay men through the bleak midwinter of Section 28 and the early years of AIDS.
Also in 1993, celebrated Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin visited Northgate Hall to sign copies of his book Maybe the Moon.