Interview with Helen Chambers

Q Vicky Woods
Q2 Jodie Fleming
A Helen Chambers
4 October, 2005
Project Office, 14 Forth Street, Edinburgh

Q OK, Helen so would you just like to tell us how long you have been in Edinburgh?

A A horribly long time. I came to Edinburgh in 1985 to go to university and I've been here ever since.

Q What did you study at university?

A I studied marine biology.

Q Fascinating! [laughter] So after your course had you plans to go back home or what?

A I don't suppose I had any idea what I was going to do; I would just think Oh I'll decide what I'm going to do when I'm grown up and I'm not sure I ever reached that; I think there are two sets of people in life: the grown ups, and people like me. [laughter]

Q Where is it you're from originally?

A I was from Torquay originally. I moved there when I was five. I was born in Berlin.My mum worked in the Australian Consulate in Berlin. So I've now lived in Edinburgh longer than I've lived anywhere else.

Q Does that make you feel more part of Edinburgh?

A Well I didn't fit in Torquay at all; it's a very strange town; it's a seaside town, so for half of the year it's completely dead and I also don't like the kind of narrow- minded, conservative town and I never quite gelled and I was always an outsider to it and when I came to Edinburgh, I felt that I had really come home because going to uni was incredibly exciting - I just wanted to run everywhere because I was completely excited to be in this big city even though I was based on campus - I was at Heriot Watt at Riccarton and with people that were intelligent and had wider horizons, so I was probably quite sure that I wasn't ever going to go back but what I was actually going to do - I had no idea and it sounds like a long time ago but I think there was actually Thatcherism at that time, 1989 when I graduated and you can't really remember how different things were then. The ecology stuff that you've got now, marine biology, there was never that. There was just these really shitty jobs and I was doing research contract which lasted three months and they were '100 a week, no holiday pay, no pension and you never knew whether you were going to get the next one, you know at the end of the three months you didn't know if you had a job next week so that was kind of why I thought I don't want to do this any more, but I don't know what I want to do. You know when you know there's a big question in your life, - well it wasn't that, it was, 'What am I going to do?' I could be a marine biologist and I was going to be a rampaging dyke and the questions were interlinked and that's why I attempted to come out at university but there was no one there. [laughter]

Q There were no support groups or anything?

A I think, but I might be making this up, I think that when I went to my Freshers' Fair, there was actually a gay group at it because I think I can remember everybody walking all the way round the opposite way to get to the door rather than walk past the table in case anyone thought there were really gay [laughter] but I might be imagining it because I can't really think that there would be gay groups in science university it would just be odd really; I don't if I've just made that up. There used to be a book shop called Better Books. It was a fairly radical bookshop and I remember seeing a poster for Bi-group at that stage but you would do that kind of 'I'm not looking at that' every time you were walking past; it would be on the periphery of my vision - pathetic, absolutely pathetic, but that was the stage that I was at so I kind of came out when I was probably 19 or 20 to a couple of friends. I didn't know what to do next.

Q Did you have any questions about your sexuality before that or was it something that just arose at university?

A It's one of the things where I always thought I was different but you don't know why for a very long time and then there's all sorts of reasons why you may have been different, because I may have been different because I was coming form a single parent family in a place where that wasn't the model; I may have been different because God was it fun going to Primary school with a slightly German accent, there might have been all sorts of reasons for being different and when you've got nobody to prove to you - you know people could look back at John Inman or Larry Grayson 20 or 30 years ago, name me the first lesbians that were visible; they weren't probably visible until the 1990s, so you're not even going through adolescence with anybody. I don't know but I think it's probably a blessed relief, but I didn't even know about films like - what's that film

Q The '70s one?

A Yes [laughter] there wasn't even bad stuff or horrible people to role model or misleading or heterosexual versions of it; there was just absolutely nothing and when you think 'Well I'm not the same as everybody else' You don't think 'Oh that's because I'm gay' You wouldn't even have the language, I think, as a woman because there's no context and I think when you get a slightly older adolescent, the way it comes up is through abuse; if you were a girl who was in any way not the same as most girls, regardless of your sexuality, you could be called a dyke or whatever, but whether anybody actually knew what that was [laughter] even was so, looking back on it I can remember a couple of girls when I was at school, sort of about 16 to 18, didn't start to go out clubbing [whispers] 'Going to discos' probably is what we called it, but I don't know that I was really aware of my sexuality, I think that I was just very interested in them, so I think it was very, very repressed really.

Q How did your parents take it when you told them?

A I don't know; it's interesting because it was at that flux time between uni and other things, things were going through a lot of dynamic change at that time anyway and I now am more in contact with a number of my friends from that time but I couldn't say that - it's not true to say that that was because of my sexuality but I think it's because I was changing and I was moving from where I was to somewhere else and they kind of got left behind, so I don't think from anyone that I would consider a friend or very few people at all that I know that I've had negative reaction to my sexuality at all. Not having problems with a very few number of friends has carried forward from uni, I didn't have any issues with that really, but in a way I was moving from one set to another, I think we could say came out in my mid 20s; [both talking simultaneously][laughter] there was a level of intensity - I got very, very involved with gay activism very quickly after coming out.

Q How did you get established in that?

A My coming out is a bit like a dam cracking and bits of water trickling out and then woosh! I came out with a flatmate who was going through the process at the same time but without talking about it, not really discussing it and then it came to the point where it was really obvious and we both said 'I think I might be gay' 'So do I' but again it was one of these things - well, now what are you going to do? At that time there were a few bars and clubs but they weren't very nice and actually they were rubbish, do you know what I mean?

Q I wasn't at that time on the scene. Where did you go?

A The first gay bar that I went to as 'out' was the Laughing Duck in its old, old reincarnation with sticky carpets, a parrot which I never understood, it should have been a duck [laughter] and Sheila Blige was a host or whatever which was horribly insulting, so I got chucked out from that and then there was - I can't remember the names of them all - there was one where Whistlebinkies is now at the Tron and then there was Blue Oyster on Rose Street, there was Frenchie's of course but again grim, the toilets .. [laughter] there were various clubs that moved round the place, there was one at the West End at Shandwick Place that was open on Sundays that Brian Levell used to run, The Sunday Club. There was the Playhouse which is an institution in itself. I can't remember which one the Whistlebinkies was but I remember going there with Martin, I remember going to the Laughing Duck. What we did was that someone he met knew that the Art College had a Gay Soc on Wednesday - I wasn't a student at that time although I was connected with the uni and I went along and had a last minute panic it would change my entire life and then if I hadn't gone in there and I thought it was quite scary and I thought it was all men virtually, and that was where I met my first girlfriend too, [laughter] so there you go, and then we went to the Laughing Duck afterwards and that was all very strange and very intense and my partner who I had met then was Liz but she was involved in student politics and the East of Scotland NUS, National Union of Students, was looking for a Lesbian and Gay Officer and she pushed me forward to that and I then joined Stevenson College to do O Level French because I was being harassed by the employment people and you had to do something and it was in the days of YTS you could be forced onto something but I knew that if you asked for something that they couldn't provide you with, they couldn't push you off with something else, so I asked for a course in business French and learning to drive which I thought would increase my employment prospects and they offered me a course in tourism and French in Plymouth and then said 'I don't suppose you'd be interested?' and I said 'No'. The best thing they could do for teaching me another language was an O Grade course at Stevenson College which is how I counted as a student even though I wasn't really and I did work for the Lesbian and Gay Campaign in the East of Scotland.

Q What did that involve?

A It had two aspects to it: one was developing Gay Socs in universities and colleges in the East of Scotland and the other was improving profile; they were called liberation campaigns but really it was about pushing boundaries and changing policies and trying to get awareness but still be a support for students at that time; I then went on to be Lesbian and Gay Officer for NUS Scotland for two years; I changed it to Lesbian Gay and Bisexual and that was a huge, huge fight.

Q So how did that come about?

A I had always had a view; My awareness of my sexual politics wasn't a learning curve it was kind of learning wall and my view is that you can't ask people to accept you or be accepting of you if you then take another subgroup of your community and say 'We can be part of it but you can't and you can't even be part of us, and I don't care if there's not that many of you, you just struggle by yourself and you just try and do everything that we're trying to do', I think that stinks personally and it's just ridiculous. Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' it's like Jude a popular front this is ridiculous, we're all doing the same stuff but again you're going back to some of the feminist movement, we had just had the hangover of the separatism and there was still quite strong separatist vibes.

Q Was this the late '80s?

A Was this was the early '90s?

Q Why the separatist movement? How did that work?

A I don't know.

Q I always think that's fascinating [laughter]

A My experience - having done various things, I ran a women's group at the day centre and organised a Reclaim the Night march and I've never worked with a separatist group who have not come along at the last minute and been really, really negative and disruptive and destructive and not actually moving anything for what you're trying to do. As far as I'm aware, I've never done anything to oppress women but the number of women who thought, 'That's me. They're trying to oppress me! And I've boy children, over the age of four and a half' .[interrupted]

Q Ah that's it. What age does a boy become a man?

A [still talking while Vicky was talking but couldn't make it out] Get a life!

Q It's quite ironic that the separatist women were trying to stop the pressure on women but then they themselves, that's what they did a lot of the time.

A The Reclaim the Night march where they didn't do anything to help it happen and then literally days beforehand they pulled a boycott because we said that men supporters and boy children were allowed but obviously we didn't want huge quantities of men [interrupted] they were actually saying that they would picket against us and would say 'You're mad, you're completely insane!' and then when we should have been organising things like what we were trying to achieve, we were running around having meetings with people who were always throwing hairies about the whole thing. I don't know where the argument is now. I don't know if any of that's left within. [interrupted]

Q We did the first production of the Vagina Monologues in Scotland and we were getting picketed outside by women separatist groups who were claiming that that was pornography etc.

A Oh they just need to get themselves a life. So that was even stronger going back 15, 20 years and there was a lot of political environment then about who controlled the liberation campaigns because there were very strong activist elements and the political groupings of liberal organisations of students and the militant and socialist organisers and the Socialist Workers' Party, they were all trying to get to own the liberation campaign and there were really huge , although it seems ridiculous now, but there were really huge political struggles within the student movement who would often coalesce around the liberation campaigns because it was basically both leverage and a stick with which to beat everybody else who wasn't your pal, so there was Trotskyist tendencies like the militants who didn't believe that the liberation campaign should be autonomous because it's all gay people's struggle so we should all do it together and we should run you just as much as you should run us, and then there were the people like the Socialist organisers or National Organisation of Labour Students actually - NOLS that's what it was - believed in the autonomy of liberation campaigns like that but they then tried to work from the inside; it was a routine political post to hold would be Women's Officer for NUS Scotland or Women's Officer of NUS UK because that gave you a lot of exposure and a lot of power and if you look back and track back some of the politicians that we have now as MPs and you track them back, they were taught the tools of their trade on the student movement: you've got Steven Twigg, Laura Fitzsimons, Jim Murphy, a Scottish MP, they were all very tangled up in that in and out of manipulating campaigns; it was a very intense political time; it was very childish but it was very intense at that time so I was very involved in that. I always used to remember the figures but when I started out being LGB Officer for NUS Scotland, there was a handful of Gay Socs when I started and when I finished abut two years later I think there were over 30, so I was quite pleased with that.

Q What do you think of the attitude towards bisexuality now?

A I probably don't go out on the scene much. I think Edinburgh has been very different from everywhere else historically because I think of having the bi group so early on; I think debates were had years before anywhere else. You go to London and there's even more separatism, even up here it's like we're ahead and yet you're still operating in this way, so I would hope that it's irrelevant now; I suspect that it probably isn't, I suspect that there's probably fights and debates that people. [interrupted]

Q I think there's a lot of them: our transgender people, I think they're having a harder time of it.
I was the LGB Officer at university and they wouldn't let us change LGB to LGBT and that was a big issue, calling it LGBT in the first place, it's he same argument.
So what made you stop being the LGB Officer?

A Well I ran for presidency of NUS Scotland and lost and then I ran for East of Scotland Convener and was ruled out of that - they could change the rules as far as I was concerned - but anyway it's all past history, so at that point it was 'Where do I go from here?' I'm trying to think what happened next. I was probably unemployed again for a while after that and then' [interrupted]

Q It must have been quite hard after being so active.

A Yes but what happened then was that in those days there was the Scottish Homosexual Rights Group that was based in the Gay Centre in Broughton Street and I got involved with that because one of the activists in the student movement as Joe Fitzpatrick; he knew about SHRG and had a view that it was anachronistic and very male dominated and really needed to be a powerful body but couldn't be until it had gone through its death throes of John Hein and Ian Dunn and all that nonsense that had been going on for years and years, so a few people asked me if I would go on the executive group of that, so I stood for election and was elected to it and what we used to do being a convener and a deputy convener was a bit bored and then each year whoever had been the deputy convener would go on to be the convener which at that time would be John Wilkes who kind of upset the apple cart and said no and that he thought I should do it, and this rather stung people because it had done amazing things but it had just fossilised really and there were so many internal squabbles between the members so that was probably quite upsetting and quite threatening to a number of people. So I was then Convener of SHRG - I can't remember how long for - but we changed its name to Outright Scotland.

Q What made them change the name?

A Well because Scottish Homosexual Rights Group, what needed changing about that? [laughter] Even in the early '90s 'homosexual' had a pathological definition, weird Latinised, medicalised version of what someone's sexuality might be and also what we wanted to get away from was because there was a lot of debate then about the word 'queer' or 'gay' or 'lesbian' or 'dyke' and then if you start adding all that together, and then you have to have the argument about 'I'm bisexual' so it was kind of encapsulating words and we used to have the logo which was Outright and then we used to have the dictionary definition which was not by part, entirely , it was very dynamic and I can't remember what the tag line was underneath it and that's the time that I got involved with the Gay Centre and I was director of Calosa Publishing which published Gay Scotland and I edited it for a little while; and put tits on Gay Scotland, the only cover of Gay Scotland that has tits on it. [laughter]

Q We've got a big pile of those in the archives for the exhibition and the Gay Scotlands that there have ever been

A This is probably the only one that's got tits on it

Q I will find it!

A I actually have got a copy of it somewhere which I would loan but I would want it back, if you can't find it and if you are interested.

Q Definitely, definitely. Well what year would that be, and we can have a look at what we've got?

A It would be after 1991 and before 1994, I think and at that time we were trying to make that group into a really effective lobbying group but there was this kind of - Ian Dunn was a very strong figure at the time and he had done a lot of very, very good work in Scotland but at some point you need to know when it is ready to move on and he never knew that and again he had been squabbling with John Hein for the best part of 100 years and to this day I don't know what it was that started them off but it was like warring family members; they both had their faults but they both had done amazing things for gay equality in Scotland but they also perhaps stopped things happening because they were more interested in winning points over each other than actually moving things forward. So there was that going on and there was a new set of people trying to make Outright work as an organisation and all sorts of interesting things around the age of consent. It was a time of change at that period so it was quite a tension to try and manage an organisation rumbling away (for god's sake, let's do this stuff) but I think that that was when Tim Hopkins, me and John Wilkes who were I think the three who must have been quite a strong triangle there and did lobbying down at Westminster and to MPs up here and with the police and I think that was a time of change. I think of it as being a time of - I was going to use the word 'shame', I don't know whether it's the right word or not - but it was still a time when you really had to think whether it was sensible - or some people thought you had to think was it sensible to be out, to be in a newspaper about being gay, whilst not being prosecuted cottaging, you know that was quite something. And when you think nowadays 'What! It can't have been like that, it can't have been so recently' but I remember Tim and I did an interview for the Evening News and people were asking you 'Do you want your photographs in it?' There was the issue of your personal safety, which I can't say really bothered me but that outing - there was no going back and I think that was the first time when people really .. it wasn't the first because journalists will know that there have been lots of people like that from the time when it was probably very dangerous and you could be arrested, went and put their faces to be the front of the gay community but I think we've been through Section 28, we've been through the impact of HIV and I think everyone had come out really gone back; I think perhaps the '90s were the first time the whole political gay climate - and perhaps we were the right people at the right time that we could do that and put our faces on the front of things and not be some kind of figure shot in shadow talking heads. Do you know what I mean? Because people did go on TV like that. And we were going to speak to the press and to be interviewed and people would be very out and I think that was probably quite a challenge for all sorts of people because they didn't behave how they thought gay people would behave and we weren't scared abut being gay. So I think that was quite an interesting time and for the exhibition it's probably worth having a dig around in the Evening News ands Scotsman and stuff like that because I think you'll start to see some of those stories coming through. And it was exciting and I think that we didn't have a clue what we were doing.

Q [counter 335]

A Well we knew what way we wanted to go and I think that - I've worked in the voluntary sector a long time and done policy - you can't get anywhere if you really don't know where you're going, big ideas; if you've got the big ideas and you've got enough energy, you'll find a way of getting there. If I look back to what we did, you have whole organisations now, paying people that are lobbyists and press people and policy and fundraisers, like I wouldn't even know those names, do you know what I mean? What's 'lobbying?' I didn't know what lobbying was or what policy was; we knew we wanted to say something about this and we wanted to put something in the Evening News about it, so how could you do that? Use a press release. What's a press release? I don't know. then ask someone who's done one! What does it look like. OK We'll write you one. We just did it that way and it was like 'We want to speak to some MPs' 'Who?' 'Oh they've been quite nice' and we used to ring them up. and Through sheer ignorance and enthusiasm you just trampled over barriers because you didn't even realise that there were different ways of doing it and you had to be respectful of the different processes; we spoke to David Steele, Robin Cooke, Nigel Griffiths, all sorts of folk.

Q How did they react?

A Mainly great but you didn't bother if there would be no point, well A he wouldn't give a meeting but you were trying to build your support base, you were trying to look for MPs that would be interested in putting legislation through the House of Commons or support pieces of legislation so yes, you're not going to pick MPs who are not going to shout at you and give you a hard time but you still had arguments to win; there was still the big debate about should it be 16 or 18 for and I remember one of the lobbies that we did in Westminster, Maria Fyffe and we actually changed her mind from 18 to 16 as we were talking and I was actually quite surprised about that. I think Robin Cook was very, very nice and bought us breakfast - toast in the canteen first thing in the morning; Nigel Griffiths was very nice; the gorgeous "George Galloway' he was very kind and quite laid back. Interestingly enough David Steel who had actually done a lot of work on gay equality back in the 1960s, he was really offhand and not nice; that was when I decided that I didn't like him.

Q Why do you think that was?

A I suspect it was perhaps because he expected us to be a very professional, together outfit and we weren't. I think we've always been very professional but we didn't have that massive organisational backup, so the material presented was very professional but we perhaps didn't play the game in the right kind of deference and use the right kind of language and everything that he was more used to because he had become a higher echelon, so maybe he thought we were being a little bit strange whereas other MPs could perhaps see, could just take us at face value. No it was very odd because we asked for a meeting with him and he said that he would meet with us and then we went there and he was really offhand with us and we thought 'Well, if you can't be arsed speaking to us why did you say yes?' because we didn't expect him to say yes and that would have been fine. I don't know I don't like his style actually; I think he comes across, he's the reverse of Gordon Brown, he comes across much nicer on television.

Q What was your favourite venue or funny stories of anybody?

A David Steel. We were staying in one of John's friend's houses and we hadn't lots of money, I mean we paid for our tickets to go to London - unemployed, I had to buy a pair of trousers because I had nothing; John put some money up to hire a mobile phone because we were travelling around to have meeting with people and it was about 11 o'clock at night and we were having a chat with John's friend in his house and this phone rang which was kind of comical and I said 'Och, that'll be David Steel' and picked up the phone and said 'Hello' and it was him. [laughter] So that was quite amusing. I don't think it's hugely amusing but it was just very mad; if we really thought or in retrospect now thought about what we were doing or trying to do, you wouldn't do it. You would scare yourself to death, but we were so naive and we just leapt in and did it and actually that was really, really successful because you haven't negotiated yourself out of what you wanted before you've even started which I think can be worse but it was hard but there were no rules so we didn't have to do it all. And also there was an energy about it; it was very exciting and it was constant thrusts and that keeps you going, you know like first meeting with Lothian & Borders Police, the first meeting with Strathclyde Police.They're the first Lesbian and Gay Liaison Officers in the police force, the age of consent, so that was exciting, the first pairs of tits on Gay Scotland; organised the first gay art show in the Gay Centre. You can't have that now which in a way is fantastic because it's not the first it's the 7000th which is great but you gain an energy from doing that and because no one's done it before, there's no one to tell you you should do this and you can't do that and if you do it you have to do this. I suppose that energy was a novelty.

Q So what did you do after?

A At the same time in parallel with that I got my first proper job which was Harpies and Quines magazine which was a feminist magazine, published in Glasgow which Lesley Riddoch was involved in starting so I did that for a while.

Q What was it called?

A Harpies and Quines. Harpers & Queen made the big fuss and got Harpies and Quines, the biggest women's mag in the universe and it was completely free; it was great. 'Harpies' is a Scottish word and 'quine' is a Scottish word and from my editors words are 'Harpers and Queens'. The only bit that they could get them on, or attempt to get them on, was the ampersand, the '&' logo in the middle which they said was their copyright - and you can't copyright punctuation [laughter]

Q So what was the feminist magazine called? Oh that was the name of it?

A And that had some writers which then were chosen and I was frightfully blas' and you look back and think 'Oh my God!'; of course I can't remember any of their names but I think Tessa Ramsford was doing poetry for it, Jackie Kay was writing for it, Horse was involved too. I had Horse's phone number [laughter] and I spoke to her once [laughter] and I would probably be horrified if I went back to it and just go 'Oh my God!'

Q How long did it run for?

A Not long. I worked there for less than a year but it ran for a while before that and a while after that but it was incredibly tough breaking in to magazine publishing because WH Smith's has got distribution control, so they can determine where your magazine is sold; they also have a very long payment period, actually because magazines are printed so early - if you buy a magazine now it's probably got November written on the front so the whole production schedule, payment schedule is so stretched that you have to have about six months worth of print costs before you ever get any money back from them, so you have to be enormous before you change and start paying a gain but we were literally going from one month's paying the publishers to one month's getting the cash in from what we had sold, a very tight turn around and you just can't make that step from being a very small magazine to suddenly being anything with great sales in Scotland, it's just impossible, it couldn't make the jump and the way it was distributed was an amazing network of women throughout Scotland; you literally got large amounts to certain places in Scotland and women would come and actually take them all round newsagents all round Scotland, a distribution network of volunteers every month to get them throughout Scotland, it was an incredible commitment but eventually you haven't got control on the money or what's happening and then someone doesn't do it or doesn't turn up, but it was quite fun. At that time I was doing - and theses all sort of overrun, they're not sequential - I was doing the convenership, trying to sort out publishing which was going through a financial mess, get a new editorial and everything, that's when gay Scotland went to Dominic D'Angelo to publish it to be the editor and publish it after that when we took it out of John Hein's hands. The true story about that is, when we eventually got access to the Gay Scotland room in the centre and got the keys off him - because it was a coup, you know what I mean, he wouldn't willingly say 'No, you take it over, you have it' - we tried to get the door open, we were pushing away and it was unlocked and eventually we managed to shove the door back and the floor was covered with unopened envelopes and I don't know what he did, it wasn't as if the office hadn't been used and people had just been shoving post through he was using it to produce the magazine and I think he just came in in the morning and went 'Is there anything that I'm interested in? No.' [laughter] It was like a carpet of unopened envelopes, invoices and cheques, it was incredible; we had to start from scratch; we had to build up a set of accounts from scratch, we had to sort out everything and work everything back, try and find out all the invoices and everything, and we had no idea what kind of financial situation it was in and then build up a set of accounts from basically the paper lying around.

Q How long did it take to get everything straightened out?

A God knows! A long time, a long time. Thinking back on it, what's probably confusing is the argument to try and get someone to stop doing something probably went on for quite a long time but you had to keep producing the magazine, I think I'd do two or three issues and I think it was bimonthly, maybe it was only six months but it felt like a lifetime and again I was a director of SHRG Properties which at that time owned the gay Centre.

[end of side 1]

Much of that stuff was in a real mess and needed sorting out. That took a long time, Tim did a lot of work with that. Publishing a small gay magazine is one thing but being the trustee of a building that's worth something probably for the community, and I was trustee for a while for that which did end up with being served a writ when there was a conflict and one of the tenants. I hadn't been taken off as a Trustee which I was a bit cross about but obviously once a writ has been served you can't extract yourself until the legal side of things has been sorted out, which it was but a lot of the stuff there was a real mess, the gay community had some real reasons to split; it had only had a very, very small number of people who had managed them for a very long time and you just get on with the consequences of that, not enough people involved in it.

Q Not enough commitment either sometimes.

A It was very intense; there was probably about 20 really hard core activists that had been around [interrupted]

Q Did you all get on very well?

A Em [laughter] It was a lot of pressure because if one or two people stepped away, there wasn't anyone to take it over so people did things for much longer that they wanted to and if you're not doing it because you're enjoying it, you don't do it very well and you get pissed off with everybody else and they aren't pulling their weight and you all hate it but what are you going to do? There were a lot of squabbles - I was always called a Stalinist at Outright meetings - no, I just felt there was more tension than perhaps you would find in other voluntary sector organisations but I think it was because it has a strange nature, people aren't very out and only a very small number of people, it was a quite gold fishbowl kind of environment and I think you just get the consequences of that

Q So what is it you're doing just now?

A I'm a civil servant. I've moved over to the dark side.

Q What made you draw back from the activism?

A It was incremental because after I got made redundant from Harpies and Quines, I then went and I was project manager of Scottish Aids Monitor in Lothian and then stopped doing the convenership because there was a conflict of interest there but again that was a time of flux surrounding HIV education: we had the first Gay Men's Project around HIV which now you wouldn't blink and I couldn't tell you how many there are, there are probably hundreds but we were the first one in the UK.

Q What did that [counter 582]

A SAM Lothian was part of a big organisation which was Scottish Aids Monitor which was national and had four bases in Scotland but in Lothian we had direct services for people that were HIV+ so we had welfare rights and buddying and then we had the gay men's project and that was a kind of peer education project; it's not an absolutely pure peer education project because there were paid workers but it was very much of that nature rather than the hierarchical 'we are health promoters, we know and we will tell you gay men what you should do', it was supposed to be flattening that out and that's really each one to each one and getting the gay community to do work on the scene which - they haven't been working on the scene, they've brought condoms on to the scene which had been a huge [interrupted] battle.

Q How did that start off?

A That was before my time but I just know from the scars that we bore after it.

Q I can imagine that would be quite tough thing to put out at that sort of time especially.

A I think it was plugged away at and they had some really strong people on the HIV scene in the late '80s and early '90s; Scotland and Edinburgh would have been a different place without them; people died but a lot more people would be dead if it hadn't been for a handful of people, Maureen Moore, Derek Ogg, but a few people in the mid '80s realised how devastating HIV could be and just battled away with people who said 'oh we can't do this and we can't do that, we can't talk about it, we can't give out free condoms, we can't give out clean needles' and all that kind of stuff, so I didn't have to be the front line of that but we were still arguing when SAM finished with the Health Board - we used to give them figures abut how many condoms we had got rid of through bars and it sounds odd but it was huge numbers, like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and they were saying 'we can't give that many to start with; it's too many and it was like 'What are you talking about?'. The whole point is that people should be using condoms' and they were 'Well, it's too expensive, you're using all our condom budget.' 'Good, because people are using them.' 'How can you know that they're not being stolen?' 'Why would people want to?' 'Maybe they're selling them' 'Oh get real!' If people really are stealing them and if people are selling them, which I don't believe, the only use they have is when people have sex and they don't become not effective just because they are stolen and sold, so people will still be having safer sex if they use them; the only objection is if someone is stealing them and selling them and someone is using them for something else. What would that be? We did have these discussions and it was a constant battle to keep free condoms in the bars. They're probably still having some of these arguments about it. That was quite novel doing gay men's work because that was very new and, and it was a real challenge to have to do real health promotion work which was at that time and I think to a certain extent it still is. It's still every leaflet, badge, balloon and poster, that's the campaign; a poster never ever made someone use a condom. (Tape finishes)

Q That's us now.

A Yes I was talking about Gay Men's Project that that was actually quite a challenge to traditional health promotion and also it was hard to do; it was hard to manage because the guys were recruited not because they were health promotion specialists, they were recruited because they were gay men and they were very tuned to the scene, they were very active socially because it was trying to beat that barrier and get into the community which was great but there were a lot of issues around that. They had a mixed bag of skills but a lot of them had no formal skills; they had been disco bunnies, bar workers, some of them at various points, they were just a set of guys from the scene and you were expecting them to do health promotion and just because they were gay men who knew about sex, that didn't mean to say that they knew about health promotion but in a way there was a kind of holier than thou aspect to it, it was like 'we know best, we're gay men, we have sex, we know about it' , yes but you sometimes couldn't manage to sort yourself out of a wet paper bag. There were a lot of conflicts about that when you put a new type of worker in a large organisation that's a conflict but make them a whole lot of people that aren't used to being office space, don't know anything really about what they're doing, in the best sense of it, that is a real challenge and it wasn't easy to manage and there were a lot of conflicts with the management and also SAM went through a lot of changes, a board take over in the middle of that period. There were supposed to be no boundaries between the team and the scene but how do people get any time off and how do they extract their personal life and any issues they may have about their behaviours and I think that was really tough and I found it tough and you would be out on the scene and people would be poking their fingers in your chest 'Another this Scottish Aids Monitor should or shouldn't be doing is ..' you know at two o'clock in the morning someone was doing that to me 'Oh go away!' If you go out and get drunk, it's not like you went out and got drunk, it was 'the manager of SAM was out' and everybody knew your business, everybody knew the Gay Men's Project workers' business. It was really tough and because we were not some of the first, because there was the work in London being done by gay Men Fighting Aids I can't remember what they were called but it was very similar - there wasn't this body of work that there is now about how to do that kind of work and where project barriers are translating the knowledge around health behaviours into peer scene work. Things have moved on, it's 10 years later, but at that time it was quite tough and I think the organisation folded when I was with it but it really struggled to handle that challenge of doing something so new and so dynamic and so large so quickly and there were some real disagreements at board level around it and there was a board take over. Maureen Moore, I think she resigned but I think they were quite happy to see her go and Derek
Ogg came in with some of this chums and chucked out other people off the board and Phace West was set up and the funding went to Phace West from SAM in Strathclyde and it was just a mess; the board members that were left there made some very stupid decisions about putting into run projects that they didn't have any money for and they spent the reserves of the organisation and then that's it, you've got nowhere to go then and funders knew it was a mess and they reacted quite badly; no one ever said no, that they wouldn't provide the next year's funding but no one ever said yes which would then enable you to get someone else's funding, so there was all that kind step away and let it crash which I think was unfair; it's an immature way to behave. If you don't want to fund something, if you have concerns about its governance, you should say that and be honest about it. It was quite fun and again quite exciting; we did some stuff there that then were the precursors for other things: we had two Highland Flings which came out of the Gay Men's Project, which I think were the precursors to Pride events and certainly some of the people who did the first Pride came to speak to me because I had run the two Flings.

Q So when was the first everybody?

A Oh, we did two so it must have been '94, '95, does that sound right? Was that pre Pride? Yes we were just two years pre Pride and that again was another 'if you knew what the hell you were doing, you would never do it'. The guys decided that they were going to do Highland Fling: they were going to have a non drink scene focused event that was vaguely, not quite sporty but an outdoors thing, and there was a whole lot who were high up in management and they tried to run two dual managements - the whole thing was a bloody mess - anyway I came along nine days before this and the only thing that had happened had been hat the posters had been printed and the leaflets gone out. Everyone else was concerned that whatever the date there was, there was going to be this Fling and I remember sitting with this team and 'Neil, right, you said that you would be talking to people about the marquee. Have you got that booked?' 'No'. 'Has anyone spoken to the police?' 'No.' 'Do you have a license for this event?' 'No.' 'Have we got anything whatsoever?' 'No.' I'm not exaggerating; so we had to just to start from nothing apart from knowing that in nine days a whole load of people hopefully would turn up in the Meadows and that nearly killed us, absolutely fucking killed us. The year after that there was a guy who was HIV+ and we actually made him ill, it was such hard work, which I think is unforgivable, a project like that, that was supposed to support people that were HIV+ but it was such hard work that he actually became ill; it was just so wrong but it was just so intense. I remember, we didn't have a clue; we booked the tents, the marquees and we got them there the night before and the guy who brought the tents said 'So when's your security arriving?' [laughter] - 'You're going to leave tents on the Meadows overnight with no one there?' We said 'Yes.' [laughter], and we did and of course they got damaged and of course we had to ring up the marquee people and go 'See your tents, see how we're going to have most people here in three hours' time, could you come back and mend them?'. We had hired generators because we were having a dance tent and we needed them for the PA system and amps and stuff and I was just so naive, like 'hire generators'; it's like hiring cars, you expect to be able to get in it and drive, and there's this generator stood in the middle of the floor, there's no petrol and its output was to some other kind of electrical device and I hadn't got a clue. What do I know. We had these guys that were doing the food stalls and everything and they had brought some fairground rides with them and one of these guys, I just went up to him and said 'I don't know what I'm doing, can you help?' and people were just amazingly fantastic - Oh you need a ' I don't know what it's called - but anyway he said 'I think this bloke's got one' so he went off and sorted that out and got that and then the DJs turned up; C.C. Bloom's was doing the bar at that time and it all worked but I remember we had Health and Safety turn up at
about five to twelve - we were starting at 12 - and had music going and he was like 'Turn it off', and we laughed and he said 'I'm not joking' so I had to turn off this generator and he said, 'I'm not touching it' and just about five minutes literally before it was due to kick off, I was running around like a headless chicken and again I went back to these guys that had these fairground rides and he said 'It's not earthed'. I didn't even know what that means! Anyway he came and earthed it and everything. She-boom was doing drumming there and we were like 'Keep on drumming! More! Just repeat it!' [laughter] and it all came together and it was one of these things and it worked. If you think how long Pride had planned for, admittedly there were marches and there was a lot more to Pride than to doing these small events on the Meadows, but it was just mad; we didn't have Public Liability Insurance, didn't even know we needed any.[laughter] Someone's sitting outside the Council Licensing offices, I think on Friday afternoon to pick the license up because we were that close. We had keys got locked in a van first thing in the morning - just everything that could go wrong but again it's one of those things, if you think about doing it properly, you'd never do it because we had no idea; these guys just say 'Why not have such and such an event on the Meadows?' and we went 'Right, OK then.'

Q It must have been some atmosphere there.

A I couldn't believe at the end of it; we packed up and got home - we were supposed to be going out to the pub afterwards and I physically couldn't move, that was it, I had just used up every ounce of energy, my muscles had just seized up completely but again it was very, very exciting because it led on to things like Pride; it's not a novelty, it's pass' isn't it [laughter] but again if you track back to Lark in the Park, people have had real trouble - I think going back to '91/'92, even getting the space, so it was by no means an assumption that you could even have done it, the Council could have turned round and said 'We're not giving you the Meadows', so I think that it's very easy to forget the context in which these things were occurring and it's not that long ago.

Q So what about the scene back then; what was that like compared to what it's like now? Do you think there's much of a change?

A I don't know that I would be an expert, I don't go out so much these days; I think Edinburgh always has had and still has a small gay scene and [laughter] well, we had the Duck twice and I quite liked it in its second incarnation; it's got a lot bigger, there are a lot more people, you used to see the same old faces all the time - that's a positive and a negative; people are a lot younger and that's not just because I'm getting old. I think it's fantastic that you go into Planet Out and it's so young; it's so fantastic, can you imagine being young today?

Q I'm 25 and I feel like and old age pensioner.

A Maybe you did, maybe you went out at 17 to gay places with female friends.

Q I didn't. I didn't go out until I was 19/20.

A I think that's fantastic.

Q It's society in general, I think though; it's like being in this area of tolerance and it's not a big deal any more and these kids don't have any of the hassle that people did 20/30 years ago coming out; everything's a lot easier and obviously a lot of that will be down to what you and your friends have done in the past.

A Yes, that's a difference, that the age group, I mean you probably see more women but not squads of women yet and I think if you go back to the days of Liberty at the Playhouse, that was phenomenal, it was incredible to walk in when there was nothing, absolutely nothing and you would go in and it was like 400 women and they were all gay. It blew your mind. It was almost too much and I don't think you even get that now; maybe some of the big women's clubs in London would you get 400 women but you don't get that in Scotland now. I suppose that in some ways it's positive because I think it's probably like that because people are more accepted within the wider community and wider leisure pursuits. Edinburgh is a big cosmopolitan city, it's got big university population, it's got a lot more mix so maybe it doesn't need that ghettoisation or the kind of very singular environment that actually are missing - not that I'm suggesting that Edinburgh ought to be much more oppressive than it is, but I think you pay for that, the lack of intensity that you would have seen previously.

Q I think a lot of gay people now go into straight bars and hang about there and I think it has taken away from the sense of community. There's no fight any more; there's no cause to fight for and I think people are lost to the community.

A Yes, but vice versa as well; the fact that it's terribly fashionable to go to a gay pub and live it up, hen parties and fag hags. I saw a straight couple entangle themselves very obviously on the dance floor at Velvet and I thought 'What are you getting out of that? Because you could do that anywhere. We're not impressed'. It might be that you get off on watching lesbians; we don't get off watching straights [laughter]. So I think that's changed but it's the same bloody bars, isn't it?
Q Every time we go to C.C.'s we say 'I'm never going back'.

A I don't go back. I've not been back for years

Q Don't go back! I've not been back for about nine months; I've only been in the city for two years.

Q2 I used to work in the Duck, obviously the second time round, and worked there for quite a while, pretty much while it was open - you would get the same people that used to come the first time round and they would sit and say to you 'Yes, it was greet; it used to be like this pub'

A Yes. I thought it was a grown up bar: it was like I don't want to stand and have a drink, I want to sit down and I don't care if that makes me a pensioner, I want to be able to hear people and I want to see people. Smoking pre clubbing, the Duck did get quite smoky and you did see people there that you hadn't seen, groups of women, especially that you hadn't seen out in years; they obviously still existed as a group of friends but they then came back because it was an environment that was comfortable and I think it was a real shame that the Duck closed because we haven't got anything to replace it; the Regent is not the same; I hate going to Planet Out now - every now and again we'll go out and it's 'Let's go to Planet Out' and we get there and 'What the hell did we do this for?' [laughter]

Q I don't really go out that much where I live; it's because there are so many young people and I'm not in the same league with them at all.

A But Habana I think '

Q Very male dominated.

A I used to go there when it was - what was it called? - when it was a leather bar - it was really grim.

Q2 It's pretty grim now to be honest.

A Blacked out windows and there were these tiny little peep holes and you used to have to bang on the door to be let in 'Do you know what kind of bar this is?' 'Of course I know!' [laughter] What was it? Chaps! [laughter]

Q Actually you could maybe help us out with something. We have been given loads of memorabilia and we've been accessing off the Museums Department. We've come across a banner for something called PJ's and we know that there is one in Glasgow but apparently there was one in Edinburgh but we can't find out if anyone knew.

A It sounds familiar.

Q It's maybe been a certain night at a club or something but we've got this banner that was donated by Nexus which was the old Sala and we can't find out what event.[interrupted]

A It sounds familiar but I don't remember it.

Q They established a second one in Glasgow but apparently the second one was Edinburgh.

A The Sunday Club is the name of the club in Shandwick Place, I've just remembered.

Q The Sunday Club?

A I think from an activist's point of view, I've always had a bit of a problem with the scene in Edinburgh because the people who are making the money from it give, or used to and I suspect they haven't changed, absolutely bugger all back to the community. If you look at Diane, she's worth mega millions - I know that sounds like an exaggeration but if you look at the length of time she's had CC's and other stuff in Edinburgh, now maybe she gives huge amounts of money to other charitable environments that we know nothing about but when I pushed her on a number of occasions for various different things, whether it was Highland Fling or Pride stuff, it's really been 'What am I going to get out of it?' and it's just a lot of queers that are going to spend money buying drinks obviously but hey, would you not just do this, it's a good thing, you know give something back. We did the Fling, we were driving her stuff around for her bar crew to the event when we had better things to do, how much would it cost her to hire a van for an afternoon? '20, '50, '100?, what would she have made from that venue? I think that whereas the Glasgow scene - and probably people have complaints like this everywhere - but I think the Glasgow scene is much more ownership and money has been given back and effort has been given back. I don't think the scene in Edinburgh has ever really thought that the gay community was any of its business apart from sources to make money. The people I would omit from that would be the Blue Moon and Alan Joy. Alan is very generous.

Q Alan has done a lot of voluntary work?

A He was doing work with Gay Scotland and SHRG years before me and the blue Moon was one place when he was running it, and since then, that you could rely on for actually doing something and helping out but the rest of them are really crap.

Q What sort of things have the Blue Moon done then? I know about Alan but [interrupted]

A When it was the old Blue Moon it was the only bar that wasn't a really seedy bar, that's where everyone went and I think he supported a lot of community groups by literally just letting them be in his space and not drinking very many cups of tea, when he could have said 'Bugger off!' and he's run events and just assisted - I don't think it needs anyone to be hugely grand about giving away lots of money, I think it's about actually attitude and trying to help stuff along rather than always be like 'What am I going to get from it?'

Q Absolutely.

Q2 Sala is a little bit more like that.

A Yes, that's true. So these people are being acknowledged but they are exceptions to the rule and certainly if you look at that over a period of ten years, they are for themselves, which is a shame.

Q So do you still have any of your activist groups? Do you think there is any fight left in Edinburgh? Do you think there is something we should be pushing for?

A I was a core group member of the Equality Network; I wasn't a founder member of that; everyone thinks I am and I'm not going to correct them - so that was interesting and I'm very proud of that now because if it was the last thing I ever did, I was going to get money out of the Scottish Executive, as it happened I didn't in the end - it all happened anyway but it was like recognition - you've funded everything else, you've got to fund this [laughter] I think there's fight left - I don't know - I think that's a really interesting question. I think that in the last few years we have achieved stuff on a scale that we couldn't have dreamed of. I remember sitting in Tim's kitchen talking about - gay equality was based on Battenberg cake on Wednesday nights in Tim's kitchen - and we would have this strategy around which stakeholders we would need to get on board for this campaign and how long it was going to take and how many Scottish Parliamentary elections we would have to factor into that, so that's the timescale, if you think about talk about more than one because you know that immediately before an election you might as well kiss it good-bye because no one's ever going to say anything dramatic and then everyone has to settle down for about a year and a bit - do you see what I mean? So that was the sort of planning we were doing. If you had said to us then you'll have civil partnership by 2005, we would have said 'Don't be so ridiculous!' I suppose we've probably come to a point, a good pause point because we have got so much recently but I don't think we've even started to think what that means for us and actually that means quite a lot for us; it means a different kind of behaviour in our relationships; people will be liable for things that they weren't liable for before, dull things like tax credits - they won't get the same kind of benefits, they will have to fill in different pension forms, there will be a different level of angst at work, they will actually have to consider about the relationships they get into with people and what that means and how to get out of them again and all the issues surrounding parenting that we've done in a very ad hoc way previously will be much more formal, so I don't Know that we need that kind of storming bit, the Storming normal thing, I think we need some storming now to actually work out what does this mean for us and then what? Because we're not equal; there are still things that are equal in law but more important that aren't equal in everyday life and what are we going to do about that because Parliament is not necessarily the focus of that, you can't legislate for people's attitudes; you can legislate for existing ones but not for what goes on in their heads, so maybe we need to think about refocusing on what we want next and I don't know that we have. I think we are in shock and organising weddings [laughter] and I think that will be really interesting and I'm really looking forward to that but I'm also very interested about it; if you had said two years ago how
many people that you knew would be getting civil partnerships, you probably would have said 'Loads of them' and we are now two months away - 'not quite so many' [laughter] but that will be interesting; it will be interesting to see how it's picked up in the media because when I went to something that was not a partnership ceremony but going through the motions, but nobody that important back in the mid '90s and we were being chased down the street by Daily Mail photographers, and if you look at people like Ruth that used to do Beyond Barriers and her partner Adrienne Hammock has a child together with two gay men, they were hounded out of their house, being chased by the media. I used to be in a partnership with my partner who had a small child who is now not small, about 16, and to a certain extent we tried to have a plan B, that because I was doing media work but they weren't connected to it in any way, that if there was anything that got really focused on me, I would not go home because the minute the press on the doorstep that's what they are and people would have not very spoken plans but like 'what would you do if that was happening to you? Who would you speak to and where would you go?' because people's lives were wrecked through stuff like that so I think we probably have, I hope not, but we possibly have a tail end of something like women (?) yet to come because we have got the first civil partnerships, we will have the first divorce, we will have various sets of parenting that will be different or new or the end of parenting arrangements and I think there is still some poison out there that will still come through and we didn't talk about Section 28, that was the end of that. It ws like washing in sulphuric acid, it was just disgusting; I think Scotland should be ashamed of itself for some of the elements of the people who behaved like that. Can you imagine billboards - I can't even remember what they said - but any other word apart from 'gay' and you would have been in prison!

Q2 I still remember, very early on, coming back from Glasgow and seeing this huge bill board with a typical 2.4 children family saying 'Do you want family to be any other way?' - which of your children could be gay? and it was just like [gasp].

A And again that was even more recent. So that thinking won't go just because someone has changed legislation. We have won some very important battles and there are people like Wendy Alexander that really put themselves on the line for that when they didn't need to and Scotland has done the right thing and I'm really proud of Scotland and its politicians. That's almost hard to say because I don't like an awful lot of them but as a group, they have done well by us. They have actually stood up and done some stuff that they didn't actually have to do and some very good outcomes but that doesn't mean to say that there isn't a lot of shit left. So is there fight? Yes, there is yes but it will happen.

Q Well that's a good conclusion. Is there anything you would like to add or bring up?

A No. I could ramble on for hours but that's probably quite enough! There was one thing: I asked you about a follow-up interview; one thing I was involved with was helping Gay Scotland and we did the first big bill board campaign and it might be interesting to get a copy of the posters.

Q Absolutely. Do you know where we would get them?

A I could get you a small one but it would be good to get a big style one - I don't know whether there would be any left. It was under the Scottish HIV Forum or HIV Scotland - whatever it calls itself these days but if you go back to Healthy Gay Scotland, whoever is doing that these days they may have some more material and I could give you a potted history separately, Hamish McDonald worked for it as well; he works for 360 Degree Advertising now. there are lots of different aspects, but that probably was the final SAM stuff, that was the next reincarnation of that. It was obviously very visual but it would be interesting to have that juxtaposition of the filth that was Keep the Clause lot and the positive stuff.

Q OK. Well I would like to thank you for your time.

End of interview