Camden Lesbian Centre was an amazing place. Or so I’ve heard.
You see, I was born in 1992, when most lesbian groups in Britain had either closed or drifted towards disbanding. As a result, I have never known what it means to occupy that kind of space – somewhere built by and for lesbians. The closest I can get to visiting a lesbian centre is pouring through the materials of an archive, gently handling papers and pamphlets that are worn soft with age.
Although the materials of Camden Lesbian Centre are not new, put together they tell an exciting story. The idea for Camden Lesbian Centre came about in 1982. Lesbians who had met at the Kentish Town Women’s Workshop decided to create something specifically for their community.
Camden Black Lesbian Group was established in 1984 to challenge the racism, sexism, and homophobia women faced. The two groups joined forces on the condition that half of Camden Lesbian Group’s members should be women of color – and the Black Lesbian Group continued to have events for lesbians of color.
As one poster reads:
“Black Lesbian Struggle is Black
Black Lesbian Struggle is Lesbian
Black Lesbian Struggle is Working Class
Black Lesbian Struggle is Women
Black Lesbian Struggle is International
The experiences that join us are thicker than the water that divides us.”
Looking back, it is impressive that Camden Lesbian Centre managed to foster interracial solidarity in such a meaningful way.
Lesbians were living intersectionality long before it became a buzzword. Unfortunately, today’s gay rights movement often lacks the same nuance when it comes to race. This unity is part of what allowed Camden Lesbian Centre to pull together and search for a property.
They distributed leaflets that were illustrated by hand, which said: “Lesbians in Camden. Do you want a centre?!! There is a group of us meeting to make this possible!!!!” Nowadays it’s almost impossible to imagine a fully-fledged community space coming out of handmade flyers and a grassroots meeting. What little funding there is for minority groups isn’t easily obtained. But this was the early ‘80s, when women’s organizing was carried by the momentum of feminism’s second wave.
In February 1986 Camden Council awarded the Lesbian Centre its first physical home: a property on Phoenix Road in central London. This decision was met with homophobic backlash from locals. As well as verbal abuse, the lesbians who met were targeted by a petition that claimed they presented a “moral danger” to “young girls going to school in the near vicinity.”
Not long afterward, a bit of legislation known as Section 28 would be passed. The bill prevented any local authority from publishing any material ‘promoting’ homosexuality, and stopped schools from teaching children anything positive about same-sex relationships.
It was a hostile time to be a lesbian. Perhaps this is why the women of Camden Lesbian Centre banded together and made it work. Camden Council Women’s Committee granted them funding for renovations, and they built a vibrant community space.
The Lesbian Centre offered women a rich life for little cost. This made a big difference, because lesbians typically have less disposable income than straight women and gay men in our peer groups. Lesbians from all backgrounds came together to protest, party, learn about herstory, pick up craft skills, and go on cultural outings around London. They even went to the seaside together. In many ways, this tight-knit community sounds like a family – which, for plenty of women, it was. As a lesbian friend once pointed out, for many of us the family you choose for yourself is at least as significant as the one you’re born into.
Camden Lesbian Centre closed in the early ‘90s, around the same time that my life began. Funding, which had always been precarious, became unsustainable. Reading about the centre, and the strong sense of community that it gave women, I can’t help wishing that it had found a way to hold on. More than anything, I would love to have visited.
In many ways, the digital era has been a blessing for lesbians. We can easily access information about sexuality that is often glossed over or misrepresented in the sex education offered by schools. There is the whole wide world of fanfiction, where we can obsess over a relationship between female characters that the writers of a film or series would never dare develop to its full potential. Video streaming services make accessing lesbian content so much easier than the days when the addition of a fifth TV channel was seen as exotic.
But there is no modern day equivalent of lesbian centres. Even as apps enable us to connect with women around the world, lesbians are becoming more isolated as our bars and bookshops close. Nothing replaces sharing physical space. And although there is far greater visibility now than 30 years ago, a refuge from the homophobia of mainstream society and the misogyny of male-dominated LGBT spaces would be welcome.
So much of today’s LGBT culture hinges on rampant consumerism and drinking binges – a world away from the revolutionary community space embodied by the Camden Lesbian Centre.
Perhaps that need will drive a new generation of radical lesbians to build centers of our own.