Saturday, 6 July 2013

Taking on the establishment with high heels and lipstick

One of the best things about the fantabulosa biographical film on the life of gay icon Bette Bourne, that little Tony and I went to see at the V&A last night, is that it is one of those rare beasts - a documentary about the fight for gay liberation during the 70s and 80s here, in Britain.

Cinematic documentaries about gay history are more often than not exclusively about the USA (as the Stonewall riots, the Gay Lib movement that emerged out of anti-Vietnam hippydom, and black and feminist civil rights activism were all American phenomena it isn't that surprising), so it is refreshing to get perspectives from some of the surviving activists who fought similar battles on this side of the pond.

Bette Bourne - "who took on the establishment with high heels and lipstick" - and her Gay Liberation Front chums (many of whom were residents in her infamous "drag queen squat", and some later joined Bette in the triumphal alternative drag troupe Bloolips) were indeed galvanising participants in one of my favourite of all direct action protests...

On 9th September 1971 Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, Lord Longford, Cliff-fucking-Richard and various assorted clergy, god-botherers and other nutters convened a mass meeting of their Festival of Light, a movement dedicated to opposing "the permissive society" in all its forms, at Methodist Central Hall opposite the Palace of Westminster.

Unbeknownst to the assembled worthies, Bette Bourne, Lavinia Co-op, Michael James, Gretal Feather, Martin Corbett, Peter Tatchell and many other founding members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) had infiltrated the prayers. Many of Bette's coterie were disguised as nuns, and as the speakers tried to address the crowd they began slinging porn from the balcony. Others shouted, clapped and screamed at inappropriate moments. Mr Corbett, who had calmly pretended to be a Hall official and ordered technical staff out of the basement, brought the lights down.

As Peter Tatchell recalls: "On the night, mayhem erupted. When Malcolm Muggeridge, speaking out about homosexuals, declared, 'I don't like them.' The feeling was mutual. Mice were released into the audience; lesbian couples stood up and passionately embraced. A dozen GLF nuns in immaculate blue and white habits charged the platform shouting gay liberation slogans, and a GLF bishop began preaching an impromptu sermon which urged people to 'keep on sinning.'"

It all apparently ended, before the police and security were able to forcibly remove them, with the drag nuns doing the can-can on the stage in front of the astounded speakers!

The last word, of course, went to Bette, who, at her subsequent trial for her part in the protest, was asked by the judge to remove her hat, and said "No! It goes with the shoes."

Thus, the title of the movie was born.

Bette Bourne - It Goes With The Shoes is a marvellous, disarmingly honest, up-front and charming insight into one of our heroes/heroines here at Dolores Delargo Towers. Mainly filmed at Bette's home or in parts of London where she was brought up and resided - the family home was very near us in Stoke Newington/Green Lanes - Mark Ravenhill really manages to get to the root of her extraordinary life. I am very pleased I got to see it, on only its third showing in the UK.

The evening concluded with Bette herself taking to the stage for questions, and she received a well-deserved ovation for her enormous contribution to the history of gay rights, and to showbiz. A star.

Here are some extracts from the film, for your delectation:

Read my entry on Bette Bourne from February at the Dolores Delargo Towers Museum of Camp.


  1. It was a great night, brilliant film - it is unusual to have a film which is both entertaining and important - that's a great combination.

    There are so many quotable bits of dialogue throughout the film that I shall be dining out on the stories for ages…


  2. ...and Rex said, ‘I’ve been to this meeting, a political meeting with all these queers and dykes fighting for their rights’ and I was really shocked. I said, ‘Are you mad?’ I was thinking about my career and reputation because I was doing quite well. He said, ‘Well there are loads of gorgeous guys there,’ and I was down there the next Wednesday!

    Fab, indeed.



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