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By Josh West
It is the 1960s. Homosexual acts between two men are illegal and punished with up to two years in prison; being gay or bisexual is a taboo subject with the shadow of unemployment, homelessness, and almost-certain social leprosy entailed in being outed or open about it.
But, if you knew where to go, there were places where you could be open and embrace your sexuality. Surprisingly, Northampton had several of these places and was somewhat of a provincial LGBT+ hub away from London with a sizeable LGBT+ population.
The first signs of an emerging LGBT+ community in Northampton came after the war, when Midsummer Meadow became a popular location for gay and bisexual men to meet and network (a role it continued to play until the recent university development). By the 1960s, the Black Boy Hotel on Wood Hill (now a Prezzo) had an upstairs bar that was popular with the LGBT+ community.
In 1972, following the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967 and the beginning of the Gay Rights movement in the 1970s, Northampton set up its own branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CSE) group. A meeting was called in the library on Abington Street attended by fifty people, resulting in the creation of a counselling centre for gay people. The group also took part in activism, including events in the Market Square to raise publicity for the CHE, distributing leaflets, and holding events at the Angel Hotel on Bridge Street.
The decade also saw two new gay venues on Wellingborough Road, including the Princess Royal (now Jekyll and Hyde). And the town’s LGBT+ image was boosted when the Northampton North MP, Maureen Colquhoun, became the first out lesbian MP in 1975. Sadly Maureen died this week, at the age of 92. Read the Guardian’s tribute to her.
During the 1980s and 90s, Northampton’s gay hub had moved to The Regent on Sheep Street, later called Sinatra’s and most recently The Black Cat. Steve Young, who grew up in Wellingborough in the eighties, remembers Northampton as an unusually accepting and popular LGBT+ destination compared to neighbouring towns and counties. “There has always been a gay heartbeat in Northampton,” he says.
A large action group was created in the late 1980s to fight Article 28, eventually turning into the Northampton Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance (NLGBA) in 1993, which offered support, training, and information on LGB issues like AIDS and creating helplines and social groups.
By 2003, Northampton’s LGBT+ scene was enormous, including The Jolly Anker on Gas Street, K2 on Sheep Street, and the indefatigable The Boston, still the heart of LGBT+ Northampton. The year also saw Northampton Borough Council become one of Britain’s first to appreciate its LGBT+ community by creating Northampton’s LGB People’s Forum (now the Northampton LGBTQ People and Allies Forum) which meets several times annually in the Guildhall for LGBT+ people and their allies to express their views, concerns, and requests to the council.
In a period before civil partnerships, the county council was also trailblazing by offering ‘commitment ceremonies’ for gay and lesbian couples; these could be held in register offices, civic buildings, and hotels, and would end in the signing of a souvenir certificate. When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, Northampton registered 37 in the first five weeks, the first between Lesley Carroll and Lorraine Warwick on December 5 2005 at The Guildhall. In 2004, Northampton held its first LGBT+ Pride with a public celebration in Abington Park. There was also a Pride event in 2019.
Northampton nearly lost its LGBT+ friendly reputation in the late noughties. The LGBT+ community was shocked at the murder of Michael Fardon, who was found dead on College Street on 14 July 2006 after being hit on the head and thrown down a concrete staircase.
Between 2006-2007, Northamptonshire Police investigated 150 reports of homophobic incidents and in 2007 alone there were three major homophobic attacks. To make matters worse, in 2009, the ground-breaking NLGBA collapsed, denying Northampton of its central hub of LGBT+ information and support and many of Northampton’s gay clubs disappeared.
But the town soon bounced back. In 2010, Northampton Borough Council became a Stonewall Diversity Champion. NLGBA was replaced with multiple, smaller support groups including FAN Northants in 2011. Established to create social events for the local LGBT+ community like balls, cabarets, and art exhibitions, the group’s founder, Matthew Toresen, received an MBE in 2016 for his work for Northampton’s LGBT+ community.
In 2012, Northampton's LGBT+ community participated in Northampton Carnival's procession and at the annual Umbrella Fair and the town hosted its first LGBT+ literary festival, booQfest. In 2013, the Northampton-based St Andrew's Healthcare was the only charity to take part in Stonewall's Healthcare Equality Index, coming fourth nationally and becoming a Stonewall Diversity Champion, as did Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust (NHFT). Finally, in 2014, following the legalisation of same-sex marriage, many same-sex couples from Northampton were wed on the first day the law came into effect on March 29.
Recently, Northampton’s LGBT+ community has had to face some challenges. Homophobic attacks in the borough have seen an increase, events arranged by groups like FAN Northants to help the community are unable to take place, and last year’s Pride event, which included a parade through the town centre, was of course cancelled due to Coronavirus, replaced with a virtual event on the borough council's YouTube page. But the community still forges on, and only last year Northampton-based trans support group, Trans-pirational, was shortlisted for a National Diversity Award in the Community Organisation (LGBT+) category.
Northampton has developed a rich LGBT+ culture and history, something we should all be proud of.
Josh West is an MA history graduate from the University of Kent. He has lived in Northampton all his life and is a member of the action group Amplified NN. A lover of anything to do with history, politics, or LGBT+, he enjoys writing engaging articles for audiences new to these subjects.