LGBT culture in Liverpool

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Rainbow flag over Liverpool Town Hall on International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia 2009.

LGBT life in Liverpool, England is made up of persons who are either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender/transsexual. Research commissioned by the North West Regional Development Agency approximated that there were around 94,000 LGBT persons living in the city's metropolitan area by mid-2009 "Link" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 February 2014.  - equivalent to the GLB population of San Francisco "Link" (PDF). , making it the single largest minority group on Merseyside.[1]

Out of 100 cities around the world, Liverpool was voted number 51 most LGBT friendly in 2017. The poll was taken by the gay community in major hubs around the world.[2]

As the location of Britain's first and only official gay quarter, the only LGBT combined arts organisation in the North of England, the UK's most gay friendly university and one of Europe's largest free Gay Pride festivals,[3][4][5][6][7] life in modern Liverpool allows many more liberties for gays and lesbians than it ever did. However, up until quite recently the city was often thought of as a 'lesser gay-friendly' destination and compared negatively in comparison to other metropolitan areas of similar size and stature.[8] Liverpool's idiosyncratic culture, economy, and deep relationship with Roman Catholicism have long been discussed in the context of homosexuality and often cited as possible explanations for perceived lack of progress, nevertheless, the recent resurgence since its time as European Capital of Culture has inspired a national and international debate and has led to a major new perspective of local gay and lesbian life.[9][10]

History of Liverpool's gay community[edit]

The history of gay Liverpool is one full of contrasts and contradictions from larger than life characters, legendary gay clubs and relative tolerance, to the anonymous and underground subculture of cottaging, repression and outright persecution. As a commercial city and major port, the history is long and manifold, and can be traced back to Liverpool's height as second city of the British Empire during Queen Victoria's reign.

Jack the Ripper suspect Francis Tumblety who had a homosexual relationship in Liverpool


Recent research unearthed by Dr Jeff Evans highlights the extent to which gay men were arrested and persecuted in the court papers of Liverpool between 1850 and the 1970s.[11][12][13] It was during this period it is known that Jack the Ripper suspect Francis Tumblety had a homosexual affair with well-known author Hall Caine whilst spending time in the city. Tumblety is said to have engaged in 'unusual sexual activities' and became known for his 'mania for the company of young men and grown-up youths', and for despising women.[14] In 1888, he was arrested on charges of gross indecency and indecent assault with force and arms against four men in Liverpool, euphemisms for homosexual activities. It would have been later in the same year he was arrested on suspicion of the infamous Whitechapel murders.[15]

During the 1870s, Constantine P. Cavafy lived in Liverpool with his family. Widely considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the twentieth century, his homosexual orientation informed much of his work which included sexually explicit erotic poetry.[16][17]

1895 saw a high-profile case involving three homosexual men in Liverpool which culminated in the hanging of William Miller, a 27-year-old sailor, at Watson Prison. Miller had been lodging with Edward Moyse, a wealthy local bookshop proprietor, and his young apprentice John Needham, who were both homosexuals. Over time Miller had become violently jealous of the pair and proceeded to batter Moyse to death with a fire poker as well as attempting to take Needham's life. Miller had also turned his attentions on finding Moyse's money. After surviving the attack, Needham was able to raise the alarm, inform the police and positively identify Miller, who was later tried and hanged for murder.[18][19][20]

In his interview with Our Story Liverpool, a local LGBT history project, the late artist Yankel Feather recounts his experiences of cottaging in public toilets off Princes Road in the 1930s. Due to the lack of openly gay clubs and bars at this time, many gay men visited lavatories as a means of meeting others in secret for both sex and company. Yankel explains how life was still very difficult and how men would make the most of whatever pleasures they could get in life. During the second World War, he goes onto describe how a 'gay identity' had not yet developed and how the word 'queer' was still being used to describe 'difference'.[21]


A number of contributing factors at the advent of World War II meant Liverpool had earned itself a reputation as 'gay centre of The North'. Liverpool's strategic importance as the great port of the British Empire brought with it a constant flow of passenger liners and merchant ships and a regular influx of gay stewards, sailors, soldiers and airmen choosing to spend time and money in the city. The general sense that death could very easily be around the corner and consequential 'live for the moment' ethos led to semi-secret pockets of acceptance and development of a vibrant underground subculture of homosexual bars and cottages.[22] Gays and lesbians found refuge in the pubs around Queen Square close to the city's music clubs and theatres in what had evolved into an unofficial gay village, partly down to its embracement and dramatic fondness of the 'theatrical crowd' and already association with ‘disreputable activity’ since the early 19th century.[23]

Gay frequented bars included the Stork Hotel, Magic Clock, Royal Court bar, Old Royal and the Basnett Bar. Numerous other places such as the Black Cat & Bear's Paw existed further out from the main strip.[24]

The neighbourhood provided asylum well into the 1960s, but people who patronised the bars tended to be confined to those who were aware of the criminality and comfortable enough being out. Sex between men was still a criminal offence and being gay was highly disapproved of socially. Local radio DJ Pete Price recalled how the gay clientele were still forced to exercise caution when frequenting the area as despite being relatively tolerated by local police, considerable adversity would still be felt. As a consequence, the semi-covert community had adopted its own slang terms and language.[25]

The Magic Clock was characterised as 'home away from home' for a lot of gay men, a 'little old fashioned traditional pub with stained glass windows, beaten copper bar top and big brass bar pumps' full of 'Quentin Crisp types', 'camp little queens' in suits and glamorous eyelashes. The barmaid known as 'Babs' was known to be a gay tolerant motherly figure and the straight clientele were very aware of the type of place it was, very often the only place gay people could mix with others who were like them. Regulars recall how pubs in those days closed at 10pm at night and when the alcohol had finished many would continue onwards to house parties.[26]

Map of old Liverpool gay haunts from 1950-1980 based in Liverpool City Centre Cluster of pubs around Queen Square shows centre of Liverpool's original gay quarter

Cinemas also provided an alternative place where gay men could meet. The Liverpool News Theatre on Clayton Square and Tatler News Theatre on Church Street were known in gay circles as a meeting place for sex. Closer to the bars, the Playhouse Theatre also had a strong gay element and the gay community would often mix with members of the cast.[27]

The cottaging culture was still very much prominent, with several public toilets identified as hotspots for homosexual activity. Public conveniences dotted around Liverpool City Centre had earned themselves nicknames, the 'Wheel of Fortune' and the 'Garden of Allah' amongst some of the titles. Married men would visit regularly after work, recommend busy areas to other men and found themselves dodging undercover police officers who set out to entrap those participating in sexual acts, many were caught and arrested. In the early fifties, the Army and Navy store on Byrom Street employed a lot of men who had served time in prison for these crimes. With their reputations damaged, many had been unable to find work elsewhere. Few places for lesbians existed by the early sixties and they were to a larger extent less obvious in public. Lesbians and gay men had their own separate networks and often did not socialise together with women preferring to meet up in houses.[28]

Shortly after the Wolfenden report of 1957 and the beginnings of the Gay liberation movement, articles about homosexuality began to appear in the Liverpool University Guild Gazette. The language and tone was still largely negative with terminology such as 'queer', 'sodomite', 'perversion' and 'illness' still in use in reference to homosexulity.[29]


The 60s saw the Campaign for Homosexual Equality formed and by the early 70s the Liverpool branch had formed their own gay society at Liverpool University. The society championed gay rights, organised events, meetings, and published pieces in the university's newspaper to challenge stereotypes and myths about gay people. At national conferences and protests, the society helped to influence the national student debate surrounding sexuality.[30]

By 1975, most of the bars that had provided a safe haven for so long around Queen Square had been demolished to make way for the new St. John's Shopping Centre, Roe Street Gyratory and bus station.[31] The Bar Royal on Wood Street had become the 'place to be'.[32]

Jody's, legendary 1980's/90's gay club based on Stanley Street, Liverpool

Guests there were heavily vetted on arrival by its owner Sadie and the main door was bolted as people entered. The bar become a hive of activity where students mixed with dockers and glamorous transvestites and transsexuals mixed harmoniously with lesbians and gay men. By the close of the decade, the various groups had separated as heterosexual 'New Romantics' had begun to take over. After a brief close, re-opening and boycott due to rampant misogyny, the bar finally closed when Sadie died in the late 1980s.[33][34]

Interviewees from Our Story Liverpool recall memories of the vibrant 1980's gay scene which included Jody's, The Curzon, Lisbon, Paco's, Reflections, Scarlett's and Sadie's, most of which were based on or around Stanley Street tracing the embryonic stages of the present day gay quarter. Scarlett's and Reflections both served as a meeting place for members of Friend Merseyside, a Liverpool-based LGBT support group which operated a weekly coffee bar, befriending, counselling and switchboard service in the city centre. In spite of the modest freedoms afforded by the bars, interviews reveal how homosexuality was still seen as taboo in mainstream society and how copies of the Gay Times were still being stocked in brown paper bags at the News From Nowhere bookstore, even by the late 1980s.[35] The hysteria over the AIDS epidemic had reached fever pitch whilst anxieties surrounding the infamous Section 28, which prohibited local authorities from intentionally 'promoting homosexuality', were at their height.[36] Indeed, the fear of prosecution under Section 28 had a direct impact on the city, when in 1988, Liverpool City Council chose to cancel a grant to a gay play being performed at the Everyman Theatre."Link" (PDF).  Following widespread opposition to the Act, a co-ordinated 'Liverpool Against the Clause' campaign organised protests in nearby Manchester"Link" (PDF). , whilst debates were had on the extent to which one was liable to be prosecuted for working in schools. In an effort to stimulate debate and in a show of solidarity, Tate Liverpool opened David Hockney’s exhibition illustrating C.P. Cavafy’s explicitly homosexual poems in 1993."Link" (PDF). [37]

In the 1990s, a series of Gay Prides were held in Liverpool City Centre (see Liverpool Pride).

Present day gay community[edit]

Mersey Marauders FC facing Liverpool City Councillors for the Armistead Cup at Liverpool Pride 2011

In the 2000s, Liverpool's gay community had become increasingly visible and there was a concerted push to take it further, however, comparisons were still being drawn with the greater gay profile of its closest neighbour Manchester, which along with its successful gay village and Mardi Gras, had for a long time claimed to be 'Gay Capital of the North'.[38][39]

Liverpool was often accused of lagging behind and not providing adequate provisions for its diverse communities. It had been a decade since the city had held a Pride of its own while a debate on establishing an official gay district around Stanley Street had begun to gather momentum.[40][41]

2004 saw the launch of Homotopia and the first Liverpool Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (Outsiders) which together boasted an ambitious programme of LGBT culture across the city. Homotopia's Festival Director, Gary Everett, said "The City is experiencing one of the most exciting chapters in its history, and I hope that this event will unleash the creative energies."[42]

Mersey Marauders, Liverpool's own gay football team was launched later in 2005,[43] whilst city leaders continued debating the Liverpool gay village. The pro side hoped to boost the local economy whilst those with reservations pointed to the fact that a gay district was already growing organically and warned about further ghettoising the community.[44][45] Prior to the introduction of legalised same sex relationships, Liverpool was one of the first local authorities to grant commitment ceremonies for gay couples at its municipal Register office. Despite not granting legal rights at the time, in 2005, the city became the first ever UK local authority to include a gay couple on the front cover of its civil ceremony promotional material.[46]

European Capital of Culture[edit]

In 2008, Liverpool held the yearlong title as European Capital of Culture and with the cultural credentials of the city under the spotlight, the LGBT community had begun to question its place in the overall context. Liverpool had successfully celebrated Homotopia and Outsiders for several years, but questions were still being raised as to how 'gay friendly' the area was and why the city was still the largest in Britain to not hold a Pride.[41][47]

The complexities associated with Liverpool were under scrutiny and reasons as to why the city had not moved forward were explored. Theories included that the city was 'old fashioned, shackled by nostalgia, rough, macho, and submerged by Roman Catholicism'."Link" (PDF). "Link" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 March 2012. 

Candlelit Vigil for James Parkes on Stanley Street, October 2009

Later that year, Liverpool's LGBT Network was established and brought together local individuals and organisations. The venture intended the gay community to be more visible, inclusive and gain a greater role in local decisions. Its key campaigns were to develop Liverpool Pride as well as tackling homophobia in the region.[48]

Michael Causer and James Parkes attacks[edit]

In the same year Liverpool celebrated Capital of Culture, the homophobic murder of 18-year-old Michael Causer brought national attention to the city. Shocked and outraged by the acquittal of Gavin Alker, who was said to have played a critical role in the murder,[49] the LGBT community organised a protest outside Liverpool Crown Court. Headed by the Causer family, protestors reacted angrily amid the backdrop of placards, remembrance photos, and rainbow flags.[50][51]

The following year in 2009, the community was again plunged into exasperation after gay trainee police officer James Parkes was left fighting for his life after an attack by 20 teenage youths in the heart of the gay quarter.[52] A candlelit vigil attended by 2500 people was held on Stanley Street with James' boyfriend, local community leaders, and Louise Ellman MP as speakers.[53]

The wider implications of these high-profile attacks have since been felt, not least through helping to galvanise the community by bringing together various disparate groups and organisations, but also causing a shift in attitude at municipal authority level. Merseyside Police have since been voted amongst the top 3 most gay friendly police forces in the UK by Stonewall,[54] and in 2012 the city gained international recognition by becoming the world's first to mark IDAHO with a programme of free events.[55] Moreover, the city now marks IDAHO every year by flying the rainbow flag from prominent buildings in the city centre.[56][57]

A growing gay community[edit]

Aunty Marlene wins "Drag Queen of the year" at Liverpool Seen Awards, 2011

The last couple of years have seen enormous strides in raising the profile of Liverpool's LGBT community. The second official Liverpool Pride in 2011 was attended by over 40,000 people and firmly established it as one of Europe's largest free Gay Pride festivals, generating over £2.6 million for the local economy.[58][59] Moreover, Liverpool City Council made the decision to officially recognise the Stanley Street district as Liverpool's official gay quarter and signposted the area with street signs emblazoned with the rainbow flag, making it the first UK city to mark a gay quarter in this way.[60] The City Council hopes to make the area an international tourist attraction and is planning extensive regeneration and investment over the next few years.[61]

The city was the location for a pivotal moment in the history of the gay rights movement as the Liberal Democrats became the first mainstream British political party to publicly support same sex marriage, and officially endorsed the motion at their 2010 annual conference held in Liverpool.[62]

An exhibition called Hello, sailor! is now on permanent display at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool's Albert Dock. The exhibition, in conjunction with Homotopia and National Museums Liverpool, looks at the experience of gay seafarers on passenger and merchant Ships from the 1950-1980s. Through video, photos and personal stories, visitors are able to gain an insight into the hidden history of gay life at sea.[63] The exhibition is one of the few examples where this history has ever been celebrated in a major British museum.[64]

The first ever award ceremony to celebrate the achievements of Liverpool's LGBT community took place on 13 October 2011,[65] organised by Seen Magazine - the city's home grown lesbian and gay publication. Amongst the winners was the Michael Causer Foundation, voted as Best LGBT Charity of the Year.[66]

Liverpool also competes against other UK cities in the annual Mr Gay UK beauty competition, with the representative from the city participating in the national final. The winner of Mr Gay Europe 2007, Jackson Netto, was a student at Liverpool University, however, he represented Germany and not the UK.[67]

Global impact of Homotopia[edit]

Liverpool is the host city of Homotopia: The only lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans combined arts organisation in the North of England.[68] Homotopia is a month-long festival of gay culture including theatre, film, photography and art, as well as delivering a national and international programme of social justice and education initiatives all year round. In the 2008 festival, attendance figures reached 12000,[69] and by 2011 its web-based TV service reached 200,000 people a year.[70]

Homotopia has been attended by numerous high-profile figures from international gay society, including Peter Tatchell,[71] Holly Johnson, Armistead Maupin,[72] and Amy Lame. Homotopia also represents the gay community with its own float in Liverpool's annual Lord Mayor's Parade, along with other communities in the city.[73]

Liverpool LGBT Firsts[edit]

Over time, the city of Liverpool has achieved an impressive catalogue of LGBT firsts, often the location for watershed moments in the history of the gay rights movement.

2013: Openly gay Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Cllr Gary Millar, becomes the first British Lord Mayor in a civil partnership

Notable LGBT people from Liverpool and Merseyside[edit]


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