Lorraine Birch: Full Interview
Interview by Ray Larman
19th September 2019
RL: This is Ray Larman for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. It’s the 19th of September 2019 and I’m here with LB who is gonna introduce herself.
LB: Good afternoon Ray. Apologies that I’ve got a cold and I sound like I’m in the bottom of a drain. My name’s Lorraine Birch. I’m amazingly 62 years of age. I was born 1st of August 1957. I’ve lived in Bradford for 40 years. I’ve been out about the same time.
RL: Okay. You were saying that you were brought up in Yeadon?
LB: I was, yeah.
RL: Do you want to say a little bit about that?
LB: Textile mill town, Most people’s parents worked in the mill, were involved in textiles. There were other gay and lesbian people, but I didn’t hear any words for it, for women living together, accepted and nobody really blinked an eyelid. Men – I think it was a bit harder and I think it always has been harder for men, and it still is.
RL: So, you had no difficulties sort of being seen as lesbian at that point?
LB: Well, as a child, growing up, y’know, I felt different, which I think most people would say. Yes, it was hard, because I wanted to come. Classic stuff, didn’t think anybody else was. Leeds Lesbian Line used to advertise in the Yorkshire Evening Post, so I used to look at the number and think of ringing it. And, it wasn’t until I’d started a college course, started doing the social work course, which I left after a year, came to work in the big city and found the scene and came out.
RL: Okay. So, so what was the scene like – you said finding the scene, where were you going?
LB: Very – Junction. Women’s discos at various places, I think the Trades place on Cornwall Terrace was one of the pl- by Bradford City was one of the first places I went and I ended up getting into a fight [laughs]
RL: How did that happen?
LB: Well… one of the few people I knew I worked with. Nice woman. But what she failed to tell was she was with another woman who thought I’d picked her up so started pushing me, so I just said, ‘get outside’, didn’t mess about [laughs]
RL: So, you had a fight?
LB: Er, no. She wouldn’t come outside, so I just left. So, I had quite a rough introduction to the scene.
RL: Okay, and that was Bradford?
LB: It was, yeah.
RL: So, when did you come to Bradford?
LB: I came to live here… early ‘80s, although I was working here in the late ‘70s, and moved here when I got my first long-term relationship. With a woman, of course.
RL: So, what were the – what was it like going out on the scene in Bradford?
LB: Oh, it was exciting. It was very butch and femme. Soon learnt it was safer to be a butch then you didn’t get cruised by them. Quite, quite a fast scene, really. A lot of people going out with women who were married to men. A woman called Norma, everyone called her Normal Norma. The men’s scene, very camp. Quite a lot of – I was friendly with quite a few of the gay men, quite nice friendships.
RL: So, were you going to the same places or different places as the men?
LB: Same, really. It was only in the ‘80s the lesbian-only discos started. So, yeah.
RL: So, what did, what did it involve when you kinda decided you were gonna be a butch?
LB: Oh well, the long hair went. The skirts and dresses went. The trousers came, the t-shirts. The makeup all went, y’know the Rimmel and the Max Factor all went in the dustbin, which wasn’t a great thing. And, yeah, just started to take on the look of a, of a non-heterosexual woman, because, I was quite slim, long hair, large bust, so I used to get men whistling at me and dates and I just hated it, so it was to repel that really.
RL: So, what reactions did you get after that then?
LB: From my family?
RL: Well yeah, and men.
LB: Well men left me alone. Derogatory comments, like, ‘are you a lezzer?’ and all this nonsense, my family saying, ‘d’you want to be a man?’ I said, ‘no, I’m a woman, but I don’t want men’s company, particularly. Unless it’s gay men, I don’t want to attract heterosexual men’ so. And I put weight on as well, which I’d never really done before.
RL: So, were there particular ways of interacting if you were in a place that was like, particularly butch and femme? Like a club or a bar?
LB: Well, I didn’t smoke like a butch, cos I didn’t smoke [laughs] Oh yeah, well… it was and it wasn’t, really… There wasn’t much said about being butch and femme, other than how you looked. Y’know, you always wondered, like, I mean I must’ve been asked hundreds of times, ‘are you the man?’ I used to say, ‘what do you mean?’ Knowing exactly what they meant. But there’s not much talked about or recorded, so there’s a classical saying, ‘butch on the streets, femme between the sheets’. But I don’t know.
RL: Was there certain kinda rules, etiquette, I don’t know, asking people to dance, who would buy a drink, that kind of thing?
LB: Yeah, yeah the butches would go to the bar but, more or less. But then you got some women who would be femmes supposedly, and the butches wouldn’t work and they’d sit around all day, and I thought that was crazy. And obviously at that time, politically, the Reclaim the Night marches, Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis was coming on the scene.
RL: This was early ‘80s?
LB: Yeah. Bradford Rape Crisis were about 1981. So, the feminism was coming in, and Bradford University started running the women’s courses. So, you got the political element. And then on, and if you think of the Gateways in London, the Gates was very butch and femme – not that I ever went – and they didn’t allow political discussions in there. So, there was a big divide between butch and femme and the rad fems, as it were.
RL: So, how did that impact on the butch/femme scene?
LB: Well, I think it was seen that the butch and femme really was working class, and the radical fems were the educated middle class – roughly. Though there did seem to be some crossover. And… It was, I remember going to a women’s disco, probably at the Woodpecker in Leeds – you remember the Woodpecker, where the flyover is now there’s a big old Tetley’s pub and they used to have lesbian discos, and at one point, I think, I’m not sure if it’s there but denim was banned, or people were looked at because denim was het male – there was some reason why people didn’t like denim.
RL: Does that mean that you wouldn’t get in if you wore denim?
LB: Well, it was frowned on. There’s always been various dress codes, but a lot of the rad fems didn’t wear denim. And I stopped wearing it at one point. It was something around, I don’t know, domestic violence or wife-beating or whatever, so. There’s all these quirks. Not eating meat – meat would make you more aggressive, vegetarian, plus the cruelty, plus the world food production, fair comment. All these things. And, being more egalitarian, y’know. And then, about 1980, that was the formation of Bradford Lesbian Line, which was two women from Bradford University, myself, my partner and four other women. We didn’t actually go live ‘til ’81. But, it was set up through the University, had a room at Laisteridge Lane, and some seed money to pay for the phone. Basic counselling training. I mean, at that point, I’d left college and I was working, I was selling, so I wasn’t in a, an environment that was conducive to it – I mean, I enjoyed doing it, but we tended to get women ringing up coming out; women who were in violent relationships, both with men and women; women who’d been raped, we’d refer on to Rape Crisis; men ringing up tossing themselves off, we had a police whistle that we used to – you could just, you could just tell. I mean [sighs] y’know they’d ring up and say, ‘do you do shows?’ and you could hear ‘em jerking off, and we’d just [blow whistle] and bang the phone down.
RL: Did that do the trick?
LB: Well, you never knew, cos they always used to pretend to be somebody else. I did it from – I did it for about ten years, left, and then went back for another five years, so I did it a long time.
RL: So how, how many days would you be doing that a week?
LB: It ran Thursday nights, seven while nine, ‘305525, we await your call’. And then we tried it Monday afternoon cos we used to get criticism that, y’know, some women couldn’t use the phone on an evening, it was difficult. Then we put the answerphone on. Answerphones started coming in in the ‘80s. So that was good, so we’d then do ring backs. And we used to meet people, take ‘em to the Bavaria, take ‘em down Oak Lane to the Park Hotel. Crazy stuff. On Tuesday nights. I mean, you’d get people coming out of relationships, you’d get people with mental health problems.
RL: So what, so what was that like? Was it stressful, was it rewarding?
LB: It was – it was both, and we used to do film days down at the playhouse and film theatre as fundraisers, and we had 300 women turn up to see Desert Hearts one Saturday afternoon. And we had to do two sittings, y’know, they were going mad about the insurance. We cooked a load of soup in the kitchen and we were selling the soup, so. They were good times. They were good – they probably wouldn’t happen now. And lesbian balls, Victoria Hall. I remember, down my socks I had a thousand quid in cash stuffed down my socks, cos we took so much money on the door, cos we didn’t presell the tickets in those days, it was cash. I was just literally rolling the cash up and sticking it down my socks.
RL: So, who was that money going to?
LB: Lesbian Line. To fund, to fund the phone line, to fund advertising, and to buy training. And at that time, there were Lesbian Line conferences, so we thought it was justified. Went to one in Newcastle: fab. About 1982, ’83; Friggin Little Bits were playing – ever heard of Friggin Little Bits? Just Google ‘em. Big feminist group, absolute piss-takers, great fun. Y’know, sang about jam rags, sang about getting off with women, real sense of humour.
RL: So, what else happened at the conference?
LB: Discussions about sexuality. I mean, I stood up and said, ‘y’know sexuality’s fluid’, people didn’t like it. But, as time’s gone on [laughs] it was right. Discussions about how to run the lines, y’know, what are the boundaries? A lot of it was trying to set boundaries of what you can and can’t offer. I remember, it must’ve been in the ‘90s, taking a call from somebody in Harrogate who was running a mental health project, a statutory project, and wanted us to go out and talk to their services users, and I said, ‘look, we’re not for profit; we’re run by unpaid people’. ‘Well can’t you come and do this, can’t you come and do that, can’t you do this, can’t you do that?’ And I said, ‘no, we can’t, y’know, we’re not statutory’. Cos the profile of LGBT has just grown and grown and grown hasn’t it? It’s now mainstream. It wasn’t, it was very much on the backburner.
RL: I just wanna go back to something you said before in that some of the phone calls were from women who were being abused by women – what was that like to hear?
LB: Erm… I think… I think it’s always gone on. And I think I used to pick it up in the Junction, that there was a lot of control going on in some relationships, I wasn’t that shocked. It’s totally unacceptable and, y’know… the complexity is often there’d be kids involved and at that point divorce meant unfit mother and all women were scared to death. We also used to get quite a lot of women ringing up asking for sperm donations.
RL: What would you say to them?
LB: We’d refer them, to where they could get it.
RL: In Bradford?
LB: [laughs] Not necessarily. But you might be aware – there were certain groups. There’s a lot of blonde boys walking around.
RL: So, that was all very unofficial then, but you knew the contacts.
LB: Yeah, and – clearly in the ‘80s HIV came, so there was worries about safe sperm as well. And Section 28 – that brought, I think, the lesbians and the gay men closer together, definitely. ‘Improper families’, oh God, and all this rubbish, really.
RL: So, were you involved in any Section 28 campaigning?
LB: Yeah, we did demonstrations, had meetings at Rawson Hotel. There was a lot of fear of where it was gonna go. Fear of it being right-wing and, cos people didn’t have their rights and didn’t feel as safe as they do now. Rather than Section 28 per se, I mean I remember in the Guardian, Jane Brown’s School Days, cos Jane Brown said I’m not gonna teach Romeo and Juliet, I’m gonna teach about two women – there was a big article in the Guardian. Yeah, it was nice in the fact that there was a coming together, cos a separatism had happened in the ‘80s. Although you could still go in some pubs that were butch and femme you could still go to women-only lesbian discos, which you almost took for granted then.
RL: Right, so that was all kind of overlapping, you had different options for the sort of places you could go to?
LB: Yeah, yeah.
RL: So, you mention the Rawson Hotel, what was that like as a place to go out to?
LB: It was okay, it was run by – sorry, it was okay, it was run by two men. Tuesday nights we used to go on after the Park Hotel and drink ourselves silly. And they had discos there, sometimes on a Saturday – mixed, but it was largely women on a Tuesday evening. It was fairly safe. Bradford as a city at that point didn’t have the drugs, didn’t have the guns, didn’t have the aggression and anger that’s in there now. I mean, yeah, you’d be careful where you went but, I don’t drive through the city, unless I have to. It’s full of nutcases.
RL: So, how does – how did the Rawson compare with like the Junction, and Dallas Bar was somewhere else you mentioned?
LB: It was – the Dallas Bar was… on the end of North Parade, which is where the old Morrisons used to be – I think it’s a chemist for dispensing methadone now. Very similar atmosphere. The best one was Charlie’s Bar in Leeds. You heard about it?
RL: I’ve heard something, so why was that the best?
LB: It was the funniest in that you went in – it was so basic and awful, and then you could just get a pint under the, y’know, they’d have the screen down, they’d just push a pint to you, pay the money and – it was bloody awful, actually. But it got women in did Charlie’s Bar. And the New Penny was open, drag on a Sunday in there, and later the Bridge. Leeds has always had a faster scene, I would say.
RL: What do you mean by that?
LB: Faster scene in that, places open and close, a lot more men, a lot more male-dominated. Bradford had a steadier scene. And I think there was more for women here at one point than Leeds.
RL: So, were people travelling between? That was standard?
LB: Yes, you’d see, you’d see the same people, but some would only stay in Leeds, some would only stay in Bradford, some would do both. And, y’know, sadly you saw the men with the HIV and their futures were not good, at that point, because the drugs – I’ve forgotten the, I’ve forgotten the name of the drugs, but the drugs started to be discovered to stall it and to stop it, but it was horrendous to see. People died very quickly.
RL: Did you lose friends?
LB: I didn’t – There was one guy, he was a young chap, under 30, who I knew quite well, he died. It was mainly people I knew, acquaintances. No women that I was aware of, it was all men. And y’know, suddenly condoms were everywhere and people were talking about dental dams and, bizarre really. But there was lots of stuff going on in America. Clearly, Terence Higgins Trust started up and… yeah… We were worried as women because there was so much not understood about it, about the transmission. And then quickly there was a lot of knowledge that’s fragile, y’know the actual bacteria can’t live for very long and the transmission was blood and sort of body to body, then of course you got again the bigots, calling it arsehole-injected death sentence. Another excuse to condemn, the far right or the religious groups were saying it was from God to punish gay people.
RL: Was that another time of people coming together, lesbians and gays, or not?
LB: I think Section 28 had it more, although I remember Pennine AIDS Link starting, PALS, and there was quite a lot of women involved in that.
RL: Can you say a bit more about that?
LB: Pennine AIDS Link Service was known as PALS. It was voluntary group where people who’d got HIV, affected by HIV could go for counselling, go for help. I wasn’t involved in it, but I knew there were quite a few women as well as men involved in it too. Try and help, I think you could go for testing, confidential testing. And diet, benefits, cos people couldn’t work and, I can’t remember, was it early ‘90s the film Philadelphia came out? So, I think that educated a lot of people, so.
RL: You mentioned the Bradford Resource Centre when we were talking earlier, can you say a bit about that?
LB: Bradford Resource Centre, as far as I know, was to support the voluntary sector and voluntary groups. So – Laistridge Lane… I think the university wanted to sell the house, so we had to move, so we moved to the Link Centre on Southbrook Terrace.
RL: This is where the phone line was?
LB: The phone line started on Laistridge Lane, kept the same number, moved down to Southbrook Terrace opposite the German English church and just behind the Queen’s Hall, near the college. And for some reason, the Link Centre was a counselling centre, another not for profit – that then – I don’t know if that got sold – so we moved up to Bradford Resource Centre, and had a room, and had, had a phone locked in a filing cabinet. Cos we used to lock it away with the answerphone – basically, to stop anybody touching it, because it was in a counselling room. You can imagine – we had to turn the volume down on the phone, on the answerphone, and if we’d forgotten, at the Link Centre they used to get quite annoyed cos they’d be counselling somebody and then the bloody phone’d go off in this filing cabinet. So, y’know, come in on a Thursday night and you’d look and pick off and the ring backs and then take calls and write them up. I mean, everything was manually done. The books are around somewhere for the Lesbian Line, y’know, the call books. We used to detail things down and leave notes for the – always two people on, usually run on eight people, monthly meetings decide the rota, who was doing what, the key for the, passing the keys over, all that kind of thing went on.
RL: Can we jump forward a little bit, and we were gonna talk about NOLN. So, what does it stand for and what does it –
LB: It’s acronym, it’s nothing to do with the singing sisters, may I add. The Northern Older Lesbian Network. London has OLN – Older Lesbian Network. I don’t know if OLN’s still going, but that was the blueprint. Once a month meeting, first Saturday of the month, Bradford Resource Centre, here, originally, then it moved up to the Cathedral Centre. Very much a structure of bring food to share, one while four o’clock – food to share, meeting opens with sociable, y’know, what’s been going on socially. Workshops, there’ll be two workshops, anything you like, really. Maybe one on lesbian crime writers, maybe one on allotments – choose which one you want to go on. And we used to have car park duty because one of the cars got broken into, so we used to go outside, walk round and look after the cars – which was quite good, cos you used to get to talk to people you didn’t normally talk to. Attendance at NOLN, anything from ten to 30 women, varied. 40+ at that time. Predominantly white. Some dual heritage, diverse heritage women came. One or two women used to turn up pissed, which caused great debate on alcohol. Some people were allergic to certain food, so they had to be looked at. Some people were allergic to the pens, cos we had a white board, y’know to write up the agenda and – there was all these weird lesbian quirks going on.
RL: Okay, when did it start, and when did it run to?
LB: Some people got off with each other, some people used it as dating –
RL: In the meetings?
LB: Well, modesty prevents. I think after the meetings, y’know, we used to go to the Love Apple after the Saturday meeting and have tea there. Sorry, what did you ask me before?
RL: When did it start and when did it end?
LB: I think it started around ’95, ‘94/’95. And it continued up to about ten years ago, I think. And then it moved up to the Equity Centre, and then it morphed into Older and Wilder, which is the first and third Wednesday of the month, which I’ve never been to, so.
RL: So, who set up NOLN?
LB: I think it was a coupla women who’d been in the London Older Lesbian Network and brought the model.
RL: They moved up here?
RL: Right. And what did you get out of it?
LB: It was good fun. We had a library, so you could take books, borrow books. Make new friends. It was a laugh. Yeah. I mean, there was always something going on, always funny things happening. Used to have discos, some at the Resource Centre. Christmas quiz, Christmas party. Walking group, before foot and mouth, early 2000, which stopped it all, but it was a good walking group. And… women would ring Lesbian Line and get referred to NOLN, rather than going out on a Tuesday, and I think that was a better, a better model. But it was for older women.
RL: So, how would people kind of contact each other, how would news get out?
LB: Newsletter, every month. Paper.
LB: Paper, came through the post, that you paid five quid a year and it came through the post. Cos at that time technology had just started, mobile phones were just starting to come in. I mean now it’d be a Facebook page.
RL: But that worked, getting the information that way?
LB: It did, yeah. Usually double-sided, one sheet of A4. It’d say the meeting, it wouldn’t say who was present, it’d say the topics, what was discussed, decisions. If there’d been any post correspondence, i.e. there’s a conference or something going on. Quite business-like, really.
RL: We’ve covered most of the things we were gonna talk about, I mean, do you want to say anything about Leeds Pride and –
LB: I’m running out of voice and steam.
RL: Okay, we can stop there if you like.