Ian Baxter: Full Interview
Interviewed by Rachel Larman
21st Sept 2015
RL: Interview about politics.
IB: Oo is it? [laughter]
RL: Yeah! [laughing] So Ian, tell me about your background and going to college.
IB: Um I... college in... I first went to Southampton, college in Southampton, and that is where I first thought 'Ooo, I can do something about this being gay business' - sounds a bit weird doesn't it? - and I plucked up courage and I phoned the - I can't remember what it was called - Gay Switchboard, or something, that was advertised in the Student Handbook. And I re... I had to go to a phone box [laughter] to do that so I phoned the number in the book and I said: 'Are there any pubs or clubs I can go to?' and the voice at the other end said: 'If that's the kind of thing you're into' and it felt really dismissive and not very welcoming and I... I think I kinda left it there; or I might have even put the phone down I can't remember, or the person might have told me about a pub or something like that 'cause I ended up going to [unclear] gay pubs in Southampton, where I... maybe they told me about this as well...
Then there was a meeting of CHE, which was the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, so this was all in 1970-something and I went along... and I thought I... I... I'm going to go to the pub first to see what it's like before the evening of the meeting and I went along at lunchtime to see what a gay pub might be like [unclear] this pub when I walked in and looked round and thought 'it's just like any pub' and I don't... I've no idea what I expected. And then I went back in the evening for this meeting thinking 'well it'll be different - there'll be something, I don't know, gay about it' and I went in and it was just the same as at lunchtime and it was just an ordinary pub.
And then a group of people came in - one with a cashbox under his arm - a group of men and I was at the bar and this bloke with the cashbox under his arm stood next to me and I.... I said: 'Is this where the meeting is?' and this guy became a life-long friend...Um... I won't name names but he was, he was kind of very influential to me for quite a long time till he died not very long ago. So that was my first, I suppose, coming to terms with my sexuality, coming out to myself really, and then it was shortly after that that I came out to family. My mother kind of outed me but that's another story. And then I eventually came to Leeds in 1980...? Went to Bretton Hall in 1980 and when I was at college there and, we kind of, you know lots of gay people, and there was no Gay Soc and there was thought there was no need to have the Gay Soc.
IB: ...Which, I don't know, there was all... there was stuff about the Yorkshire Ripper was around, the Miners' Strike was on. I remember doing something to do with the Miners' Strike - I can't remember what - I think I went to... we went to Leeds Uni I think and sat in an office or... I think that was the Miners' Strike but it could have been something else [laughter]. Oh God, not very political Ian, not aware of what he was up to. And I remember after I finished at Bretton Hall in 1983 I moved to Leeds and... where my sister was an out lesbian and I remember being very envious of the women's movement in Leeds and thinking, you know, 'I wish I was a lesbian' because they've got all that women's stuff to be political about and I just thought, you know, 'being a gay man, you know, you're just a gay man, so what? And men in general aren't oppressed'. And then things just started clicking into place really. And certainly then with Clause 28 and AIDS and HIV... and... meeting my partner who'd been very, very political in the Miners' Strike and he kind of said: 'Hang on a bit! You're a gay man and that's political'... I don't know where to go from here, Rachel.
I can't remember how I got involved in Switchboard, but I think it was talking to people in Leeds a chance meeting in RockShots or Bananas or something - one of the clubs - and... I just remember going - I don't know if I'm allowed to say the location - somewhere up near the university and it was in a dingy basement and... I just remember it being a kind of a bit of a scuzzy environment and people would all move around cockroaches and sometimes when you went in there and put the light on to do a shift there would be cockroaches scuttling about, so it wasn't a particularly conducive atmosphere to supporting people but that's what we did!
And I think - I can't remember much about it - but there'd be about two of you on duty at a time - certainly never more - often just you on your own - and... answering the phone to a lot of, I suppose, nervous closeted worried people, whether it was gay people themselves, sometimes parents of... And sometimes it was just giving people, you know, directions to places and things and often - there was a thing about... meeting up with, you know, somebody who was really worried about going to a club for the first time - I suppose like I had been in Southampton. Switchboard, we would offer to meet people somewhere and then go with them to a club or a bar or something and that's how I met one of my really good friends [laughter]. Yeah, and I can't remember - I think I did it for a few years and then began to feel a bit [unclear] about it, or about my... I suppose ability to... I don't know... to empathise, I think, because I was thinking 'For f... you know, why is it so difficult? C'mon! I've been doing it for years; it's not that hard. It's quite acceptable', but I suppose it was in the mid-80s, so... whereas I was, I was thinking: 'Ooo, it's quite easy to be gay'... it isn't for a lot of people and certainly wasn't then. So I was just, you know, I was just one of the lucky ones I suppose.
RL: So tell me about Pride in London and your various outfits.
IB: Oh, um, yeah, I remember going... I can't remember what year it was but the first Pride we went on, we just went. I can't remember if we just drove down the motorway or we were on a coach but anyway I remember it being really exciting stopping off at service stations and there'd be loads of gay people taking over the service station and the atmosphere was just fantastic. And on the way down there'd be cars and coaches and rainbow flags and pink triangles. So that was, that was really exciting and the first one we went on we just went and I remember being on the march and taking a photograph of somebody who was dressed up and I was stood in front of this person that was wearing a big black/brown pinny, I suppose, dressed up as a big over-the-top charperson, I suppose. Charwoman! And a voice from... I was about to take a photo and a voice from inside said 'Ian Baxter!' which took me back a bit and it turned out to be a guy who'd been very closeted when I was at college at Bretton Hall and so something had obviously happened to him where he was out having a good time. But he said, 'You've really got to dress up if you come back next year; you'll have a much better time,' so we thought for the year after, 'What're we going to do?'
So we came... there was a whole thing - I can't remember who said it, but there was stuff from the government saying that lesbians and gays cannot pretend to be families. Because there was stuff around, I think, gay men maybe thinking about… not adopt... I don't know, just being families, having kids around them and things like that and I think women having babies through A.I. [artificial insemination] and donors and stuff. And so there was a huge thing from the government saying lesbians and gays cannot pretend to be families and, as my partner had three children and another friend he'd got a son, and we thought, 'Well, we are not actually pretending to be families, we are families'. And so we, we decided that we'd go. I think there was a guy - a drag actor around at the time called something like Ennio Marchetto around at the time who did everything in paper and card and we thought: 'OK, we're gonna make ourselves cardboard two-dimensional cut-outs of a heterosexual family,' so that's what we did, they were all very cartoony and... So that's what we did.
So I was the mum of course, the [unclear]. And... Yeah. So, and we went with, I think, me and Noel and - maybe I shouldn't have said that name; I don't know if it matters - and two, I think only two of the kids came because one of the older one's too cool for school to be doing anything with his dads and with our other friend. So we all went as these pretend families with placards saying 'Families Just Pretending' and we ended up... and then, I suppose we were just wanting to get... having fun and making a political statement and we ended up in Gay Times 25th Anniversary issue a few years later - probably about - I don't know how many years later it was - but our photo was one of their 25 top photographs so we were… felt really proud about that.
So that was very exciting and then, the year after that was, I think, when Charles and Diana had split up so we just thought we're going to reinvent these ‘Families Just Pretending’ and we went as ‘Royal Families Just Pretending’, you know pretending everything's fine, and so we dressed up as the whole of the royal family on the march, in cardboard outfits, on the march and we'd just stop at the side of the march and we'd pretend we were on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to much adoration and cheering from the march as it went past.
And then, another year, it was when the National Lottery started and Virginia Bottomley who was a Tory MP in - was that still Thatcher's government then? I can't remember - anyway she said that lesbian and gay organisations wouldn't be able to benefit from the National Lottery - it's horrendous isn't it? - and so we... Oh and the National Lottery on TV was fronted by a mystic, this woman called Mystic Meg, so... and by that time I think the kids had decided that they were all too cool for school to come with us by that stage, so it was just me and Noel and two friends - same two friends - with... dressed, all dressed up as Mystic Megs, with the same wig and purple outfits, which is what Mystic Meg wore with a very severe black bun [bob? unclear?]. And placards with the Lottery symbol which was two fingers - we reversed it so it was two fingers up - or maybe it was one finger up - and the placard, our placard said 'Up Your Virginia Bottomley' and we just kept up the theme for a few years of trying to do something political and us having a good time.
Another time we went as the Bishop of London… so because - I can't remember - the Bishop of London had announced that his sexuality was 'a grey area'. And it was a time of outings of public figures, I was all for that so, yeah, we were dressed up as the Bishop of London and I remember turning up in a club in... somewhere in the East End of London still in our outfits and bizarrely at that club we had to knock on the door - it was really exciting - and a little window opened in the door and a woman looked out. She said: 'Ay, it’s the Bish. Come in Bish', which was… yeah we had a good time.
And I can't remember when it just kinda fizzled out and we stopped going and there must have been a reason that we didn't go. Maybe it was that there were more local ones and I can't remember what happened after that, but Leeds Pride eventually started and a few people got together to organise Hyde Out and I can't remember whether there'd been picnics or if that was the first one and it was really just a few people getting together and having a picnic in the park, and I think someone organised a dog... a ridiculous dog show and people took picnics and, and it gradually got bigger. I remember - am I allowed to say names? - Mark Michalowski from Shout! [magazine] who was really good at, at kinda just chatting to people and saying 'Oh you'd be...' and encouraging people and saying 'Couldn't?'... I think we'd start... Victor Victoria’s had started and he said 'couldn't Victor Victoria and you maybe organise something?' and he was... got a group of people together and the event happened. And I can't remember really what happened then apart from Picnic in the Park and it was all really organic somehow and it just grew. And I suppose I feel there's something - I don't know if it's me or? - but now Pride feels to me just a… maybe I’ve been [unclear] too long, but just the whole thing about it being around the bars and not much else going on, and it doesn't feel as exciting as when it was going down to London and everyone from all over the country collecting together, and I remember dancing up the Strand in front of a double-decker bus and it being fantastic.
RL: And do you go to Leeds Pride now?
IB: Sometimes, yeah. And to be honest, the last time I went - and it was good to be on the march - but I hate the things that, you know, organisations like Asda are fronting the march and I don't believe that Asda are fronting the march because they believe in Gay Rights. I believe they're in the front of the march because they want to promote Asda and it really pisses me off. And I was very delighted one year where there were a load of young people and they were just chanting something like 'Riot don't diet' [RL laughs] and it was just very simple and... yeah, I just found it a breath of fresh air that that was going on rather than an array of supermarkets, insurance companies, car hire companies, flat agencies. That doesn't make me feel proud to be gay.
So Victor Victoria... it came about... I can't remember when it started - I know I was teaching originally - I think… I want to throw in something about teaching and Clause 28 and being a gay man as a teacher in a primary school in Bradford, and Margaret Thatcher came along and said I couldn't... you know, it was quite hard to be out but I'm sure, you know, I didn't ever say to the kids - because I was in a primary school - I didn't ever say 'I'm a gay man’; it never came up. I think I would have done if it had come up and I'm sure teachers, no parents, must know. I was out to the staff and I remember the head teacher [laughing] saying to me... we were in the staff room and I was with a friend who was a teacher as well in the staff room and she said, this head teacher, she said to me - she was very tall, imposing, she looked like an Amazonian warrior - and she said 'Nice jumper Ian! Knit it yourself?' and I said, 'No, my boyfriend did,' and ran out of the class... out of the staffroom thinking 'What is she going to say?' And I think she probably just thought, 'Ooo great! I've got...' - and I'm going to sound really right off now and she probably didn't think these things - but I think she probably thought: 'Right, now that's good I've got a Muslim' - I'm not going to sound right off - 'I've got a Muslim; I've got a Sikh and now I've got a poof! Sorted!' And I think in her own way she was very forward-thinking and... but it was at the time when we weren't allowed to promote homosexuality; so it wasn't meant to be mentioned and there weren't any...
RL: Yeah. So did you feel that in the workplace then, you…?
IB: Err, at first suppose I did, yeah! I could be talking bullshit and I could have got my times wrong but I know there was stuff around. It was in the introduction of the National Curriculum and it was all round. I don't know what it would be like now, how different it would be. There was one... No, I'm not going to go there.
RL: OK, Victor Victoria...
IB: Yes, sorry, I'm going on aren't I? Ok, yeah, I'll go on to Victor Victoria. So I... I can't remember why, I just remember thinking it would be good to learn how to ballroom dance. It was quite a long time before Strictly on telly, so we weren't... Oh, I'll tell you what it was, it was – film… Oh God, what was it called? - Strictly Ballroom!
RL: Oh yeah, yeah.
IB: Was it Baz Luhrmann?
RL: Baz Luhrmann.
IB: Yeah, 'Oh I want to do that'. And I think I ended up going for lessons with a female teacher from school and so we went for lessons and... I don't know if it was about the same time, lesbian and gay tea dances were happening in Bradford run by Nancy’s, and me and my partner Noel would sometimes go to these tea dances on a Sunday afternoon and met loads of people there. And, well because we hadn't had lessons together, we couldn't really dance together and we'd bump into each other and it was and we... there were other people who felt the same and wouldn't it be great to be able to dance together?
So a load of us then... a load of us? Probably about 4, 6, 8 people decided it would be good to find a class that we could all go to together and - I don't know if we knew, but there was a fantastic woman called Liz Normaschild who taught Latin and Ballroom at Swarthmore and I can't remember if we said, 'Is it alright if we come?' and, anyway she was fine with it. She was a lesbian and most of the rest of the class were fine with it and so we started to learn to dance there and then we thought... we want somewhere to dance and there was the Nancy’s tea dances and I think they'd just folded, and so we talked to the guys who'd run Nancy’s which were people like Harvey and Jason and Henry, and the Lavender Cafe Orchestra used to play there which was [laughter] a lesbian orchestra and we thought... it used to happen in a... dark, no-windows room at the back of the Alhambra in Bradford and we thought we want it to be beautiful and lovely and you could get tea in a polystyrene cup, and so we decide... we talked to them about taking over or redoing tea dances and they were great with that, and gave lots of advice. And we found Victoria Hall in Saltaire which was this beautiful elegant room and so we started putting on tea dances and we'd spend... a load of us would spend all weekend baking and making sandwiches and cakes and... so we started doing that and we did that for a few years at Saltaire, quite - I can't remember how often we did them - certainly not every weekend - just a couple of times a year I think.
And then we decided we'd like to do an evening one, so we had a ball rather than a tea-dance and I think it started off with a Halloween Ball and we'd get, there would be things, just crazy things would happen like a coach full of dykes had turned up from Newcastle and it was kind of... not, yeah, I suppose it was getting bigger and I think we couldn't let this coachload of dykes in because there wasn't room ‘cause we limited numbers to a certain extent because you need a bit of room to be able to dance. And it wasn't just about ballroom dancing, there was… and the Lavender Cafe played and Henry and Andy as the ‘Grannies With Attitude’ DJ'ed and some of it would be ballroom and Latin music and then, towards the end of the night, it would be disco stuff - sounds really old-fashioned, doesn't it?
RL: [laughs] Sounds great!
IB: And we talked... we would teach... we would have a class during the ballroom/Latin bit as well so people could get round the hall and we'd have big group dances, and we kind of wanted to treat people so people would always be given nibbles or chocolates or... and then we… So I can't remember if we just did the one evening one in Saltaire - and me and Noel were going off to Australia for a year - that was in '97 - and the team said: 'Oh we won't have one while you're not here' and the bastards [laughter] not only had one but decided to take it to Leeds and have it... managed to negotiate having Leeds Town Hall, so 1997 was the first Victor Victoria's Ball at Leeds Town Hall and the... I, as far as I'm aware, yeah, Channel 4 came and filmed it - I don't know if it ever went on the telly - but not only weren't we there but they were having an event in Leeds Town Hall and Channel 4 were filming it and I sort… It just went from there. We used to - we definitely had one every year, sometimes more, and it was a completely not-for-profit; we managed to cover the cost of the Town Hall and have a bit to plan the next one. And it was a group of people who were, I suppose, into dancing, into putting on a big event and into being giddy with silly and fun [RL laughs] and the other really important thing as well as all that was that it was the first organisation - lesbian and gay organisation - to have an event at Leeds Town Hall.
IB: And I remember someone saying to me, 'It's not very political is it, putting on tea-dances and balls?' And I remember standing on the stage in Leeds Town Hall in some outrageous ridiculous outfit in front of a few hundred lesbians and gay men and thinking, 'This is fairly political!' And [laughs] on that same theme, we once - Steve, who was part of the team and was really enthusiastic about going dancing in other places, he suggested we should go to Pudsey Civic Hall that, where they had, I think, a weekly ballroom dancing session so we went to that [laughs] and it was terrifying because there were, there were lots of straight people doing their ballroom dancing and then we turn up and there were things called sequence dances where two of you are together and one of you moves on, so there were the terrified faces of the ballroom dancers of Pudsey as they were having to dance with the same-sex partner. That felt pretty political as well.
And the woman afterwards said to us - there was me and Noel and Jane and Lou - and this woman came up and she said, 'Eh, if you're all together, how come he danced with him and she danced with her? Why don't, why don’t, why doesn't he dance with her and you dance with her?' and we said, 'Well cos we're gay,' and she looked at us and she said, 'Oh well, oh right, oh ok. Well I don't go down that path myself but, you know, that's fine!' something like that.
What else do I need to say about Victor Victoria's? We did it for ten years in, I think we did it for ten years in the Town Hall. I don't know the dates at the moment but we had the last one... it was just... there was something lovely about... it felt like we were giving - that sounds really patronising - but putting on an event for the gay community that wasn't about exploiting the gay community and people loved it! And, you know, as before with tea and cakes - we would treat people... we'd always have a theme so there'd be lots of dressing up... 'The Glitter Ball', 'The Snow Ball'. I remember going to - for one of them - the display - Harvey Nic’s had just come to Leeds which again I found a bit dodgy - just the fact Harvey Nic’s had opened in Leeds and I remember going to a car boot down in Holbeck or somewhere and there'd be people strutting about in a cardboard box with something for 50p and then there's Harvey Nic’s with pants for £45 and I find that sticks in my throat a bit. Anyway, but I thought I'm going to try and get what I can from Harvey Nic’s and they had a fantastic window display and I managed to go and get it to put on the stage at the Town Hall...
RL: For free, do you mean?
IB: Yeah, yeah, yeah! And we were always doing things like that. You know, we'd be carting - there would be eight of us at the most - and it would be: 'Can you meet me round the back of Harvey Nic’s? We need to load all these things into the back of the car'. And Mike was always fantastic at creating things.
One year we had the ‘Grease Ball’ and we said: 'Mike, could you make something for the stage...?' and he kind of raised his eyes heavenward and we'd think, 'Is he going to come up with anything?' And he would then come out with two huge cardboard cut-outs of American Chevrolets or something... and, yeah, we would make stuff and we had, there was a lot of meetings about frou-frou, which is table decorations and decorating the hall, and how we could get it for as cheaply as possible. And we, we, sometimes we would meet up for breakfast in a bar in town or something and have planning meetings like that, and it just felt like a glorious group of people full of energy putting on a great event; and then it got to the stage where we thought: 'We want to go somewhere where we can dance' or, and it kind of, I think we just decided that after the tenth anniversary we should do something mega, so we had the ‘Fire Ball’ and we hired a big band with a lead singer that weren't actually gay, but we, you know, put on a razzmatazz and so I think went out with a bit of a bang.
RL: Yeah, that was the last one.
IB: ...And ballroom dancing classes have started again in Leeds; again started by us, well Noel has started doing that and we're just at the moment looking for a teacher.
IB: So who knows what might happen next with that?!