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‘Forbidden love’: Sutton House queer nightlife exhibition explores an era when being gay was illegal - just 50 years ago

PUBLISHED: 15:11 04 October 2017 | UPDATED: 13:45 12 October 2017

The Light After Dark exhibition in Sutton House. Picture: Ying Kuen Tonmy Lam

The Light After Dark exhibition in Sutton House. Picture: Ying Kuen Tonmy Lam

Kat hudson

It’s 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised gay sex. To mark the anniversary, Kat Hudson is curating an exhibition at Sutton House on the queer nightlife scene in Hackney and beyond. She tells Emma Bartholomew about the ‘golden age’ – and whether those really were the days

The Light After Dark exhibition in Sutton House. Picture: Ying Kuen Tonmy Lam The Light After Dark exhibition in Sutton House. Picture: Ying Kuen Tonmy Lam

“It’s been really wonderful and touching researching all this,” Kat Hudson tells the Gazette. “It can be very upsetting to think about. If my friends and I were older and alive in a different time, the love we feel would be forbidden – we would have to conceal who we were.”

The 25-year-old has curated an exhibition about the past, present and future of London’s queer nightlife scene, to mark 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act partially decriminalised gay sex.

The Light After Dark exhibition forms part of the National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride Season at Sutton House, and features material from the National Archives dating back to the 1920s, with photos, love letters and police statements.

Sutton House itself plays a part in the story – the Tudor home in Homerton High Street became home to a community of squatters in the ’80s and established itself as a music and social venue known as the Blue House.

Kat Hudson (right) with Lauren Sweeney at the Light After Dark exhibition in Sutton House. Picture: Ying Kuen Tonmy Lam Kat Hudson (right) with Lauren Sweeney at the Light After Dark exhibition in Sutton House. Picture: Ying Kuen Tonmy Lam

A successful campaign rescued it from conversion to luxury flats in 1987, and artwork from this unusual section of its history is still on display.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, photos and personal anecdotes celebrate today’s vibrant queer scene as a “modern utopia” – while debates and lectures will ask what the future holds for the community.

“The thought of those who fought for us to be who we are is still so fresh,” says Kat, an artist who also works at the Retro Bar in the Strand.

One photo from 1927 shows the aftermath of one of the private parties a man called Billy would hold at 25 Fitzroy Square.

A love letter on display in Sutton House for the Light after Dark exhibition. Picture: National Archives Kew A love letter on display in Sutton House for the Light after Dark exhibition. Picture: National Archives Kew

“Men would dance all night around in ladies’ shoes and wear powder make-up,” says Kat.

“They were raided and that’s where the photos are from. It was seen as sexual perversion, and there was the ‘three items of clothing rule’ – if you were wearing less than three items of your gender’s clothing it 
would be a reason for you to be arrested.

“I can imagine these parties were going on all over London because queer people were all over London and needed spaces – but it needed to be hidden at that time.”

In 1967 the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men – but it was “by no means liberation” for all sexual minorities.

An image from 1927 in the Light After Dark exhibition. Picture: National Archives An image from 1927 in the Light After Dark exhibition. Picture: National Archives

The law stipulated you had to be over 21, not in the armed forces, and in a private locked room with no one else in the building.

“I think the arrests increased because of the shock of it happening and the authorities didn’t in any way want to suggest they were happy with it – they wanted to make sure all the conditions were being adhered to, so they had a crackdown,” says Kat.

“it was a pity thing. The attitude was: ‘You have to deal with this sexual perversion so we aren’t going to make it illegal for you, but you need to be discreet out of respect for what we have given you.’

“It was a step in the right direction because it led onto so many other things, but in itself it didn’t really do anything.”

Gay News, issue 12 from 1972, which will be on display in Sutton House for the National Trust's Prejudice and Pride Season exhibition, Light After Dark. Picture: Gay News Archives Gay News, issue 12 from 1972, which will be on display in Sutton House for the National Trust's Prejudice and Pride Season exhibition, Light After Dark. Picture: Gay News Archives

The exhibition references the “golden age” of club culture, and venues that have closed – like the Joiners Arms in Shoreditch. 
“In the last six years venues have been dropping like flies,” says Kat. Some people hail 1978 to 1980 as the golden age when Boy George went to the Blitz Club and it became a famous place to be and be seen. The club scene exploded then.

“People say: ‘Wasn’t it great back in the day before all these places shut down?’ – but it’s easy to look on things in hindsight with rose-tinted glasses.

“Obviously we have seen a vast number of places close down because of gentrification, but the current scene is wonderful and thriving, and feels like a utopia for people who don’t necessarily fit in still.

“It’s a space in which you don’t feel like the minority any more. You go to this place and it’s full of like minded people like you. That’s a form of liberation, really.”

Charles Jeffrey by Emily Rose England, which will be on display in Sutton House for the National Trust's Prejudice and Pride Season exhibition, Light After Dark Charles Jeffrey by Emily Rose England, which will be on display in Sutton House for the National Trust's Prejudice and Pride Season exhibition, Light After Dark

The exhibition is on until October 29.

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