To coincide with LGBT+ History Month, Dr Adam Dawkins (University Secretary, University of York 2023) reflects on the life and legacy of LGBT+ activist, researcher and University of York alum: Dr Brian Kennedy, 1953-1990 (DPhil, Biochemistry, 1979, University of York).
Shining a rainbow-infused light on University of York alumnus Dr Brian Kennedy (DPhil, Biochemistry, 1979) has been on my ‘must do’ list since recognising his name on the roll call of high-profile graduates. There’s more than one Dr Brian Kennedy, including in the fields of music and academia. The name is not exceptional, unlike the subject of this piece, who undoubtedly was. The alumni entry describes Brian as a ‘journalist and LGBT* rights activist’ and sparked a personal recollection of his name from my own past. In addition to this shorthand for Brian’s successes, he was a researcher, scientist, entrepreneur and community development leader.
How did I know of Brian, and what links us, beyond being gay? First is our association with the University of York. Our connection might be four decades apart, but finds me sitting in the reading room of the University’s Borthwick Institute for Archives with fleeting access to Brian’s DPhil thesis, bound and couched on its very own book pillow.
Brian and I never met. Both of us ‘came out’ in our own ways in the heat of 1976; Brian as gay, and me being born that Summer. His untimely death at the age of 37 in the final days of 1990, in the care of his partner Robin, sealed a solemn guarantee that we would never meet. The second and main association Brian and I have is the Pink Singers, the LGBT+ choir which Brian and composer, writer and performer Mark Bunyan co-founded in 1983. Two years into my time in London as a young graduate, and with the cloud of the homophobic bombing of the Admiral Duncan pub hanging heavy, in 2000 I discovered and joined the choir. This was a New Year’s and New Millennium resolution which stuck. We’ll come back to the significance of the Pink Singers, after charting Brian’s time at the University of York.
The detailed sequence of Brian’s pathway into higher education is patchy. From an early life in Durham, Brian joined Professor Roger Warr’s laboratory at the University of York in the mid-1970s to pursue postgraduate research into the anti-tumour properties of acronycine – a plant compound – on the cultured ovary cells of Chinese hamsters and pig lymphoctyes (right hand whooshing over my head whilst writing this). What is clear is that Brian’s scientific knowledge of immune systems and responses would influence his later landmark writing on HIV/AIDS. Indeed, he was one of the first journalists in Europe to write about the epidemic with a plea that those holding influence draw on scant but emerging evidence and facts, and do so with empathy in the way Brian did. Such a stance was desperately needed at a time of a prejudiced mainstream media, stoking the fires of public fear and panic, and presenting HIV/AIDS as the ‘gay cancer’. A shape-shifting disease, HIV/AIDS evaded the care or attention of governments globally, with the gay community’s existence and survival literally under threat from it. As a consequence of government inertia, anti-viral medicines to fight, if not cure, the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS came too late for so many, including Brian.
Brian’s identity as a gay man began to flourish on campus at York. Gay liberation movements on university campuses were forming. In 1970, the first UK branch of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) held its first meeting in a classroom at the London School of Economics (LSE). The 1970s began to see ‘gaysocs’ appearing, with varying purposes, membership and degrees of activism across UK university campuses. This was no doubt bolstered by the National Union of Students (NUS), which in 1973 became the first national UK organisation to vote in support of gay rights (Malcolm, 2017). Records show that the York contingent at the NUS Conference that year argued that gay liberation could only be achieved through the dismantling of capitalism. Melding the causes of workers, class and gay rights was a source of debate, with those arguing against this position pointing to those socialist states in Europe which hardly represented models of tolerance and emancipation of gay communities. Brian’s later student and national journalism show that he was also skeptical of such explicitly ideological and early ‘intersectional’ takes on gay rights in these emerging student liberation movements. This is evident in a 1977 article in the student newspaper, Nouse (pronounced ‘News’ as a nod to York’s River Ouse) entitled ‘Gays Still United’ about the proceedings of a heated GaySoc meeting. The writer quotes Brian referring to politically left-leaning gaysocs being ‘one of only several ways’ to advance gay rights, and that overtly politicised student societies might deter those mustering up the confidence to join them or come out.
In 1974, York’s Students’ Union provided a £100 grant to help set up the GaySoc. Brian became a leading figure in it, holding the roles of Secretary and Chair at different stages. Positive portrayals of gay life did feature in editions of Nouse during this period, but included a reader’s article espousing anti-gay sentiment, presenting ‘homosexuals’ as pitiful figures in need of psychiatric and clinical intervention. Several Nouse articles bear Brian’s light but firm footprint, whereby he made calm and factual retorts to homophobic sentiments expressed in the column inches of the newspaper, or on campus more generally. In one 1976 article, Brian deftly debunks sensationalist myths about the GaySoc’s indulgence in ‘Bacchanalian revels at midnight on Tuesdays’ and ‘blue films ON A Sunday’ (Brian’s emphases!). Brian’s approach in these early articles show his early ability to deflate prejudice by placing flawed assumptions under the microscope of evidence and scrutiny, in a witty non-confrontational way. This remained a trait in his later journalism, activism and community development. A deep sense of compassion and community is evident in Brian’s response to an anonymous 1977 student article in Nouse, ‘A day in the Life of a Homosexual at York’, a heartfelt insight into the isolation and frustration of a gay student who felt ‘paranoid, threatened, deceitful and weak’, with no option but to remain firmly locked in the closet.
Brian’s response to this article points to practical help for the individual in pointing to the GaySoc switchboard, signals optimism in the wake of despair and tolerance and forgiveness for the most ardent of homophobes:
“But things are getting better and can improve even more. That GaySoc even exists, that its members identify themselves, that the administration facilitates our events, all are signs that change is taking place. Soon the “queer-bashers” will be a minority group and I hope we can understand them to a greater extent than we have been understood”.
Successfully defending his York DPhil thesis in 1979, Dr Brian made the move to Brighton – with its burgeoning gay rights movement and community – at some time in the late 1970s to pursue a research fellowship at the University of Sussex. After this, London beckoned. Following a stint in cancer research at Guy’s Hospital, Brian moved from the lab into community development work. He continued to advocate, as he had done at York, for conciliation over conflict as the most effective means to bring about positive change, whether this be in response to tensions between different parts of the gay community or society as large. Brian’s approach played out in his journalism, including as founding editor of the gay section of Out in the City in the co-operatively run City Limits magazine. In 1985 Brian was joined by Rose Collis, a fellow polymath and an award-winning playwright, film-maker, musician, producer, historian and activist, who became the section’s first lesbian co-editor.
Brian also founded Kennedy’s Gay Guide to London, which ran for 12 editions, and made history in securing national distribution through WH Smith and John Menzies outlets. The Guide offered more than a listing of venues for gay bars, clubs, saunas and cafes and events (although this was of itself significant in literally putting the gay community on the map). Rose Collis’s important private archive includes extracts from the Guide and the introductions Brian wrote to each edition. They speak powerfully and persuasively of the importance of visibility and pride, criticism of mainstream media’s depiction of gay people, and treatment of the gay community, and governmental strategies to divide, distance and silence that community through political inertia in the wake of HIV/AIDS, and its introduction of Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988.
The Guide was pathbreaking in launching the first Gay Business Directory. As well as promoting ‘lesgay’ businesses, Brian espoused the importance of collaboration between the gay community and mainstream business sectors. In the Guide Brian charts the exploitation of the ‘pink pound’, as a mode of cynical commercialism which Brian never lived to see intensify. However, he was also ahead of his time in setting out the business case for promoting diversity and inclusion. Brian charts the ‘win win’ from gay community interaction with mainstream businesses. The outcome being both enriched social capital afforded by business catering for gay needs, and the financial rewards reaped by those businesses. Brian became Secretary of the Gay Business Association (GBA), which was founded in 1983 and continues to operate. One obituary for Brian tells us that in this capacity, he worked to forge positive relations between the police and the gay community. It is fitting that the GBA posthumously created awards in Brian’s name to honour leading figures at the interface of the gay community and business, politics, the public and third sectors, including Angela Mason CBE (former Stonewall Director and Chair of the Fawcett Society), Chris Smith (now Baron Smith of Finsbury, cited as the first openly gay male British MP) and Ken Livingstone Greater London Council (GLC) leader and former London Mayor.
The GLC was instrumental in developing the ‘Changing the World – London Charter for Lesbian and Gay Rights’ (1983) which worked with Brian and other community leaders to launch the biggest single LGBT community project funded by a public body: the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) in 1985. Brian became the first paid development worker at the Centre. LLGC was the first non-commercial venue for gay businesses, and provided office, rehearsal, performance and socialising space and focal group for many gay groups and networks. Sadly, financial losses, including grant cuts and community in-fighting around LLGC’s purpose and use, culminated in its closure in 1992.
Whilst LLGC was not the long-lasting success for which Brian and its founders had hoped, the Pink Singers remains a tour de force on the LGBT+ landscape of London. As Europe’s longest-running LGBT+ choir, 40th anniversary celebrations are taking place across 2023. From the start, the choir was proudly gay and lesbian, and being non-auditioning meant that community inclusion was at its core. The choir’s first performance was at London Pride in 1983, with the march and parade that year processing from Hyde Park to the University of London Union (ULU) in Bloomsbury. Singing as a subtle, but no less persuasive and powerful medium to transmit a positive image and message of gay life, was likely central to Brian’s and Mark Bunyan’s mission. This is where my connection to Brian crystallises, as a member of the Pink Singers from 2000-2009. The attraction of an LGBT+ choir was obvious to me. This was both for the extended repertoire and harmonic potential a mixed voice choir brings, and a genuinely diverse community of members. The choir became more than a hobby, but an additional family (I say ‘additional’ as one of the lucky ones who never faced the rejection of my birth family). It was a source of fun and friendship. I fondly recall trips to, and exchanges with, our family of LGBT+ choirs across Europe, from Birmingham to Berlin and Paris and Helsinki to Copenhagen. In 2015, I was part of an inaugural group of individuals across the national LGBT+ choir network to receive a bronze Brian Kennedy Award for having served more than 10 years in LGBT+ choirs. This was hardly a chore, and the awards remain a fitting testament to how Brian’s efforts have impacted and improved the lives of so many, including myself.
Without doubt, Brian was a pioneer, from his research at York through to the many ways in which he advocated for gay rights in a disarming, poised and most of all pragmatic way, always keeping the endgame of equality for LGBT+ communities in sight. Brian should never be an ‘unsung’ hero, ringing and reverberating through every Pink Singers performance. Those I have been fortunate enough to make contact with in researching this piece, unreservedly remember Brian with love and affection. The light shone on Brian’s life and legacy might be refracted through the trials faced by being gay in the decades traced in this article, and the tragedy of his own untimely passing. Brian’s is a light with a subtle, but sparkling hue. Burning bright, but never blinding.
* In writing this article, the ‘LGBT+’ initialism is sometimes used where organisations referred to apply it to capture their inclusive missions. However, ‘gay’ is used most frequently in this article as a shorthand to denote gay male and lesbian representation as the predominant focus of activism and rights advancement during the 1970s and 1980, when Brian was most active.
Malcolm, David (2017). ‘A curious courage: the origins of gay rights campaigning in the National Union of Students’. History of Education, Vol 47, No 1 73-86.
- Rose Collis, for her generosity of time and access to her private archive ‘The Rose Collis Collection’. ‘Archivist’ should be added to Rose’s many skills and accomplishments!
- Mark Bunyan, co-founder of the Pink Singers
- Professor Roger Warr, Brian’s DPhil supervisor at the University of York
- Dr James Moir, Head of the Department of Biology, University of York
- Dr Jim Hoggett, Honorary Fellow and former Head of the Department of Biology, University of York
- Philip Rescorla, long-standing member of The Pink Singers, and Brian Kennedy Long Service Award (Silver)
- Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York