The History of Pride & LGBTQ+ at the University of York: 60th Anniversary

In celebration of Pride, Fedor Topolev-Soldunov (Borthwick Institute for Archives Student Intern, 2022) and Charles Johnston (Press and Publicity Officer, LGBTQ+ YUSU University of York) look back over the LGBTQ+ community at the University of York.

The University of York has been a platform for LGBTQ+ voices since the early 1970s. 

The student press of the period provides a significant insight into the lives and activities of LGBTQ+ youth, both on campus and on a wider scale in York. Nouse, the oldest and the main campus newspaper, included a small advert in November 1970 calling for homosexuals to join the new discussion group organised by the Committee for Homosexual Equality. This marked the birth of the first LGBTQ+ society on campus. Immediately, the newly-formed student group was criticised for spreading indecency and had to operate in terms of secrecy and anonymity – the founders of the group could not take the risk, as homosexual relationships between men had only been decriminalised in 1967.

The student newspapers of the time record a community that was slowly battling towards openness and acceptance, despite criticism. In 1974 the GaySoc – the LGBTQ+ society at the time – was granted £100 from the Students Union, showing the University’s support for the cause of equality on campus. Despite that support, the group was frequently subjected to outright homophobic criticism. Reader’s letters from the period show that some people still considered being gay a medical issue that needed treating – perhaps a legacy of the terrible aversion therapies employed by some institutions in the 1950s and 1960s and publicised in newspapers as a breakthrough.

The University of York students and staff have always fought for equality, and LGBTQ+ rights are not an exception. Following a violent homophobic attack on campus, which left a prominent member of GaySoc injured and other members of the community questioning their safety, the response from the University came quickly. The leader of the group behind the assault was fined and suspended from the University, and had to issue a formal apology. The rest of the group were fined and warned. While the students praised the University’s handling of the incident, the issue of the continuing need to fight for LGBTQ+ rights was once again raised.

In 1988 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced Section 28, also known as Clause 28, prohibiting the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities. The clause, essentially banning any signs of homosexuality ‘in public’, was met with resistance around the nation. The archives show how the University’s LGBTQ+ community reacted to the changes, and their participation in protests and demonstrations against the clause, as well as how reporting about LGBTQ+ life and issues changed in the years after the law was passed. Clause 28 was eventually scrapped in England and Wales in 2003, and LGBTQ+ rights were later strengthened by the Equality Act 2010.

In 1981 HIV/AIDS was first diagnosed in the UK. At the time, it was seen as a disease with many myths and prejudices surrounding it, and this was not lost on the student press at University of York. Both York Vision and Nouse dedicated articles and whole two-page pull-outs to the disease, trying to break the stigma around it and informing the University’s community about how to stay safe. As early as 1985, the student press published an article which explored worrying links between sexuality and AIDS. In subsequent years, it continuously promoted information about the disease, and methods to avoid it, focusing on safe sex practices in homosexual or bisexual relationships, and sex education. 

The University and Pride

The University of York has been involved in Pride for many years. Student media records dedicated ‘Pride Weeks’ as early as 1986, with the 1986 Pride disco attracting more people than initially expected (prompting the organisers from the Lesbian and Gay Society to look for another larger venue at the last minute!). Even after the passing of Clause 28, the 1991 Pride Week still went ahead, with many events featuring debates with Conservative MPs and discussions about the co-existence of homosexuality and Christianity. Later Pride Weeks included charity sales and discos in support of AIDS patients.

A notable Pride event was in 1995, when the student community was alarmed by the recent rise of homophobic attacks in the city. Combatting homophobia was a regular theme of many Pride Week events, and in 1995, there was a notable Valentine’s Day ‘kiss-in’ – encouraging homosexual couples to kiss in public to raise visibility. That Pride Week was a great success, with the ‘kiss-in’ attracting much praise and attention for making the community visible.

Campus Design

The University’s commitment to inclusivity was recently furthered by the announcement that two new student colleges on Campus East would be named after Anne Lister and David Kato. The official opening of Anne Lister college was held in October 2021, with both colleges fully operational by September 2022. 

Anne Lister (1791-1840) was a local landowner in West Yorkshire, most famous for keeping coded diaries about her relationships with women. You can read more about here in the individuals section of this guide, or watch the recording of the University’s York Festival of Ideas session for the opening of the college in 2021 – Gentleman Jack: The Life and Legacy of Anne Lister. 

David Kato (1964-2011) was a Ugandan human rights defender and gay rights activist, who had a significant impact on the rights of LGBT+ people in Uganda. Described by The Economist as Uganda’s first openly gay man, Kato used education, advocacy and activism to fight for the projection of LGBT+ peoples’ fundamental rights and freedom. He was also one of the founding members of the Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) advocacy group. Kato studied at University of York for six months in 2010. You can find out more about him in the University Press release on the naming of David Kato college, and read his own words on studying in York

In March 2021, a post from the LGBTQ+ Network instagram stated that the first all-gender toilet signage was put in place in the library, a campaign that would continue and lead to similar all-gender toilet signage in places like the Spring Lane Building. 

Social Media and Emails

The LGBTQ+ Network Facebook page became more active around 2019. In 2021 the LGBTQ+ Network Instagram was set up. 

Images taken from YUSU LGBTQ+ Network social media pages

The LGBTQ+ Network successfully campaigned for university email usernames to be randomly generated, rather than using the initials of a person’s legal name, which may be their deadname (to call a transgender person by their birth name when they have changed their name as part of their gender transition).

Events and Nightlife

The LGBTQ+ Social Society runs social events for the LGBTQ+ community in the university. In 2022 two major nights were introduced for the LGBTQ+ nightlife in York – ‘Kween’ was set up by Kuda independent of the LGBTQ+ network but sought help to discuss safety and other aspects; and soon after the ‘Flares’ gay night was set up and run by the LGBTQ+ YUSU network. Prior to this, there was no/ very little queer nightlife in York, as there are no gay bars or queer clubs in the city, only The Portal Bookshop

YUSU LGBTQ+ continue to grow and set up successful communities and events; providing support during the Qatar World Cup in 2022 by organising alternative entertainment for those that wished to boycott the event; trans boardgames and coffee mornings have been running since the beginning of the 2022 academic year. 

Ongoing Challenges

Despite the progress, serious challenges such as homophobic attitudes amongst some groups of students and attacks are still faced by the York LGBTQ+ community. After the first ‘Kween’ club night in Kuda, there was a case of a homophobic attack, leading to the LGBTQ+ officers at the time rescinding their statement on Instagram about the safety of the club. 

Looking back over time, huge steps and progress have been made for the LGBTQ+ community at York but there is still progress to be made. The history of LGBTQ+ is so important; to identify how far we have come, what has changed and what still needs to change. 

This content is based on archives from the Borthwick Institute. The guide to these and our other LGBTQ+ sources can be found at https://www.york.ac.uk/borthwick/holdings/research-guides/lgbt/

If you would like to contribute any historical items concerning York’s LGBTQ+ history, please follow instructions on the student life collection page.

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