L.G.B.T. London 1900-1950

The term 'gay', referring to sexual orientation, came into use in Britain during the 1920s. It may have had roots in 19th-century London, when male prostitutes called themselves 'gay ladies'. 'Lesbian' was also becoming an increasingly common term at this time.

The social upheavals of the 1920s brought some blurring of gender boundaries. The 'new woman', with her short hair and cigarette holder, was considered mannish. The fashionable man, with his Oxford bag trousers and Fairisle patterned jumpers, was considered effete. In this climate, homosexual relationships could be pursued in private with a reasonable degree of openness, particularly in bohemian circles.

Artists and writers whose private lives were openly gay included Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Noel Coward and Vita Sackville West. In public, such behaviour was kept hidden since male homosexual acts were still illegal. An unsuccessful attempt was made to criminalise lesbian relationships in 1921.

The first openly lesbian novel, The Well of Loneliness, was published in London in 1928. Its female author, Radcliffe Hall, was prosecuted for obscenity the same year, and all copies of the book destroyed.

London hosted the second congress of the World League for Sexual Reform in 1929. Founded the previous year, the league was one of the first global gay rights organisations.

The legal situation forced many lesbian and gay Londoners in the first half of the century to lead isolated lives. Nevertheless, there were some places in capital where people could meet. The Gateways Club, which opened in King's Road, Chelsea, in 1930, was one of the few places in Britain where lesbians could meet openly.

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