Gay East Midlands (GEM), was a monthly magazine printed and published in Nottingham, England from 1983 to 1984. It was initiated by me and produced entirely by volunteers – none of whom had any previous experience in writing or publishing.
This lack of experience undoubtedly contributed to its relatively short lifespan (for example, we had absolutely no business plan). In spite of this, GEM still managed to reach audiences as far afield as Edinburgh and London, as well as the local gay and lesbian populations in places like Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.
And it’s timing was absolutely crucial, arriving at a time when AIDS was just emerging as a frightening and mysterious illness, systematic police harassment of gays was still widespread and the only national gay paper Gay News was about to close.
So GEM did what it could to keep people informed. Produced entirely by volunteers, it covered a wide range of subjects from AIDS, coming out and gay rights to music and the local club scene. And even though so many issues were reported from a local perspective, it is clear that they had – and, indeed, still do have – a universal relevance.
I’ve added this ‘GEM page’ to the Gay in the 80s site to give a slightly more in-depth experience of that period. It’s also here as an example of one of the many ways LGBT volunteers worked to support each other and lobby for social change. Lots of people have put in lots of effort to lots of projects in the pursuit of LGBT rights over the years.
In the case of GEM, I think it’s worth re-visiting just to see what’s changed (as well as what hasn’t). Or you can simply check out Cathy White’s wonderful cartoon strip Dykes about Town, one of the many GEM items worthy of a much larger audience.(Please note: all Dykes About Town material is copyright the estate of Cathy White.)
Read it all online or download your very own PDF copy to love and treasure in the privacy of your own home. But please bear with me; it’s quite a bit of work putting every issue online so if the issue you want to see isn’t currently available please come back and try again later. I will get every issue up eventually.
A Brief History of Gay East Midlands
In 1982 Britain’s only national gay and lesbian paper, Gay News, started to fall apart, leaving us without a voice or an information source at the worst possible time.
Police victimisation of gays was rife. Tactics included raiding gay pubs and arresting people for being drunk on the premises (for example, the Vauxhall Tavern in London) and using attractive, plain-clothed, police officers to flirt with gay men then arrest them for ‘importuning for immoral purposes’. Gay’s the Word bookshop was repeatedly raided and charged with importing ‘obscene’ material – even though the self-same material was being published legally in Britain! The works of people like Oscar Wilde, Jean-Paul Sartre and Tennessee Williams were all cited by the prosecution! And even though the prosecution ultimately failed, the seized material was so badly damaged by the police it was usually unsaleable upon its return. Such was the war of attrition being waged against gays.
And then, in December 1981, the medical journal The Lancet recorded the first British case of a mysterious condition that would soon be labelled AIDS. In those early days no one really knew what caused it (leading to some bizarre theories centering on ‘the gay lifestyle’) or, indeed, what would happen to people who contracted it. Initially it was suggested that maybe only 10% of people with AIDS would die – then that percentage grew steadily and relentlessly as time went on.
And so, for gay men, it was a particularly frightening time – not helped by the media’s outrageous and ill-informed hysteria and moralising. (Click here to read ‘AIDS Virus Kills Man in Britain’ – a short summary of a study I did of Press coverage of AIDS from 1984-1985).
The Germination of GEM
Towards the end of 1982, I organised a meeting in Nottingham to discuss the possibility of producing a local gay newspaper. The meeting was well attended (including Paul Fairweather and Terry Waller, who travelled from Manchester to offer their support on behalf of Mancunian Gay magazine) and a working party was established.
As with most enterprises of this kind, there was some falling by the wayside as we approached our launch date and the reality of the workload became obvious. Nonetheless, a solid core of enthusiasts remained; these were Bob Emerton, Nigel Leach, Dave Pitt and myself. Regular contributions were also received from Michael/Mitzi (who, amongst other things, designed the GEM logo – and whose surname I still don’t know!) and Richard McCance.
And then, just when it was beginning to look like an all-male enterprise, Cathy White popped into one of our meetings to ask ‘if we’d be interested in a cartoon strip’. We were very interested – and delighted when we saw the finished product. Dykes about Town became a central feature of GEM.
This was the central core of the GEM team for the first few issues but the workload soon began to take its toll. One reason for this was the fact that our distribution area expanded rapidly. We were, obviously, committed to reaching as many gays and lesbians as possible in the East Midland region and this, in itself, involved travelling to small towns and even smaller venues to develop markets and also chase up local news stories.
Added to that were the regular jobs like writing content, laying out the paper and – most importantly of all – trying to attract advertising in order to pay for it all. This was no mean task, given that we all had our own full-time jobs to do on top of this. Allied to this was the fact that none of us had any experience in areas such as media, journalism or marketing.
Repeated appeals in the paper produced little response but by our sixth issue we managed to recruit new members – although largely on the basis of our own network of friends. These new recruits were Karen Buckley, Denise Rooney, Simon Shepherd and Mick Wallis.
The Launch and Beyond
GEM was launched as a 16-page monthly publication in June 1983. We began with a print run of 1,000 which, to our delight, sold out completely. In response, we increased the print run to 1,500 then, on one occasion, got completely carried away and printed 2,000 copies. Many copies came back unsold the following month so the print run was lowered to 1,500 again.
Funding remained a constant headache. As Mancunian Gay’s Paul Fairweather pointed out to us, despite its large gay and lesbian population, the East Midlands had few commercial gay venues, and this absence of competition meant they had little need to advertise. Certainly, our largest gay advertiser was Nottingham’s Part Two club – and even this fell off significantly after Issue Two.(I often wonder whether this was related to us publishing a lukewarm review of Part Two’s second birthday celebrations!)
As for gay pubs, too many of these were still run by non-gay people with the expectation that we should simply be grateful for being allowed in in the first place. Nigel Leach had a memorable exchange with the owner of one such venue after she had made some comment about not wanting to upset the ‘normal’ people who also used her pub. We retained strong ties with Mancunian Gay – including the occasional sharing of content. This was, in part, because of our shared goals but also a result of a longer standing connection between the gay populations of the two cities. I still don’t understand why there was this connection but it was certainly demonstrated by the fact that a number of GEM contributors had been former residents of Manchester.
Our Achievements and Our Demise
In it’s short life span we did manage to achieve a few things. Firstly, our circulation area grew from the cities of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to as far afield as London and Edinburgh.
Secondly, we covered issues that weren’t being discussed elsewhere, even in the gay press. Things like paedophilia, male prostitution, black gays, misogyny in gay men and lesbian health. This probably also contributed to our demise because this simply wasn’t mainstream entertainment. People just didn’t want to know about a lot of this stuff.
And thirdly, we got the message out about AIDS at an early stage in the crisis. In so doing we, hopefully, made a difference to a few people’s lives. We ran a series of stories on AIDS: initially we presented the few clinical facts that we had (symptoms, lack of treatments and possible prevention strategies – “Avoid the direct exchange of bodily fluids”). We listed sources of information and in one issue we included an AIDS information leaflet from the Gay Medical Association. Then we looked at the wider issues.
We did an interview with a San Francisco AIDS worker on the response in San Francisco. And we ran an article about the need for gay men to communicate about AIDS – their fears and their sexual practices. And, of course, we were attacked by some sections of the gay community for ‘scaring people’ by talking about AIDS too much!
Ultimately our good intentions and lack of experience got the better of us. We were ripped off by some gay advertisers (who wouldn’t pay for their ads). And whilst distribution so far and wide was a big ego trip for us it was also completely uneconomical. So we shut down less than a year after we started.
But I still believe that we reached a few people and changed a few lives for the better. We made an interesting appearance in a Central Television documentary on young gays. This took the form of a shot of the cover page, followed by someone opening it to reveal our ‘Gay Info’ listings section. Then a shot of the paper in the window of Blackthorn Books in Leicester, before one final shot of the street on which Blackthorn Books stood! They couldn’t have made it any clearer to any interested viewers how they might get a copy! We also got an honourable mention in the national gay paper ‘Out’, which described us as the best model for a gay community newspaper.
Following the demise of GEM, Richard McCance initiated a smaller publication, ‘Gay Nottingham‘ in 1985, for distribution in that city. In 1987 this then grew into ‘Metro Gay‘ with a larger distribution area that included the nearby cities of Leicester and Derby. These publications were, in turn, superseded by ‘Outright‘ in 1989, produced by a wider group of gay men and lesbians.
Meanwhile, in Manchester, Mancunian Gay eventually ceased publication, although after a much greater life span than GEM. ‘Gay Life‘ then went in to production to take up where MG left off. Sadly, none of these publications is still running – in Manchester or Nottingham. No doubt similar publications have been produced across the country at various times and with various fortunes. Whatever their fates, it is important to remember that they have played as valuable a role in gay and lesbian history as any national publications. Perhaps one day they’ll all get the attention they deserve (and a lot more of them will join GEM here online).