Last year actress/singer and self-styled Daddy Dyke Lea Delaria was the executive project of The Lesbian Project It specifically highlights the fact that there are just 21 Lesbian Bars left in the whole of the USA. However De Laria insists that this is not a ‘sob story’, but for those of us unaware of how the landscape has changed so drastically, it is at least a shocking discovery.
There are no official figures for Lesbian Only Bars in the UK but our own research indicates there are now just three in the whole country. It is with this mind we eagerly looked forward to Jacquie Lawrence.‘s documentary GATEWAYS GRIND an affectionate profile of what was once the most famous lesbian club in the world.
It has a fascinating history that dates back to 1943 when Ted Ware won the lease to this small Chelsea basement Club in a boxing bet. In 1953 Ted married Gina Cerrato a glamorous actress when he was 55 and she was 31 years old. Initially, the patrons were arty types from the nearby Chelsea Art Club.
Gina gradually took over running the club during the late 1950s about the same time Smithy a member of the American Air Force who was posted to a base in Ruislip turned up on their doorstep and never left. “The Gates” had been one of the few places in the UK where lesbians could meet openly during the 40s, 50s, and 60s. so Gina made the club women-only. For many women, a visit to the Gateways was their first introduction to lesbian life.
The Danish/English broadcaster and political activist Sandy Toksvig acted as narrator in the film which she took on like a personal crusade. She tracked down a whole coterie of women all of whom had such fond memories of their experiences in the club. Even the more eccentric ones such as the artist Maggi Hambling who happily confessed to being thrown out and barred at times
Whilst Gina as the owner ran the Front of the House, but butch Smithy manning the Bar was the ‘enforcer’ who sorted out any trouble. The pair worked together very closely right up to the end of their lives, and everyone assumed they were a couple. Even Gina’s grown-up daughter also known as Gina had no idea until her mother was on her deathbed.
In the very early days, there were strict codes of practice that you had to adhere to i.e. you dressed and behaved as ‘butch’ or ‘femme’ and could never swap. It was a practice that working-class women ……often ex-married ones ….. would easily conform too, but which the more arty women had trouble accepting. By the ‘swinging sixties’ and liberation that all but disappeared.
One of the points that all the women interviewed shared was how diverse the club’s members were plus how easy it was to hook up with other women. As one remarked that it was often like a meat market ” I didn’t fall in love with anyone in Gateways , I just went to bed with them .”
Gateways was often the first place ever that so many closeted women came to ‘come out’ at least to the crowd in the club, if not to the outside world. They felt safe there: this was their sanctuary. Thanks to Queen Victoria who refused to accept that lesbians ever existed their activities were never made illegal ……..unlike gay men who were not legalized until 1969. But they were still not socially accepted so many remained at least partially closeted to avoid losing their jobs, their homes and their families.
Somehow to all these women, this 35 ft x 18 ft windowless cellar was the epitome of glamour. Partly because of it being lorded over by Gina with her film star looks and clothes. In fact in 1968 when Robert Aldrich shot a pivotal scene of his groundbreaking lesbian movie The Killing Of Sister George actually in Gateways every one assumed the glamours Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) was based on her.
The late 1960’s also bought about the formation of the Gay Liberation Front in London and the feminist members objected to the role-playing that many of Gateways members were clinging to. So they protested outside the Club not appreciating that any publicity is good publicity and may even more women aware of Gateway’s existence.
After watching Lawrence’s compelling documentary that records a crucial part of queer history, it is unsurprising that most of the contributors have nothing but fond memories. “Down the dark seedy stairs and through the dark seedy door there was heaven,” sighs artist Maggi Hambling
P.S. The title Gateway Grind is the name of a dance where women hold their partners so very tight against their body that they could actually achieve an orgasm …..or so they claimed
The film is being screened at Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival in Sydney + a shorter version can be screened on BBC I-Player
Review : Roger Walker-Dack
Editor in Chief : Queerguru Member of G.A.L.E.C.A. (Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association) and NLGJA The Association of LGBT Journalists. and The Online Film Critics Society. Ex Contributung Editor The Gay Uk & Contributor Edge Media Former CEO and Menswear Designer of Roger Dack Ltd in the UK one of the hardest-working journalists in the business' Michael Goff of Towleroad