Camden Lesbian Centre
See you at the Lesbian Centre!
Lesbian venues are closing all around us. Women’s centres and squats have become the stuff of historical walking tours. It is hard to believe that there was a time when London was brimming with spaces where all manner of lesbian groups could meet to socialise and organise. However, the images below tell another story. In fact, for nearly ten years Camden was home to the country’s only dedicated lesbian centre.
Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group
The seeds for the Camden Lesbian Centre (CLC) were sown in 1982 when a group of lesbians began planning together after meeting at the Kentish Town Women’s Workshop. In 1984 the Camden Black Lesbian Group was formed and it was agreed that the two groups would merge and that 50% of the CLC should be made up of Black lesbians. In addition, the Black Lesbian Group (BLG) would continue to operate as an autonomous group.
An early questionnaire aimed at the BLG explains, ‘Black lesbians have long been invisible and our needs have been ignored. The CLC is our chance to improve things for our community’. The group used ‘Black’ in the wider, political sense and welcomed:
sisters of First Nation/Third World descent… lesbians descended from African, Asian (i.e. the Middle East to China, including the Pacific nations) and Latin America (Third World people) and lesbians descended from the original inhabitants of Australasia and North America (First Nation peoples).
After two years of searching for a property CLC were finally offered a building on the Somers Town Estate between King’s Cross and Euston. On 27 February 1986, at what was by all accounts an extremely raucous public meeting, Camden council granted a change of use order for 54-56 Phoenix Road despite protests from locals. Protests included shouted threats and a petition highlighting ‘the moral danger’ to ‘young girls going to school in the near vicinity’.
The property was relatively small but funding for renovations from Camden Council Women’s Committee was secured. The all-women Strawberry Builders Co-op and Matrix (a collective of women architects which had at one time been funded by the Greater London Council) were consulted and work began. England had its first lesbian centre.
Fun for all the ‘pretended’ family
Despite continued local threats, including a handwritten note threatening to set fire to the street and signed by The Firm, CLC held a grand opening on Saturday 31 October 1987. The centre ran for many years and housed groups such as the lesbian disability group GEMMA and Zamimass, a significant Black lesbian organisation that promoted a Black lesbian and gay section on the Pride march.
It provided classes in everything from batik to lesbian herstory (as feminists sometimes renamed history), and organised trips out of London to conferences and the seaside. The women of the centre and associated groups campaigned against the likes of Section 28 and provided all manner of services for lesbians.
By the early 1990s however funding troubles became an increasing burden and ultimately the centre closed.