The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

gay skinhead

The UK’s first gay skinhead disco back in the 1980s was gleefully anticipated by hundreds of…..gay skinheads. They’d booked the London Lesbian and Gay Centre (LLGC) in Farringdon, central London, hoping for a fun night of acting tough and playing rough. One of many sub-sets of the gay scene from leather to rubber to track suits to executive suits – whatever turns you on. And back in the 1980s, skinhead gays just wanted a safe space to snarl at each other without fearing the consequences.

The LLGC was such a safe space. It had been set up and funded by the Greater London Council shortly before that layer of democratically elected government was abolished by Margaret Thatcher. The centre managed to limp on for another five years but not without controversy and in-fighting.

This included heated debates – very typical of the time – on whether those practising S&M or bisexuals should be allowed to use the LLGC. Why? Well, sadomasochism was held by some at the centre to be oppressive and lesbian mothers said they didn’t want their children exposed to the practice – especially the use by S&M practitioners of Nazi symbols. Also to be found on some gay skinheads.

As for bisexuals, some lesbians fretted that bi men might hit on them. This kind of echoes the whole Terf v Trans row we see today. That stance was terminated early on mercifully – and the bisexuals were allowed in. It was against this backdrop of identity politics bickering that the Gay Skinhead Movement decided to organise its Moonstomp Disco. No sooner had the event got underway than a group of women yelled out that the centre was under “invasion” from fascist skins.

Despite that, the disco went ahead and Out magazine reported that the women concerned didn’t get their way. The Gay Skinhead Movement said it was relieved not to be banned and that the event was crucial for gay skins in the provinces who often felt isolated. For my part, as a non-skin gay man, I just didn’t get the censorious attitude of the disco’s opponents. Especially when the Tory government of the time had just introduced Clause 28 stopping LGBT issues being discussed in schools. We needed more free speech in our society – not less.

Yes, the extreme neo-Nazi right (British Movement and National Front) had been infiltrating the working class, skinhead scene since the late 1970s. And as a result – both gays and Asian youth had been subjected to years of “queer bashing” and “paki bashing” – pardon the language but this is how it was described gleefully by racist skins. But now – gay men were appropriating the the skin look – drawing out its toxicity. Well, that’s what I thought.

How did the skinhead scene go wrong?

The skinhead look had been on a journey. It was borrowed from Jamaican culture by white working class kids in the 1960s who hated the whole ‘peace and love’ hippy scene. They wanted to be sharply dressed and their scene overlapped with the Mods. They liked reggae, ska and other music that had originated in the Caribbean. These skins often lived cheek by jowl with immigrants from the Commonwealth so the influences are not surprising. However, the culture of violence within the skinhead world grow during the 1970s.

The whole thing about people having their head ‘kicked in’ simply for wandering into the path of a pack of skins. Makes me shudder to think about it. I still have a fond memory of running from a bunch of skinheads with the Neanderthal leader pounding towards me and my mates holding a knife in one hand and an axe-handle in the other. Circa 1978. That was the year of the massive Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism carnivals headlined by The Clash and the Tom Robinson Band.

The neo-Nazis noted the left’s successful use of music for political ends and sought to emulate this by creating their own music scene via the skins. On 18 August 1979, the Conway Hall in London witnessed the inaugural gig of Rock Against Communism (RAC). The Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group turned up, not to arrest the neo-Nazis but to bundle away the anti-fascist protestors. RAC had emerged from a National Front initiative, Punk Front, which of course claimed to be the genuine voice of the oppressed working class embattled by immigration, blah, blah, blah. Their agenda was to rest punk from alleged left-wing control and that meant terrorising bands with left-wing views and wrecking gigs.

By 1980, skins had adopted a predictable uniform of bomber jackets, bovver boots, Union Jack NF T-shirts and a love of Nazi salutes. Bored, maybe unemployed, drunk and/or high on amphetamines, they meted out street beatings in a style reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. In 1981, the murder of an Asian youth in Coventry led to one of the many inner-city riots that summer.

2Tone ska tries to steer skins away from racism

The 2Tone variant of ska that exploded out of Coventry attempted to steer skinheads away from racism with a message of black and white unity. But in my conversations with Pauline Black and Neville Staple, while many skinheads were good types – the neo-Nazi influenced elements turned up to gigs and made the whole experience horrific. Pauline once said in a filmed interview that she had to perform while the front row of kids shouted Sieg Heil and gave Hitlerite salutes.

2Tone came and went between 1979 and 1981 (you can dispute it if you wish) and the skin scene came to be dominated by Oi! This was sold to us as a genuinely working class genre of music expressing the rage of youth on bleak council estates. An alternative and less charitable view was that some of the bands and individuals associated with the genre had a less than tolerant view of British blacks and Asians. Take, for example, the gentleman who appeared on the album cover of a compilation of Oi! songs released by Decca Records in 1981 called Strength Through Oi!

Hang on a moment – Strength Through Oi! Why – that sounds like the Nazi government initiative: Strength Through Joy. But of course the similarity was purely incidental….according to supporters of Oi! music. However, what couldn’t be denied was that the shirtless thug on the front sticking his boot out at ya was Nicky Crane – a British Movement thug sent to prison in 1981 for a planned attack on a group of black youth in Woolwich Arsenal. He reacted to his sentence with a Nazi salute to the court. Crane‘s real name was Nicola Vincenzo Crane. He was a member of the British Movement and had a record of brutality against black and Asian people going back at least three years.

But more on Signor Crane in a moment.

Gay skins versus Nazi skins – maybe not

Back to the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in the late 1980s. It truly was a vibrant hub of activity. At a time that was tough for LGBT people. The AIDS pandemic was at its height and we all knew people stricken and very likely to die. The Thatcher government contained some (but not many) sympathetic voices. The Iron Lady herself drove through legislation – speaking in favour of it at Tory conference – that criminalised ‘promoting’ LGBT in any way in schools through local government funding. In another blog post, I detail some of the dreadful homophobic stuff said in the House of Lords when the infamous Clause 28 was being passed.

FIND OUT MORE: Homophobia in the House of Lords in the 1980s

The LLGC carried on regardless. Saturday women-only discos. Lesbian Theatre Groups. Gay multi-racial meetings. Etc. And it should be said that the centre was a strong promoter of lesbian social activities. How shameful it is today that we have to raise the issue of lesbian ‘invisibility’. Though it’s equally a shame that this reduction in visibility is deployed as a stick to beat trans people. Oh well. Back to the plot.

So, the Gay Skinhead Movement decided to hold its Moonstomp disco. And the lesbians cried out against the fascist invasion. And the skin response in today’s parlance was basically: get a life we’re just doing skinhead cosplay, appropriating the look of our tormentors – don’t you get it?

What’s become clear to me in recent years is that the situation wasn’t so cut and dried.

Because you may be assuming, dear reader, that back in the 1980s, Nazi skins were in that corner over there and gay skins were in the opposing corner. Not true. In fascinating testimonies and academic studies over the last few years, we can now see that there were many different routes to becoming a gay skin. For some gay skinheads it was indeed cosplay. For others a dislike of ‘femme’ gays – displaying a toxic masculinity every bit as bad as your average straight misogynist. But here’s the rub…

Because the lesbians may have been on to something that night. We now know that some gay skins started out as fully fledged neo-Nazi skins. Fascist before being reconciled to their sexuality. Maybe their fascism was a way of trying to repress their homosexuality. But you can never keep a good thing down. And don’t assume that having come out loud and proud, that these gay skins had fully ditched their former views.

And that brings me back to Signor Crane.

You remember him? Sticking his foot at you on the album cover. Snarling face. Serial thug and convict. Well, Crane was an LGBT skin. An unashamed Nazi who once said that “Adolf Hitler was my God”, he would later become a regular feature on the gay clubbing scene as a clubber and a bouncer. He kept quiet about his views as the 1980s progressed though the Nazi tattoos always took some explaining. Though in the post-punk world of the time plenty of people, who should have known better, toyed with the swastika for shock effect.

As for “queer bashing”, that favourite activity of neo-Nazi skinheads, Crane said he’d always managed not to get involved in that. Though bashing ethnic minorities was fine by him. And his violence clearly didn’t stop despite hitting the gay clubs. In 1984, Crane led an attack by neo-Nazis at a left-wing gig organised by Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council. Thankfully he was beaten back by a group of striking miners. It’s more than likely he was still involved in neo-Nazi thuggery throughout the decade even after he was outed as gay by the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight.

In 1992, on a Channel 4 late night chat show, Crane talked about why gay men liked the skinhead look. This proved to be too much for his former neo-Nazi associates. Crane was denounced and cast out by lovers of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. But he was already a sick man. On 7 December, 1993 aged just 35, Crane succumbed to AIDS.

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