The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

gay skinhead

When gay men decided to appropriate the skinhead look in the 1980s, they didn’t reckon on the opposition of some lesbians who saw it as fascist and violent. Only in the 1980s!

Skinhead look – from Jamaica to the gay scene

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. But then it disappeared, almost, in the mid-70s.

When it re-emerged in the late 1970s, the element of violence became more central to the look. Not to say that all skinheads were thuggish but c’mon, they certainly weren’t into peace and love. If you saw a group of skins walking towards you in 1979, you ran for it. Fact. I was there. And I ran.

After the success of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, the knuckle draggers in the extreme-right National Front and British Movement finally realised the power of music as a political recruitment tool. So, they started infiltrating the skinhead scene.

You then had a cohort of skinhead Nazis on the streets and a rise in attacks on Asians in particular. LGBT people didn’t do too well either if they crossed the path of the bovver boots and braces. The phrases used at the time were “paki bashing” and “queer bashing”.

There was a letter to my local newspaper around 1978 when a gay guy had been beaten up by a skinhead gang congratulating them for performing a ‘public service’.

Gay skinhead men there from the beginning?

The skinhead scene was ultra-macho and the look was almost fetishistic. So, with delicious irony, it was appropriated by gay men in the 1980s. Possibly reflecting a growing defiance within the gay community, especially with the onset of HIV and the tabloid newspaper taunting of gay men as they died of the virus – referring to it as a ‘gay plague’.

Or – let’s not rule out the possibility that gay men were in the skinhead scene from the outset. Closeted or even actively gay. I think it’s worth mulling over this idea – not so much that gay men took over the skinhead look but that gay men had been adopting the skinhead look all along.

There’s certainly some evidence that gay men were drawn to the skinhead look in the 1970s and 1980s because of its masculine look while a minority, let’s countenance the unpalatable, were attracted by neo-fascism.

However, most gay skinheads viewed themselves as a ‘minority’ and like most LGBT people in the 1980s saw their political home on the Left. Even if they did frequent the same Carnaby Street shops as the straight skins, a significant percentage of whom were on the far Right in the early 1980s.

So successful was the growing gay skinhead scene by the mid-1980s, that a party was organised by the Gay Skinhead Movement at the London Lesbian and Gay Centre on Cowcross Street near Farringdon tube station. Don’t bother looking for it now – it’s a soulless wine bar for the local white collar droids.

The centre had been set up and funded by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone in 1985 as part  of its much mocked and reviled (in the tabloid press) pro-LGBT policy. From the outset though, the centre witnessed the sort of identity politics infighting that only the 80s could produce (though now being revived with equal vehemence).

Lesbian mothers took issue with strident S&M lesbians. All of them weren’t sure if they wanted bisexual men in the building in case they hit on them. And, needless to say, gay skinheads were not welcome at all by those lesbians who thought the appropriation of a ‘fascist’ look was in poor taste.

The day arrived for the proposed gay skinhead Moonstomp Disco and all hell let loose. There were howls of protest that the centre was being “invaded” by Nazis. The report from Out magazine is below – read and weep.

I once went to a curious function called Sadie Masie at the centre – which as you can guess was pretty much full on S&M. Not being a sado-masochist myself, I found the evening curious but made my excuses at some point and slipped in to the night.


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