Peter Davey interviewed the inspirational Shirley Law recently. She talked to us about her experiences being openly gay in Plymouth from the 60’s onwards and her life as an activist in the Peace Movement through to the 80’s and today.
Shirley lived in Stonehouse for 8 years; The Clarence was her local and Shirley loved it there. She described the fun they had; discos and karaoke nights, as well as drag, acts from Brighton and London occasionally. There was a good community around the pub including all ages old enough to drink.
Shirley, who now leads African drumming groups, was in her first drumming group at the Clarence and told us of her first experience drumming live there. They were asked to stop after 30mins because they had near on caused a riot. At first, people were just dancing on the little dance floor they had. But it soon spread to the dancing on the benches and tables, knocking drinks everywhere and leaving the floor something more like an ice rink. It was fun and everyone had a good time, but it was clearly a big mess as well.
Shirley, who was not so keen on the clubs on Union Street, preferring a good pub, used to go to The Swallow too, but she felt safer at The Clarence. She explained that this was because there were no other pubs around; though there was never any violence at The Swallow, people would wander in from other pubs, drunk men mostly, and get leery at the regulars.
“The, the whole thing was nice and calm and what have you, you know, because sometimes you do… there have been times when, it has not been that easy to sort of stand up and say well actually I go to the gay pubs because I am gay… there isn’t any more of that thankfully, um, I think that we have come a long way since when I first came out and said I was gay.”
Shirley recalled for us how her coming out was not taken positively. In her day they expected girls to come out of school, get married and have children. So, she did pretend for a long time to be ‘one of those people’ and got married to a lovely man and had children. Shirley brightly talked about how different it was for her eldest son who is also Gay, and the difference a generation made. She explained to us how much more support there was, and how much easier that support was to find.
“Because I was gay and had always been, and um just sort of did what was expected of me, it has been lovely that I have been able to sort of be there for my son knowing that he has back up as well because it was not like that when I was younger, it just was not like that, you didn’t stand up and say I’m gay, the girls would get married and have children and probably have a very happy marriage, but that was not them…”
Shirley told us about the change that time made to the sense of fear people used to feel:
PD: “What were they afraid of ?”
SL: “Retribution, I think. Gettin’ a good kickin’; bein’ followed home at night, that sort of thing. Um, there was, a lot of, y’know, quite serious injuries people were gettin’ just because they were seen coming out of a gay pub back in the 50’s and the 60’s, and the blokes well they didn’t, they didn’t say they daren’t say that they were gay, because that was against the law for them.”
Unfortunately, due to an abusive female neighbour, Shirley was forced to move out of Stonehouse.
Towards the end of her time in Stonehouse Shirley had taken in her mother who was ageing and needed support. But she developed leukaemia and had to put her mother into a nursing home as she could not complete chemotherapy and care for her. Her neighbour decided that she was chasing her mother out ‘after only 5 mins living there’ and told her that she should be ashamed of herself for putting her mother in a home. This was the first in a long line of verbal and physical abuses that centred on the fact that Shirley was gay and a peace activist. She had everything from her laundry being thrown on the ground, to her guests being verbally assaulted on her doorstep and she herself being physically rough handled as she tried to close her front door on the woman abusing her… though Shirley herself has no idea how the woman knew she was gay as they did not speak. However, she noted that whilst she never announced her sexuality, she never denied it when asked directly either.
Eventually, Shirley was supported to go to the police, who could do nothing as it was one woman’s word against the others. But she was given a log book by Plymouth Community Homes (who were then part of Plymouth Council). Shirley commented on how supportive they were and how much better it made her feel. Before the support from the police and ouncil she had been feeling like she was making a fuss about nothing. Now she could tell people who believed her it made all the difference.C
Because Shirley was a council tenant and the neighbour owned her flat eventually she was rehomed in another area of Plymouth in a new flat. Looking back Shirley thanks her neighbour for that, it gave her a lovely home and on reflection, whilst it was not fun to live through, in hindsight she feels sorry for that woman. Shirley noted to us that if all her neighbour had had in her life was the abuse she gave others, that is terribly sad for her.
Shirley spoke of her passion for listening to people and talking to them. She originally trained as a nurse and then, after developing arthritis in her back became a support worker for the Eddystone Trust (then the Plymouth Eddystone Group). They were both jobs she loved and was sad to leave, especially as she came to view those she supported the Trust as a family. But alongside this expression of her passion, she developed another for the Peace Movement.
She recalled to us the day she realised it. Shirley was 15 or 16 and had gone to the local cinema. At this time there were always two features; a B movie and the Feature, separated by the Pearl and Dean ads. Shirley never saw the feature movie. The B movie had been a documentary on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She recalled to us leaving the cinema early because she was so angry, so angry that people could do things like that to others. Then she described going from being angry to crying, and this is what set her on her path.
At that time the local minister was the Rev. John Crisp and Shirley recalled that he was an activist in his way too. Shirley joined him and others on an Aldermaston Nuclear Disarmament March to Trafalgar Square. Her parents were livid but she did it and came home ‘with the most wonderful blisters’ to which her parents told her 'that it served her bloody right'.
From the Aldermaston March Shirley started to attend meetings connected with disarmament and the peace movement. In 1985 she joined the ‘South West Women’s walk for Peace’ run by a North Devon group of women. For 3 weeks Shirley walked 15 miles a day, joining the March from Plymouth and heading to Greenham Common RAF Airbase (which also had a US presence at the time). Shirley described how the women from North Devon had made contacts in every place they stopped and that people opened their homes to them to give them somewhere to sleep, a meal and shower.
At Greenham she met a lot of like-minded women and ended up living in Orange Camp for 2 years due to her wonderful husband who was happy to look after the boys whilst she did so. Indeed, the day they brought the missiles to Greenham her whole family were there with her.
Shirley described life on Greenham Common in Orange Camp, where they did ‘quite a few really naughty things’. Her funniest memory was the meeting where they decided to get rid of 9 miles of fence. There was a camp at every gate and each camp was responsible for their section of fence. 'It was quite easy really… it rolled up like carpet!' and in the morning almost all of the 9 miles of fence was gone bar a few 100 meters, into which they had cut a hole and hung a sign saying ‘public access’… because unlike most commons, trespass in Greenham was a criminal offence due to the base.
She recalls that the men at the base gave them a lot of abuse: they were ‘dirty, filthy women who should be at home with their children.’ The men there could also be quite rough with them, Shirley recalls this was particularly true if they were found by the Americans before the British, though she noted that the bailiffs and police could be just as rough as them. Shirley recounted the numerous times the police watched as the bailiffs manhandled the women so they could throw their tents and sleeping bags in ‘the muncher’. She recalled one day in particular which saw most of the women at court supporting others who were on trial. Only two women were left at each gate. The bailiffs arrived and destroyed the entire camp. Shirley rang the newspapers and by 6pm that evening due to the support of locals they had everything back, from blankets to a new heavy-duty plastic to make ‘benders’ (what the women in camp called their new plastic tents) which they could afford to lose to ‘the muncher’ rather than the endless tents and sleeping bags.
Shirley did go to court for her actions in support of the peace movement. A Plymouth judge once told her that she needed to learn to behave like a normal grandmother and take up knitting and if she must protest that she should go somewhere else to do so. So that summer she went to the Faslane peace camp in Scotland and wrote the judge a postcard informing him that she was elsewhere and had learnt knitting. A court usher later told her on a return appearance at court that the judge had received the postcard just before his retirement.
Shirley has supported activism in Plymouth, protesting at the dockyards many times but notes she would not do so today due to the increased security and armed guards. She feels that support for the Peace Movement and Greenpeace suffers in the city due to the high transience of the population. Her group get a lot of support from students but all too soon those students graduate and move on.
Shirley also notes that Plymouth is a difficult place to campaign as so many are tied to the dockyards and armed forces. It still worries her with ‘Maggie May’ and ‘Trumpton’ in charge (the latter worrying her enough to note that it would be scary if she thought too much about it). But she has hope, noting that people today care, more than they did when she started campaigning: ‘People want to help more now, whereas they could not care less before. … Nothing has changed in campaigning, but people have changed.’
“(laughter)… we do annoy people, um, but its something that I feel, I feel I have to do…. And whether people take any notice or not, well I’ve done my bit.”