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John McGarry

John McGarry, born 1937, died 1st November 2008


John McGarry was a 70 year old gay man at the time of his interview, in which he talks of his experiences of being gay in 1960’s Birmingham. He discussed cottaging in detail and also gay bars of the 1960s. John gave his thoughts on the pressures faced by gay men in that decade. He also discusses fashions of the time and compares aspects of today’s gay scene today with then.


Cottaging – 40 50 60 70 80 90
Police activity/arrests 40
Early Life – 10 30
Terminology – 20, 120
Gum Clinics – 100
Finding men - 60
Gay Men in the 1960s - 110
Victim : Film - 120
Coming Out - 30 130
Gay Bars in the 1960’s – 140 150 160 190 200
Coffee Shops – 170 180
Fashion and appearance – 110 220
Smoky bars – 190
Music in bars – 200 250
Ageism - 250
Drag Queens - 240
Married men / pressure to get married 80 35
Civil partnerships –280
Sexual practices 80 100
Under age sex and rent boys110 170 180
Sombrero 170
Imperial Hotel 140
Temple Bar 120
Exchange Bar 130
Laurie Williams 190
Trocadero 190
Round the Horn – 200
Shirley Bassey – 240
Women’s access to bars 270
Male / female mix 270

10 Moving to Birmingham in 1960

John moved to Birmingham when he was 23 for a work promotion with the railways, in1960. Access to other gay men was not a factor in his decision to move to Birmingham.

20 Terminology

John says the words “queer” and “bluebell” were common terms for gay people in c1960.

30 Accepting his sexuality

As a child, John had sexual experiences with adults and talks about this in the context of growing awareness of his sexuality. As an adult, John didn’t worry too greatly about his sexuality - he accepted it was a secret which needed to be kept.

35 Pressure to get married in the 1960s
John had a ‘pseudo girlfriend’ in the early 1960s; “She definitely liked me, the most she even got from me was a peck on the cheek”. He talked of the pressure to get married. He said that many of the fellow pupils with whom he had had homosexual experiences as an adolescent, got married and shut the door on homosexuality. From his early 20s, the pressure to get married increased. Marriage was important to a man’s career, because it was ‘unusual’ not to be married, which he said affected chances of promotion.

40 Cottaging friend arrested 1960s
“I remember a friend of mine had picked up a trainee policeman in a cottage in Plymouth, they did not realise the cottage had no roof, it was a cast iron street urinal, and the police were peering over the top. Because the guy was a trainee policeman and my friend was a school teacher they wanted to throw the book at them, before the case came to court the policeman was caught again and my friend was given a conditional discharge, he resigned from his school and moved back to Birmingham.”

50 Cottaging : like a 1960s gay guide!

“Everybody cottaged, through cottaging I found out where the bars were! Every bus station and every railway station had a cottage frequented by gays in the 1960’s. ‘The train and bus stations were always a bit more dangerous, there were always other places which were much safer and were more outrageous, most for example had holes in the walls, some even had chunks of wall missing so you could go from one lock up to the next. Because I did a lot of travelling from 1963 onwards if I went to a strange town I went to the bus station or the train station. In an hour you could find exactly where to go as chatting to people in the cottages, it was a sign post, you did not need pink paper or a gay guide.”

80 Cottaging : General
John went cottaging “every few evenings” in the early 60s. He rarely feared being caught by police. “The prime motivation was company, to meet someone nice, have sex and if possible take someone home”. People cottaged to be anonymous, so it was sometimes difficult to form relationships from them. In those days it (homosexual acts) was against the law and there was enormous pressure to get married. A lot of the men cottaging were not on the ‘scene’ and many of them were married. He talked about the kind of sex that occurred in cottages, and in detail about some of his experiences.

90 Notorious Cottages in the 60s
“There were some notorious cottages, such as the Silver Slipper on Station Street. There was an underground one on New Street Station before it was rebuilt and probably many more in the centre of town that I did not know about. I would also go out to Bearwood Park (Lightwoods) which is still there now, that had an interesting toilet where you would pick up men. Further round you would go towards Smethwick Park, which had another busy toilet. There was one towards Handsworth on the outer bus route, I would cycle out there and also by Dudley Road hospital by the side of the railway line there was a little triangle with a relatively tiny brick built toilet with two lock- ups facing each other, there was always a queue there”.

100 GUM (Genito-urinary) Clinic in the 1960s

“In those days I never used condoms, no one did, and only once did I have to go to the GUM clinic. In the early 1960s we went to Whittal Street GUM Clinic. They were quite anonymous so you could be honest and they would not tell the police. You were given a number and you waited, they called the number but sometimes they just called out your name, so it was not as anonymous as it could have been. It was very busy there and I never felt comfortable because of the stigma of going there”. John felt that medical people were more concerned with preventing and treating illnesses, as opposed to informing the police. John said “At that time most GPs believed homosexuality to be a mental illness”.

110 How to spot a gay man in the 1960s
John said ‘camp’ and ‘pretty’ men were known signs of homosexuality in the early 1960s. John said that clothing rarely gave any indication of a person’s sexuality then.
“I knew someone who ran a gym, and if he saw a very pretty boy he would invite him home for a personal massage. His argument was they are really pretty, then they are vain so play up to their vanity and they will play. I never got involved with any of his friends, they were all sixteen and seventeen and some had been in trouble with the law, it was a dangerous game he was playing.”

120 Victim – Film - 1961
‘Victim’, starring Dirk Bogard, was released in 1961 and shown widely across Britain. “He played the part of a barrister and was blackmailed; he was a covert gay man. Bogard projected a great deal of sensitivity, he was a top barrister with an opulent, comfortable lifestyle and it was the effect on him and eventually the decision he was going to come out with it”. “The cinemas were very busy, and as we were a minority the bulk of people viewing it were straights, I think the film was received generally sympathetically, ‘How awful that such a thing could happen’. In those days TV was still in its infancy so film carried a big punch”. Around this time, the word “consenting adults” came into currency, and he felt there was an overarching belief that homosexuals were viewed in this way.

130 No need to ‘come out’
John felt openness about his sexuality around heterosexual people was an ‘abuse’ of them because it was not taking their feelings into consideration. Heterosexual people have befriended him but he’s always kept that area of his life private, although they have known it. He did not have the feeling that he was restricted by this belief. He sees the modern interpretation of ‘coming out’, in which people are open about their sexuality, as self-indulgent.

140 Imperial Hotel
The main gay bar in the 1960s was the Imperial Hotel, which John used when he discovered gay bars. “The Imperial Hotel was a Trust House Hotel; oddly enough by then I was travelling and the main gay bar in Nottingham was also in a Trust House Hotel. When I first went into town the Imperial had been raided and everyone scared off and migrated across the road to the Trocadero”.

150 The Temple Bar
After the demise of the Imperial Hotel most people went across the road to the Trocadero, but the Temple Bar at the bottom of Temple Street was also gay in the mid sixties. John said there were a lot of newspaper reporters there for some reason.

160 The Exchange Bar
“In the mid 1960s before they rebuilt New Street station, on the front was the Station Hotel; roughly in the middle where the line of the Pallasades is now was the Exchange Bar. You went down stairs and it was a long white tiled bar, the first time I went I thought ‘God it’s like a cottage’. There were high partitions between the seats; it was like walking down a church aisle between rather high pews to the altar, which was the bar. It was fun in a way as when you turned round you could see who was in, the bar was very ‘cruisy’ but a bit rough sometimes”.

170 The Sombrero
“The Sombrero was a coffee bar on Horsefair, roughly on the corner where Holloway Circus is now. In those days one side of the pavement onto Bristol Road was too high, so there was a double step to reach the roadway. At ten o’clock when the bars shut, gay people would migrate there (to the Sombrero Café). Others would come who were not on the scene, some straights and some younger guys for pick ups, although I never did as I always thought they were untrustworthy. There was always someone hanging around outside looking for trade, the guys were around sixteen or seventeen.”

180 Rent Boys
John referred briefly to rent boys in Birmingham, 16-18 year olds. He said in Liverpool they had a reputation for being younger!

190 Smoky Trocadero
“In the mid sixties when I first started going into the Trocadero, I remember one Sunday night in November vividly. Laurie Williams came in dressed spectacularly in a pure white raincoat, he said his ‘hellos’, everyone called him ‘La Williams’. He could have only been in there ten minutes when I noticed the nicotine dripping of the roof onto his beautiful white coat, Brown globules of stale nicotine. It was also true to say that most long bars, like the Trocadero, had a blue haze and you could not see the far end of the bar clearly.”

200 No music in gay bars
John said in the ‘old days’ that most gay bars did not have music! A few had Juke Boxes. Some bars even turned the radio on to the light programme, “good fun on Sunday lunch times for ‘Round the Horn’. People talked and socialised, from there you were invited back to parties and homes, there were no clubs.”

220 Fashion and appearance deteriorated
John felt gay men have become more effeminate, which he found distasteful. He says gay men are now too scruffy in general, compared with how smart they were in the 1960s and 70s. He says gay men took more pride in their appearance. “On Thursday you would start to think about what you would wear on Saturday and it was your best, you went smart, we would not dream of going out looking scruffy.” There was a marked change in style in the 1970s from lots of suits and ties, high neck sweaters and very few jeans to an Americanisation of dress with “people looking like they had not had a bath for a week”.

240 Drag Acts

Drag Queens started to appear in pubs after the law change in 1967, Says Shirley Bassey was a gay icon from very early on, and was a popular subject for the female impersonators at the time. He says they would invariably mime, no-one thought to do anything live.

250 Ageism on the gay scene
“The gay scene here in Birmingham now tends to be quite ageist, so if you’re a ‘silver daddy’ like me you tend to be looked through rather than at, however that’s not a criteria for staying in, its usually the level of noise that puts me off, I like company and to chat”.

270 Male / female segregations
John said that “There are too many women in gay venues for my liking nowadays”, as compared with the gay bars he visited in Birmingham City Centre in the 1960s and 1970s. He felt there used to be a segregation between gay men and lesbians. Lesbians had a reputation for fighting. He said he felt a ‘negligible affinity’ with lesbians, and there was little sense, in the 1960s or 70s, of being in the same group.

280 Civil Partnerships
“Gay people have made great strides around the world, which I welcome. I welcome Civil Partnerships but I don’t want it to be called marriage, why adopt a straight term for something which is for our lifestyle, we don’t need it”.

290 Leaving and returning to Birmingham
John later left the railways and worked at Fort Dunlop – he discussed his experience of being gay in that workplace and said that being gay had not stopped him getting promotions. He and his previous partner Robin McGarry moved to Oxford in 1975. He moved back to Birmingham in 1999, and feels comfortable in the city because much of his past was in Birmingham.