“For us, it’s not just about doing the same old things, but it’s about reacting to the needs of our communities”
BY ELEANOR NOYCE, IMAGES BY DR VIVIENNE SMITH
Now working for the NHS after retraining as a psychologist, Dr Vivienne Smith is originally from South Africa. She moved to the UK in 1998 and connected with LGBTQI charity London Friend, joining as a Data and Monitoring Officer. Volunteering with the organisation’s drug and alcohol service, Antidote, she’s a long-standing figure in London Friend’s history. Viv has recently joined London Friend as a trustee and has taken on the role of safeguarding lead, providing support to the staff team around issues of risk and safety in relation to their work. Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, Dr Vivienne and I caught up over Zoom to discuss her involvement with the charity and its legacy in supporting LGBTQI women in the Capital.
Could you tell me a little bit about your personal journey with LGBTQI politics?
I’m South African by birth and I became active in queer politics in the 1990s. In 1995, I started working for the African National Congress, and I started getting involved not just in equalities and democracy in South Africa but also in queer politics. I worked on the constitution and for the ANC, and then I worked as a parliamentary researcher. I started volunteering as the chair for the Western Cape Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality, and at my first Pride March in Cape Town, it was still illegal to be gay. Eventually, the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality achieved getting non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation into the Bill of Rights. It was a massive thing in South Africa. I came to the UK with my partner in 1998 and politics was very different. Activism was very different, and I discovered London Friend in 2011.
What is your relationship with London Friend and with LGBTQI activism in the UK?
A job came up at London Friend for database work, and I got it. I realised very quickly how much London Friend was doing for different parts of our communities and I think I hadn’t found a place that fitted in that way since I left South Africa. When I started, I was helping to organise counselling assessments and then I volunteered for the Drug and Alcohol Service Antidote. Not only did London Friend give me a job and get me involved back into community politics but also gave me a space to start practising as a psychologist, which I’d recently trained as.
What is your perspective on London Friend’s history as a woman, and as a lesbian?
London Friend was an offshoot from the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. Lesbians were not part of this campaign in a direct way since it was primarily organised by gay men, though lesbians were involved in the campaigning aspect. London Friend came out of the recognition of the need for more emotional support for LGBTQI Londoners. This was set up as a separate organisation to CHE in the sense that the CHE was the political campaigning wing and London Friend became the space for support and connection.
Women have always been a part of London Friend, and what started to emerge was a mixed space. There was a group called Onyx that was a group for Black lesbians that London Friend hosted between 1989 and 1991, and I think there’s a sense of an organisation rooted in a particular piece of campaigning that recognises the social needs of the communities it supports. We’ve also got our long-running group called Changes, which is for LGBTQI women and non-binary people. We also host organisations like KENRIC, a lesbian group, and the Beaumont Society and Say It Loud, which is a group for LGBTQI asylum seekers from Africa. We worked with the National LGBT Partnership and helped to establish the LBT Woman’s Health Week, and the work we’ve done around trans women in that regard too is really important.
Finally: what is your favourite thing about London Friend’s history? Maybe an anecdote or a fact?
We had a knock on the door at the building one day and there was a family stood outside. They wanted to know whether we were still around – they were a gay couple that had met at one of London Friend’s support groups in the 1980s. They’d got married, adopted children, and brought them to the building to come and see the place they met which truly symbolises the importance of London Friend and the work that it’s done.
Another story is the Black lesbian refugees who were asylum seekers: they had fled and come here with nothing. They didn’t have any money for travel, and we were able to provide funding and establish free counselling, support and English classes. Later on, some of these women became volunteers. They got their citizenship, and I think this really typifies what London Friend represents, which is a real space for all parts of our communities to come and get what they really need. Sometimes that is quite cutting-edge, hard work like the drug and alcohol service, therapy or social support, but we are able to provide a space for LGBTQI people to meet with others and to celebrate our diversity. For us, it’s not just about doing the same old things, but it’s about reacting to the needs of our communities. It’s that mentality that’s kept us going for 50 years.
London Friend is the UK’s oldest lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans charity established in 1972. Planning a year-long 50th-anniversary celebration, London Friend has big plans for 2022: highlighting London’s diverse LGBTQ+ community by featuring 50 inspirational LGBTQ+ Londoners, commemorating the heritage of the capital’s LGBTQ+ movement by producing an interactive timeline of archive and shared oral histories and hosting series of wellbeing events culminating in a big birthday bash in the summer. Find out more about how the charity is going to celebrate their half a century here.
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