“The Gates was often a haven for women who were in the closet for the rest of the week”


On Friday 25 March I had the pleasure of visiting BFI Flare for the world premiere of the feature-length-documentary Gateways Grind. The BFI was bustling with people chattering with excitement. As we sat in the audience we were taken on a journey through London’s lesbian history, with real life contributors who lived these experiences. As an audience, we laughed, cheered and stood on our feet clapping when the film came to an end. It was a sensational night, learning about the women of “The Gates”.

The iconic lesbian club, The Gateways in Chelsea on Kings Road, opened in the 1930s and was later won in a poker game by Ted Ware in 1943. Ted’s wife Gina and close friend Smithy took over the running of the club which became better known as “The Gates”. In 1967 the club became a women’s only members club. For many, entering The Gates was an introduction to lesbian life. Between the forties and seventies The Gates attracted queer folks from all walks of life and bought them together in this underground bar. The club had strict behavioural policies and, as Maureen Duffy explained, “rowdies or troublemakers” were often banned immediately. Being excluded in those days was more than just embarrassing, it was unbelievably inconvenient – the nearest alternative lesbian club would have been in Brighton.

During the eighties the club became quieter, probably because other lesbian and gay bars were opening in London. The local neighbourhood in Chelsea was also becoming more affluent. There were more complaints about the club, and in 1985 the club lost its late licence. Shortly afterwards, the famous green door subsequently closed forever.

Gateways Grind is set in a time of social transformation as women moved away from the secrecy of the closet. This film paints a vivid picture of lesbian life through the humorous, romantic and erotic accounts of the women who actually visited the club. Directed by the fabulous Jacquie Lawrence and produced by Fizz Milton and Lucie Warrington, it tells the story of London’s longest surviving and most iconic lesbian club. Presenter Sandi Toksvig takes us on a journey through lesbian London, revealing the legacy of the club from its original owner right through to it blossoming into a safe space for queer life. 

The Gates, in its time, had a bright green door and at the start of the film, Sandi approaches the door (now white) and starts repainting it green, before passing the job onto another woman. This moment symbolises the reclaiming of the space The Gates once occupied. Sandi Toksvig takes us through the green door, down the once “seedy” dark stairs and into the space many women described as “heaven”. As an audience, we got a real insight into the lives of the women who drank, danced and loved inside it. 

On the night of the premiere I had the opportunity to speak to one of the contributors and trustee of Queer Britain, Lisa Power. She described film as a “historical memorial about The Gateways Club” – a club she visited and was also thrown out of once! 

Chatting to Lisa she emphasised the “importance of remembering our past and that we commemorate it – that we talk about the women that came before me, who at times took their lives in their hands to be an out lesbian”. She continued, “You’ve got to remember this was a time you could be sacked for being a lesbian. If you were married and had children, you would automatically lose your children in a custody battle.” Lisa explained to me that because of this, “The Gates was often a haven for women who were in the closet for the rest of the week.”

I was keen to find out what it was really like, from someone who had been there. “It was small, it was dark and it was all women, except for Sunday lunchtimes, when women were allowed to bring gay male friends in.” Did she enjoy her times there? “I did enjoy my times at The Gateways, except for the time I was thrown out, and even that was quite fun really. I mean, for a young lesbian who had just come out, it was quite thrilling to be on the naughty step.” 

I also got the chance to speak with the fabulous Jacquie Lawrence, director of Gateways Grind, about what it this film meant to her. “I’m absolutely honoured to tell the story of the pioneers who went before us. Sandi Toksvig presents it and she’s not just a presenter – she really dug deep. She went to Gateways. She’s one of the women who tells their story. There’s so many incredible older women, some in their eighties, some in their nineties. One of our contributors, who unfortunately has passed, visited the Gateways in 1947 and so this film is an homage to her history, cultural history, social history and political history. It’s a hidden history, that’s never been told until tonight.”

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