In 1930 Rosy and I turned eighteen years old. To celebrate our 18th birthday, my sister and I went to the hairdressers and had the Eton cropped hairstyle made famous in the 1920s, so we could wear our cloche hats that only fitted properly if your hair was short. When I did look in the mirror, I was reminded of my encounter, as she had he same haircut. When we were seventeen, we had the bob cut and even though mother encouraged us, she told us this was considered daring and shocked the older citizens since hair had always been a girl’s crowning glory. My mother first had the bob cut right at jaw level and then a couple of years later she had the Eton crop too, which was more shorter and drastic. A lot of men hated it. However, my father didn’t mind it and we loved the new look our mother had and I remember telling her that when we were older we would have it too. We will always remember brushing our mother’s long red hair when we were young girls, but we really thought the new short cut suited her and she never left the house without a hat and gloves even later in life.
It was a few days before our birthday, I suggested having the Eton crop to Rosy and she said, “Yes! Lets do it”. We came out together arm in arm feeling like new women, refreshed and liberated. The world was at our feet and we knew it. We loved our new dresses that we recently bought which revealed our knees. We loved our long dresses too but being able to wear dresses and skirts at the knee was refreshing to us and we were always in them. We went for tea with Joe and William, friends of ours that we adored and met only a couple of weeks before at a nightclub. Even though they were in their late twenties, they could see we were very mature seventeen year olds, passing as eighteen years or older.
The fashion of that era had many pretty flapper dresses, shorter skirts and many favourite cloche hats of the 1920s, which continued to evolve up until the 1930s and beyond. The basic description of the cloche hat is that it is a very snug-fit hat that was often worn tilted, covering the forehead, yet allowing room for vision. Women wore cloche hats throughout the 20s and early 30s, which told everyone that you had short hair and only fitted properly if the hair was short. We had a number of these hats in different colours because Rosy and I were the same size and shape, so we shared our clothes, hats, shoes and jewellery. There was also a certain androgynous look to women’s fashion that borrowed from men’s clothing liberally as we embraced it all.
Rosy and I often went out wearing trousers, shirt, jacket and tie and when my parents first saw us coming down the stairs, the shocked look on their faces was worth all the weight in gold. They smiled and didn’t say much but Mother said, “Good on you girls.” Waving her hands and arms in the air, “Be free and have fun.”
She often told us how much she loved the new dresses with the dropped waist. “No more corsets is pure heaven.” As she twirled around the house, feeling light and free.
We rarely went out without wearing a hat and we just loved to accessorise with many long necklaces bracelets and shoes trimmed with sequins and material to go with our outfits. I remember it was an exciting time for women, not only in fashion, but also because women felt more confident and empowered. This new independence reflected in the fashions. Also, women over the age of twenty could now vote thanks to the suffragette movement and women in general that fought for this very important cause.
I don’t think the plight of women in the earlier centuries and of the suffragette movement is discussed or learnt in school as much as it should be and this makes me very sad indeed.
Yes, we did love to enjoy ourselves and go out to party but we also loved to stay home and read, paint, draw and spend time with our family.
My mother said to us once that she understood the need for young people like us to go out and party a lot and enjoy life to the full, because so many other young lives had been lost on the battlefields. Maybe she was right. I don’t know.
Rosy and I thrived on London’s social life. We were out most nights with friends to parties, nightclubs and cocktail bars to listen to jazz music and Dixieland bands where we let off steam by dancing the Charleston, Lindy Hop and Black Bottom dance until we couldn’t any more. We often smoked like our friends with long holders holding our cigarettes as many of us did at the time. I remember enjoying it immensely. It was a fun time for Rosy and as I said before, it was at one of the nightclubs in London where we met Joe and William. Straight away, we felt a special bond and connection. We kept in contact regularly and when we wanted to go out whether it was to party or for dinner, one of us called the other so we could meet up. We didn’t know at the time until much later that they were lovers. They would pick us up in their black Chrysler B70, which they told us they bought when it came onto the market around 1924. They would always make time to come in and talk with our parents and grandparents. Often my father would be in the garden and when they arrived and usually we would hear one or both yell out, “Hey Ludi, how are you going.” We knew then we better put our skates on and finish getting ready. They were very personable and everyone saw them as really beautiful, very funny and inspiring men and they were indeed popular. They were very affectionate and often came in for a cuppa and chat as all my family members loved to chat with them, for they found Joe’s artistic pursuits exciting and admirable and had even bought a piece of his art, which was a sculpture of a 1920s lady with her arms up-stretched wrapped in a shawl. It was glorious and similar to one the French sculptor, Pierre Le Faguays had done in the 1920s, except she was taller, wore a flowing dress and had a different finish, unlike Pierre’s piece that was nude, had green paint with a bronze patina on the drape.
It stood proudly on my parent’s walnut 1920s buffet. William was an architect and he also painted and wrote poetry so their was always colourful conversation to be had.
We often went with them on long drives in the countryside of England and would enjoy it. There was a time when we were walking through the hills after our picnic lunch that Rosy and I saw them kiss and cuddle. They knew they could be themselves with us and they told me much later that they suspected that I preferred to be intimate with a woman than a man.
I asked them when they first spotted it and they told me, “You were always preferring to dance with women. We saw you kiss a woman right on the lips once when you thought no one was looking.”
The only difference between Rosy and I really is that I am a lesbian and Rosy isn’t. Rosy often talked to me about my sexual preferences and told me she loved me no less and would never tell anyone, for she also understood the stigma and unjust laws that were currently in place in society and would never take that risk. Yet, I also thought it was a bit weird that we were twins and she had a preference for men and I women.
We understood completely why we hadn’t seen any real affection before expressed in public whether the relationship was heterosexual or not and because of the stigma attached to same sex relationships but we also realised that we all had been in very public settings. As we found some more friends that we knew we could trust, we found that when we were in social spaces that were either private or anonymous, they could be their true selves and even if they went into a bedroom to be on their own, we didn’t bother them but showed respect for we knew how hard it was.
I was told that in 1912 London’s first gay pub (as we now know the term), Madame Strindgberg’s “The Cave of the Golden Calf” opened in Heddon Street, off Regent Street, London. William and Joe went their often and William and Joe told me about ′The Gateways Club’, which was located at 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street, Chelsea, London. It was the longest-surviving such club in the world, opened by 1931and legally becoming a members club in 1936. It closed on Saturday 21 September 1985 after a period of only opening for a few hours each weekend. It was one of the few places in Britain where lesbians could meet openly.
I will tell you that shortly after it opened, I did experience a very special encounter with a very exciting woman. I did go there with Rosy as she didn’t want me to go alone and as we walked in women were dancing with women, having fun, laughing and kissing. It was like one big party. I met a woman called Beatrice who was very sure of herself, coming right up to us as we walked through the door. She was bubbly, kind and willing to please. Rosy and I stayed for longer than we were going to but we were enjoying our conversation with Beatrice who seemed to have come alone.
“I would love to go out to dinner with you sometime,” Beatrice told me as we were about to leave. I told her that I would love that too. Rosy told me that she really enjoyed the evening and liked Beatrice very much.
“She is so interesting”.
“I am really glad you are going out with her Violet”.
I was lonely, desiring affection and thinking about Rosy being in a relationship and I so desperately wanting one too, I knew that I deeply wanted that connection with someone.
I began to see Beatrice on a regular basis too where we couldn’t get enough of one another. I knew she was a free spirit and part of me didn’t want to fall in love with her because she told me she would be going on an archaelogical dig soon just not sure when or where.
“It was about two months in and I just couldn’t stop thinking about her. I knew it was more than just a crush.”
She was very masculine in her dress, always wearing trousers and a collared shirt and always with a messy ponytail. But, I thought she was sexy. Her hair was red like mine and her eyes were brown. I loved her eyes that exuded warmth and kindness and I felt like I was falling in love with her.
She certainly taught me how to love. I ended up staying with her a lot during the week. We often went to the gay club where we met and sometimes found ourselves almost counselling other women who would tell us how much they hated themselves sometimes and were sick of being different. We would try and empower them to embrace who they were and meant to be. So many hid from family and friends to save face and to save their career. They wouldn’t go out a lot with their female lovers together but usually just in a group so as not to be obvious because sometimes they would forget where they were and find themselves showing affection to one another realising that people are staring are showing their disgust. I will never forget what a friend of ours once said to us in the club, “we are rewarded to pretend something that we aren’t.”
We all just stood in silence for a second realising the enormity of what she had said.
I remember in those days I didn’t talk a lot about it and was very guarded with whom I did open up to. I suppose I didn’t want it to define me.
If I don’t want to share it with you, I won’t.
Sometimes it is all about our own privacy.
No one has the right to judge in the pursuit of someone’s happiness. It is all about personal growth and to be true to oneself.
Bea was such a gentle woman and I was attracted to her down to earth nature and intelligence. Right from the beginning, she let me, a complete stranger stay in her apartment, sleep in her bed, and explore her refrigerator, which was almost empty but still! It was probably because we ate out a lot. We simply were already so addicted to another. As my feelings for Beatrice or Bea as she liked to be called was intensifying, I knew I was losing her.
I have always loved reading about archaeology and we talked for hours on the subject. We saw each other for a few months and then she wanted to part ways because she was asked to go on a dig in Egypt and couldn’t say no. She thought it best that we didn’t wait for each other so that we could both explore other relationships.
She did tell me that she loved me but had to go.
I realized that I missed her terribly when she wasn’t around and felt a bit lost when she wasn’t there. That was the moment I knew I loved her.
Oh! Yes, you had to be discreet and I was aware from conversations in my childhood that gay couples had plenty of reasons to be discreet in the early 1900s. We learned that the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 made “gross indecency” a crime in the United Kingdom. The law was used broadly to prosecute male homosexuals where actual sodomy (until 1861 it had been death) was also so harsh that successful prosecutions were rare. Homosexuality remained illegal in Britain until 1967, so until then gay men and women had to hide who they were, and had to live under excruciating, cruel and soul-shattering circumstances. We had a number of friends who were sent to a mental hospital (as they were known back then) by family and were given ‘Conversion Therapy’, which was later replaced by ‘Aversion Therapy’ in the 1930s to treat such conditions. In the 1920s, conversion therapy could include months of psychoanalysis or biological procedures to ‘cure’ the problem, like injecting testosterone, surgery (like transplanting organs from a heterosexual male to a homosexual.) and sometimes even castration. These were attempts to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals. In the 1930s, it was predominantly ‘traditional aversion therapy’, which employed either chemical aversion or electrical aversion to change a person’s behaviour. Doctors wouldn’t let us or their family see them for awhile and the results were devastating.
I read in a journal once that said, “In one treatment method, gay volunteers had electrodes attached to their genitals and shown homosexual pornography. As the pornography played, the patients were injected with emetic drugs which are drugs that bring on nausea and vomiting and administered electric shocks. The shocks and emetics would then cease and the homosexual imagery would be replaced by heterosexual pornography, during which time the patient would not be abused”. So this meant that every time he saw a male form, he would feel nauseous and then throw up.
Just to skip a few years into the late 1940s, I remember, one of our friend’s mother Eileen sobbed to us one day, that her son was being brutalised and she was so confused and didn’t know what to do. Joe and William were wonderful and had a long talk with her and they all went with her to the hospital as she discharged her son. He was in a very bad way but she saved him from having a transorbital labotomy which the doctors were wanting to perform. It was an operation that had been given to patients since the 20th century who had supposedly ‘psychiatric illnesses’. The frontal lobes would be cut away from the rest of the brain leaving its victims docile, mute and compliant. We all knew that this so-called medical strategy was a huge failure of medical ethics, of patient treatment, and of neurological understanding of brain function and dysfunction. It was suppose to ensure a positive change in behaviour but it only severely damaged the person for life.
We should never incarcerate gay people for they must live a true existence. There is no cure for being gay it is who they are meant to be.
My family have always celebrated these wonderful, colourful gay men and women and it has always made me more proud of them. They never sat in judgement.
I am so glad we are more accepting and have somehow helped to shape contemporary attitudes towards same-sex intimacy and marriage but we still have a way to go.