At the vigil for Brianna Ghey in Soho Square we were encouraged to turn to the people next to us and tell them that they were loved. This was an important demonstration of solidarity at a time when most trans people in the UK will be feeling even more persecuted than usual. But it may not surprise you that my middle-aged cis-hetero English repression prevented me from participating.
That said, I have been thinking about my trans friends and comrades a great deal this last week. Young people talk about their “love language” and I guess, if that is a thing, then I will express my love through writing about the radical history of Hackney.
And radical history brings us nicely to the elders of the British trans community and what we can learn from them.
Roz Kaveney was born in 1949 and transitioned in her late twenties. She is a writer, critic poet and activist. Roz was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, helped found Feminists Against Censorship and is a past deputy Chair of Liberty (The National Council for Civil Liberties). Her life in London in the 1980s features in the superb Rebel Dykes documentary, which I would recommend to anyone without hesitation.
Roz moved to London in 1974 and “lived in various flats in the borough [of Hackney], in the middle and late 1970s.”. As she told Hackney Museum:
“My living in Hackney is very much a function of the housing situation for young queer people in late 1970s and early 1980s. It was possible to get a tenancy in Hackney, if you were young and vulnerable, and I got one.”
Roz’s collection of poems The Great Good Time (2022) reflects on her early time in Hackney, as she explains in the foreword:
“Back in the late 70s, when I transitioned, I acquired as my peer group a bunch of slightly younger trans women who I met around Soho, and for a short while became their landlady, bail person and wailing wall. I had middle class and education privilege and they didn’t – I hope I used it for the greater good… It taught me a lot about solidarity.”
It’s clear from these poems that life was far from easy for trans people in this period (when has it been?), and that the mutual solidarity the group provided took many forms. There is a lot of help with recovery from violence, from police and doctor induced trauma and some often comical examples of simply navigating existence together as complicated and difficult people.
The final poem “Ridley Road 1981” is a beautiful evocation of Roz and her friends styling it out in Dalston, on the way to buy a late night kebab “protected by the nothing left to lose”.
Alongside everyday psychological and material support, a very concrete form of solidarity was providing a home:
“So, in 1979 I lived, first of all on the Hackney end of Amhurst Road and then on Colvestone Crescent in Dalston. This will be one of the things that will interest you most, because that’s the period when, because I had a licensed squat, I filled it up with a number of very slightly younger trans club workers that I knew from the trans community in Soho. There was briefly, first of all on Amhurst Road and then on Colvestone Crescent, The Dalston Trans Commune.
Looking back it only lasted a few months, because I think it lasted a while after I left, because there was a point when I got my flat on the Kingsmead, I tossed people the keys and said “You are on your own kids, I am out of here.” Because I didn’t much relish being everyone’s parent. That whole thing I was, what, 28 or 29 and they were 24 or 25 I mean, one of them was a bit younger, one of them was 19 or 20. Mostly they were people in the 23, 24, 25 area. But I nonetheless had to be the responsible adult.”
Hackney Museum interviewer: What led you to be the grown up in there?
“It wasn’t particularly a plan. […] One of my friends got out of jail, so I let her stay, while she was between engagements in jail. She had been evicted while she was in jail, so she needed somewhere to stay, so I let her stay, and then she went back to jail for a short period, only a couple of months.
While she was in jail along with one of her friends, two slightly younger trans women, who had been living with the friend who went to jail at the same time that she went to jail, got thrown out of the flat where they were living in the middle of the night. Basically [their flatmate’s] boyfriend, decided to make a pass at the pair of them, in the middle of the night, and they walked out, and then realised they had nowhere to go. Literally, I mean, at 1 o’clock in the morning I found two drowned rats on my doorstep. Obviously, I let them stay and there was nowhere else for them to go immediately and I thought, “Oh what the hell.” Then they moved with me from Amhurst Road to Colvestone Crescent, and then Maz, and for a while Bieber, came out of jail, needed somewhere to stay. Yeah I mean it was a big house.
Suddenly, there were all sorts of people wandering in, it became a crash base as well. It was a matter of very much policing people because, well, the border of Amhurst Road and Sandringham Road which is the first one, was in those days a front-line for drug dealing. So, I made an executive decision that this was a drug-free house, otherwise we would be people of interest, which meant being quite firm about dope. But also it meant, one of them, Vivian, had, I won’t say an addiction problem, but certainly a barbiturate habit, I had to tell her, “what you do when you are not here, is your concern, while you are in the house, you are clean”, and that meant that she didn’t get a key.
And it’s these things that everyone who finds themselves in that kind of alternative housing has to learn quite fast. You make people pay some rent, because otherwise they don’t feel a commitment. You make people contribute to a food kitty, because otherwise they take advantage. It’s all token things and you have to be prepared to throw someone out if they do something wrong, which I found myself having to do on one occasion, but I won’t mention the specific thing, because it was something quite hard. Someone else who lived in the flat briefly did something extremely criminal and I evicted them on the spot. Again, you have to be prepared to do this. I mean, I then went to a house and called a house meeting and said, “I have just done this, any objections?”
“So, and then I moved up to the Kingsmead, where I was fine for a while, because on a different floor of the same building was a gay male commune made up of reformed skinheads. Which meant that they dyed pink triangles on to their scalps, and adopted anti-fascist politics, having had fascist politics, but were still quite scary people. On the other hand, they were on my side… there were a couple of times I got into arguments in clubs in the West End, and they appeared sort of out nowhere and said, “She is our mate,” which was nice, but then they moved off to a farm in Wales or something. Farm or what, I don’t know. I don’t ask.
At that point, things on the Kingsmead got a little less pleasant. There was a very speed addled gang on the Kingsmead in those days, and I’ve made the mistake of ringing the police when I saw them doing a burglary. As a result of which, the police came around to my flat to take a statement, rather than ask me into the station to take a statement. What kind of idiot does that? As a result of which, I got threatened with being firebombed, and this is how I ended up living down in Haggerston, but I had to move out fairly quickly and go on paying rent in a flat I couldn’t live in, because the police had fingered me.”
Roz survived all this – and more – and remains a Hackney resident to this day. She mentions the current climate of hysteria about trans people in The Great Good Time:
“I noticed a lot of bleakness creeping into trans social media and thought it my job as a community elder to remind young people that things had been, if not worse, at least as bad in different ways… The important thing about life in an embattled community is to have each others backs.”
I hope that’s useful and perhaps inspiring context and perspective for anyone who has read this far, but especially to younger trans people. You should know that you are loved and wanted and that there is a place in this world for you.
Sources and further reading
The full transcript of the excellent interview for Hackney Museum is here.
Roz was interviewed at length about her life in a recent episode of the recommended What The Trans podcast. (Starts 37:30)
Her collection of poems about trans life in the late 1970s and early 80s, The Great Good Time is published by Team Angelica and can be ordered by your local independent book shop. Or from Amazon if you must.
The header image is a photograph of Colvestone Crescent during the “winter of discontent” of 1979 and is by Alan Denney. I have taken some liberties with it.
Previously on the Radical History of Hackney
Smashing Male Chauvinism in Dalston (1972)
Roger and The Gang seek “chicks” in Dalston (1972)