Chief librarian Anne Cunningham (centre left) receiving the books including The Colour Purple, with campaigner Paul Barlow (left). Courtesy of Paul Barlow

The Globe Town Library that defied the government to keep LGBTQ+ books on our shelves

Citizen journalist Kate Rutland finds out how the Globe Town Library’s fight against Margarets Thatcher’s ‘anti-gay’ legislation, earned their place in the LGBTQ+ history books.

The site of this story of pride was the former Globe Town Library, an impressive stone Victorian building located on Bancroft Road next to the Mile End Hospital, now known as the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives. 

London’s LGBTQ+ community in the late 1980s was facing mass public hysteria. Alarm over the AIDS crisis and its misunderstood link to ‘gay individuals’ led to widespread suspicion from the public. Those in the community felt excluded from mainstream public life and often had to hide their identities from their families, friends and employers. 

In this time of mass panic around the LGBTQ+ community, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, that remained in place in England until 2003. This ‘anti-gay’ piece of legislation added an amendment to the Local Government Act that banned local authorities from the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. 

This meant that local councils were effectively banned from funding books and other library material that showed same-sex relationships. Many in the LGBTQ+ community and beyond saw this as a form of government censorship. 

However, in an incredible story of local action, the Tower Hamlets Libraries openly defied this ban and included LGBTQ+ books in their libraries. 

An A4 'Stop Clause 28' poster from the 3rd Feb 1998
A poster advertising a public meeting opposing Section 28, at Bethnal Green Town Hall. Courtesy of Paul Barlow

The Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group passionately campaigned to ‘Stop Clause 28’, from the time it began being debated in Parliament. 

The group organised public meetings and encouraged their supporters to openly oppose the Clause. High profile celebrities also offered their support to the group’s campaign, including Michael Cashman who at the time was playing Colin in EastEnders, the first gay character in a soap. 

The campaign put pressure on Tower Hamlets Council not to enforce Section 28. The group sent out ‘pink postcards’ spreading which urged local residents to post them to their councillors stating ‘I urge you as my representative on Tower Hamlets Council, to oppose the implementation of this clause. It is important that our council opposes this attack on civil liberties with every power it has – even if it means defying the courts’. 

To mark the protest, on the 8th April 1988, the group presented a giant version of the ‘pink postcard’ to the council.

Clipping from a newspaper showing a protest against Clause 28
Tower Hamlets’ Mayor Cllr Brian Williams received the giant pink postcard at Bethnal Green Town Hall. Courtesy of Paul Barlow

The campaigning worked and powerfully, on the day Section 28 became law in May 1988, Tower Hamlet’s libraries produced a Gay and Lesbian Booklist of 60 titles. The booklist even stated that ‘if your favourite title isn’t here, please let us know, we will be glad to obtain it for you’. 

The libraries continued to defy Section 28 and, in June 1988 librarians received donations of gay and lesbian literature from the Tower Hamlets Lesbian and Gay Campaign Group. 

The books included The Color Purple by Alice Walker, British author Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness and Maurice by E. M. Forster. A spokesperson of the Campaign Group said, “Local people will and are resisting the implications of Section 28”. 

Head librarian Anne Cunningham stated she ‘wanted to be the first librarian prosecuted’, and that ‘Globe Town Libraries will continue to display books for loan that are of interest to ALL members of the community’. 

Local grassroots protest and social change has long characterised our area. This story of powerful resistance against anti-gay censorship, is part of this history. 

Section 28 was repealed in 2003 but the LGBTQ+ community continues today to protest for equality and social acceptance. 

Black and white newspaper image of Chief librarian Anne Cunningham (centre left) receiving the books including The Colour Purple, with campaigner Paul Barlow (centre right).
Chief librarian Anne Cunningham (centre left) receiving the books including The Colour Purple, with campaigner Paul Barlow (left). Courtesy of Paul Barlow

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2 thoughts on “The Globe Town Library that defied the government to keep LGBTQ+ books on our shelves

  • The Central Library (as it was known in the 70s/80s) was a treasure trove of literature and I’m heartened to read about this important episode of activism that took place there. Ann Cunningham was an astute librarian. It was there as a black 7 year old in the mid 1970s that I found & read children’s books with black kids as protagonists. Am forever grateful she placed these rarities amongst the Enid Blyton’s (which I also read!)

    Reply
    • Susie great you enjoyed books in mid 70s…I started work at Central Library in Bancroft Road in 1975 and am still working for Tower Hamlets libraries and now buy the stock! remember this well and was deputy to Anne when library was part of Globe Town neighbourhood. Agree with all say about Anne.

      Reply

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