Early in May, I learned that George Broadhead, sworn enemy of Mary Whitehouse and founder of two of the UK’s longest established gay campaign organisations, had died. George was not only a remarkable (and very funny) human being but a good friend and as it happens a fellow Manxman. Also, a keen supporter of the local humanist group Isle of Man Freethinkers since the early days.
George grew up here. His parents kept a bed and breakfast hotel in Hutchinson Square, Douglas – according to George, the first on the island to boast hot and cold running water in every room. During World War Two, the Hutchinson Square area was requisitioned as a camp for Jewish internees. George’s family were moved to a house about a mile away.
The ‘guests’ at the Hutchinson Square camp included artists and intellectuals such as Arthur Koestler and Kurt Schwitters. Unsurprisingly then, it quickly spawned a highbrow camp newspaper, lectures, concerts and plays. George was particularly amused to learn a few years ago that the plays included a daring skit on Romeo and Juliet entitled Romeo and Julian – quite astonishing anywhere in 1940, especially the Isle of Man.
At the end of the war, the camps closed and resumed normal business as hotels again. Meanwhile, George moved up to high school. In the early 1950’s, and already sure of his sexual orientation, he left the island for university in the UK. He was quickly drawn into both the pre-legal gay scene around London and early efforts at law reform.
In the 1970’s George was a mentor to a young Peter Tatchell and an early member of CHE (Campaign for Homosexual Equality), which had a more militant approach. He was also the prime mover in another campaign, marked as much by his impish sense of humour as his desire for justice.
When Mary Whitehouse brought her infamous blasphemy case against Gay News, she was quoted as saying that ‘everything good and true’ was being undermined in the UK by a ‘humanist gay lobby’. This puzzled and amused George. As both a gay man and a humanist he knew of no such lobby but thought it might be fun to realise Mrs Whitehouse’s nightmare.
After one small informal meeting, the Gay Humanist Group (later renamed the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, GALHA) was formed – the first such grouping in the world. George later founded another effective campaign group, the Pink Triangle Trust (PTT). They are now two of the longest established gay and lesbian groups in the UK.
One later campaign of George’s particularly makes Manx humanists proud. It may amaze people to know that only one classroom in Africa gratefully bears the name of a Manxman, who is a gay atheist. Some years ago, the PTT began heavily contributing to a secular school in Uganda – a country where some of the most notorious religious prejudice against gays continues. In return, one schoolroom there is named the George Broadhead and Roy Saich Classroom.
How I met George
I first met George after I contacted GALHA to let them know about changes in Manx legislation concerning homosexuality. He replied, mentioning his Manx roots and was greatly pleased that things were finally changing for the better. Through George, I was given the opportunity to contribute articles regarding Manx topics for GALHA and PTT print and online publications. George also mentioned that he and his long-term partner, Roy Saich, were planning to revisit his childhood home. I offered to ferry them around. Some months later, I spent a very pleasant day driving them around his old haunts and the tourist sites. I sometimes drove with some difficulty, thanks to George’s day-long flow of funny and scandalous reminiscences from the passenger seat. During their visit they also attended our monthly Freethinker lunch, where he similarly amused and delighted the rest of the group. It was the start of a long and happy friendship.
George continued to contact me about current Manx affairs – our last exchange only a few months ago. But I was by no means alone. As I learn from tributes to him on Facebook, even at 87 George sent out daily streams of e-mails to friends around the world, followed campaigns, offered support and wrote letters to national newspapers. For example, less than a week before he died George had written to Leo Igwe, a notable Nigerian human rights campaigner, in connection with an African facing blasphemy charges. But George was far from the po-faced political campaigner one might expect. As much as he triumphed for the defence of free speech and justice for gays, his life was a quest for the best music, literature, drama, the finest restaurant or hotel (preferably with art deco furnishings) and the perfect negroni. His constant partner on this quest for 57 years – from the barely legal days to civil partnership and eventually marriage – was Roy. Not too many heterosexual partnerships sealed with a traditional church marriage last that long. Always snappily dressed, on Facebook he once posted a photo in a snazzy fedora. I remarked on his similarity to George Melly, quipping that maybe we should start calling him ‘Good Time George’, referring to Melly’s song. His response was a photo taken with Melly from the Gay News trial days, both loudly suited, both in fedoras and waving jazz hands. It almost makes me wonder which George the song actually refers to. Like his namesake, George Broadhead was a joy to see in action and will be a hard act to follow.