London's historic lesbian nightclub, which ran for more than 50 years, finally closing in 1985, will be brought back to life in a performance to coincide with Gay Pride
Duckie Goes to the Gateways host Amy Lamé. Behind her is a still from the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George.
"You would be let in by using a secret code at the door and Gina would shout: 'Army's in!'," remembers Chris Root. "We would walk down the steep staircase in to the smoky room and see the femmes lined up at the bar, waiting for us to buy them a drink."
During its heyday, the former soldier was joined by famous actors, singers and tennis players – forced to remain in the closet – at Gateways, the famous lesbian club that ran from the 1930s to 1985. Depicted in the film The Killing of Sister George, the club has been the subject of a BBC radio play, and a book, From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club 1945-1985 by Jill Gardiner. After Amy Lamé, host of the performance club Duckie, read Gardiner's book, she was inspired to put on Duckie Goes to the Gateways for Gay Pride this year, at which the club and its clientele will be brought back to life in a performance.
Jane Traies frequented the club with her girlfriend in the late 60s and early 70s. "I was a typical femme, a little girl in a short skirt. Most people were terrified in those days and didn't dare be out as lesbians, but at the Gates we were safe, and could be ourselves. You were seen as abnormal everywhere else."
Maureen Chadwick, creator and writer of TV prison drama Bad Girls, describes her time at Gateways in the early 70s. "My cigarette would always be lit for me. Another butch could ask me for a dance only if mine gave her permission. But if an unknown admirer made a pre-emptive gesture such as sending me a drink, this would swiftly be returned to sender with my girlfriend's cigar butt afloat."
Wanda Goldwag first went to the club in 1973, aged 19. "I am quite butch," she says, "but in those days the men had long hair with beards. So when the women turned up with short hair and dressed in suits, they seemed like a fossilised parody of the men."
Val Wilmer visited the club in the mid-60s. "It was a very valuable place for us to go, and we miss it sometimes now, but I didn't care for butch-femme role playing. It took the women's movement to sort that out." For her, it was an opportunity to meet women from a variety of social backgrounds. "Many of the women had jobs in garage forecourts and in the army. Meeting them was good for those of us from middle-class backgrounds as it educated us. Where else would you socialise with such a diverse group?" Another regular adds: "It was very exciting. All the femmes were done up in beehives and mini-skirts. There was a great atmosphere, nothing like it really."
Chadwick agrees that nights at the Gates were exciting, but says she would not want to go back in time. "It would be hard to describe those days as 'liberating', but I'm sure many of us who lived through them would admit there was a sexually charged excitement to club-going then which was all about it being in a semi-illicit and secret lesbian underworld."