New Rainbow Plaque Trail in Leeds

This summer Leeds invite us all to follow the rainbow and discover more about the city’s LGBTQ+ heritage. Leeds Civic Trust have been coordinating a fantastic programme of events for Heritage Open Days for many years so we asked Mel Roberts to tell us more about their inspirational new project.

Our trail begins in 1843, in a pub on one of Leeds’ most historic streets, Thomas Sykes catches the eye of barman, Edward Rayner, they both go into The Regent’s yard toilets. They are caught and sentenced to death. Fast forward to 2012 when on the Olympic podium, Nicola Adams OBE proudly receives her medal a world champion and also the first openly LGBTQ+ person to win an Olympic boxing gold. These are just two examples of our Rainbow Plaques Trail, a physical journey that charts LGBTQ+ heritage here in Leeds, via 15 visible plaques and an accompanying map.

The trail has been a true team effort - Leeds Civic Trust Director Martin Hamilton puts up the plaque at Mill Hill

Taking inspiration...

But why is a Civic Society getting involved with ‘LGBTQ+ heritage’ we hear you ask? In 2016, the Trust erected a permanent Blue Plaque for The New Penny pub (the city’s longest running LGBTQ+ venue). Last year Heritage Open Days ran the ‘Prejudice and Pride’ project, remembering 50 years since decriminalisation, a ‘Love Lived Here’ campaign also launched in London celebrating English Heritage Plaques for LGBTQ+ people. Bringing traditionally marginalised heritage into the public domain is important. Although society as a whole has generally become much more supportive of LGBT+ equality, Stonewall reported that 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ people have experienced homophobic hate crime in the last 12 months, additionally 55% of gay teens have experienced homophobic bullying. And this is where organisations like the Trust can help. It is important for society to work together to further understanding and inclusivity. We hope Rainbow Plaques illustrate the great contribution to society made by LGBTQ+ people and further the sense of pride in the community.

...and taking action (creating the trail)

Teaming up with Leeds LGBT+ Hub we formed a small working group and took to social media and various LGBT+ fairs and meetings to spread the word and to ask the people of Leeds for their nominations. We were overwhelmed with the responses we received, nominations varied from the fun to the heart-breaking. Shortlisting the nominations into a cohesive and meaningful trail was no easy feat, but once we had our final 15 plaques, the hard-work really started! We obviously asked permission from any living person to award them a plaque – which proved overwhelmingly positive, with Nicola Adams amongst those to give us a big ‘thumbs-up’. Next was finding a ‘logical’ building to host each Rainbow Plaque; it had to have a connection to the theme of the plaque and keep the trail accessible, for example we have a ‘Polari’ plaque celebrating the underground language regularly spoken by the LGBTQ+ community, theatre performers and the criminal underworld until the mid-80s and where better to have this plaque than on the legendary music hall venue, City Varieties. We offered the opportunity for businesses to ‘adopt’ a Rainbow Plaque – this will ensure the trail’s future viability and help towards a sustainable legacy (for example more permanent plaques).

Trail taster…

BBC Radio Leeds presenter Steph Hirst unveils the plaque for Emmy award winning composer Angela Morley

  • Some well-known faces feature. Soft Cell formed here when Dave Ball and Marc Almond met at Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett). Rehearsing in a bedsit they stormed to the top of the UK charts in 1981 with ‘Tainted Love’. 
  • Another well-loved Loiner on the trail is Armley born playwright, Alan Bennett. Current patron of Leeds older LGBT+ social group ‘The Friends of Dorothy’, Bennett remains close to his city of birth and we remain extremely proud of him.
  • Nominations also revealed some not so well-known, but equally interesting people; such as Cyril Livingstone, a larger than life couturier who had a fashion salon in the heart of the city. Livingstone was also a respected actor, director and theatre critic, he famously fell out with Peter O’Toole (who was brought up in Leeds) after a particularly scathing review…that’s showbusiness!
  • Angela Morley might not be instantly recognisable, but I bet you’ve heard her work! Regularly conducting the BBC’s Big Band, Morley later moved to Hollywood composing music for films and programmes such as: Watership Down, Dallas, and Star Wars. Winning three Emmys, Morley was the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award. Her Rainbow Plaque features on the BBC’s Yorkshire Studio and was unveiled by BBC Radio Leeds presenter Steph Hirst. This unveiling had a special resonance as Steph herself is the BBC’s first full-time transgender radio presenter (definitely a future Rainbow Plaque candidate!).
  • Trans history is also celebrated by the Rainbow Plaque at the University of Leeds. The country’s first trans conference was held there in 1974. Organised by The Beaumont Society this was a pioneering conference providing practical advice and information e.g. name changing, and hosting in-depth discussions and seminars. The conference report highlights how welcomed delegates felt in Leeds.  
  • From the tentative liberalisation of LGBTQ+ rights during the 1970s and the scene’s growing visibility (celebrated on the trail with Charlie’s Nightclub, an LGBTQ+ nightspot, The Grove pub, who hosted evenings for lesbian women and the Swarthmore Centre, a space for LGBT+ groups to meet) the 1980s proved an altogether more painful decade, with the introduction of Section 28 and the devastating loss of many LGBTQ+ people from HIV and AIDS related illnesses. Yorkshire Dance hosts a Rainbow Plaque for DV8 Physical Theatre. Rehearsing their piece ‘My Sex Our Dance’ at their studios in 1987 this was a ground-breaking performance which proved to be a powerful response to AIDS. Leeds also galvanised against Section 28 with protests held in the city centre commemorated on the trail at the city’s Library.
  • The trail is about love, the right to love who we are and who we love. When same-sex marriage became law in 2014 it was a symbolic moment of equality, noted on the map at Mill Hill Chapel.

To end where I started, with Sykes and Rayner. They were spared the gallows and deported to Australia, but I feel immensely proud that through the trail we can commemorate their lives and reflect on how far we’ve come in 200 years. Looking to the future I hope the trail helps inspire the next generation of LGBTQ+ people to go on and do amazing things!          

The trail is available until mid-September via our website. Next year we hope to expand the trail beyond the city centre, and host a walk for Heritage Open Days!

About Mel Roberts - Leeds Civic Trust

I’ve been a part of the Trust’s team for almost five years and I help coordinate Trust projects and events. My interests are (naturally!) history, art and public amenity. Leeds Civic Trust is a charity that works with its members and community partners to help make Leeds a great place to live, work and play. We are proud to coordinate Heritage Open Days in the city /  @leedscivictrust / www.leedscivictrust.org.uk