History of Gay West


Gay West is a LGBT social and support group based in Bristol and Bath.  It can trace its origins back to April 1970, when the Bristol Group of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE Bristol) was founded.  The other founding organisation was Bath Gay Awareness Group (BGAG, later Bath CHE), which was set up in Autumn 1971.

Both groups had a campaigning function, organising events to highlight the legal and social discrimination to which LGBT people were subject.  The groups held regular meetings of their members, invited outside speakers and wrote to MPs and councillors to try to get them to support changes in the law to remove some of the anomalies left by the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalised male homosexuality.  Bristol CHE was also active in raising the question of employment rights.

In 1982, national CHE restructured itself and the Bath group changed its name to Gay West, aiming to become a more social group but still involved in political activism.  Early the following year, CHE Bristol merged with Gay West, which since then has covered the area of the old county of Avon (Bristol, Bath and the surrounding areas).

In the 1980s, it had a very active social programme, with events on most nights of the week, and membership increased rapidly, reaching a peak of over 400 in 1992, of which around a third were women.  Gay West gave support and a sense of self-respect at a time when gay people felt under attack from vicious headlines in the tabloid press over the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the government’s Section 28 which tried to prevent local authorities from taking positive measures towards LGBT people in education and other facilities.  The group made great efforts to reach out to the wider local community and in return received support from other people and organisations.

In the 1990s, public opinion began to change and a more balanced debate emerged nationally.  As more attractive commercial venues and social and sports organisations catering for LGBT people appeared locally, the need for Gay West diminished and the number of members gradually fell.  Membership stabilised around 80-90 in the early 2000s and since then Gay West has continued to thrive.

Sunlight room with 12 people chatting at yellow-topped formica tables

Rainbow Café, March 2009

Its main activity is a coffee shop, now known as the Rainbow Café, which has operated in the centre of Bath every Saturday morning since 1983.  The café is run by volunteers and is open to everyone.  Around 30 people usually come and it is a place where lasting friendships have been made.   During the Covid pandemic of 2020-2022, Gay West received special dispensation to continue running the café as a vital social support organisation and so, except during the initial lockdown, it has maintained its tradition of welcoming those who want to make contact with other LGBT people.

In the 2010s, Gay West developed links with local prisons and supported efforts by prisoners, encouraged by the authorities, to set up their own internal LGBT groups.  This outreach work resumed after the pandemic and several former prisoners have joined the group after their release.

Gay West has an active website, gaywest.org.uk/, and has issued a regular newsletter or magazine since the constituent groups were founded.  This was originally printed but is now digital.  The group also organises occasional events such as the Christmas dinner – the highlight of the year – picnics and outings for its members.

Robert Howes, 2022