1999 SLAGO Conference
Summary of the afternoon
Opportunities for Gay Groups:
The Surrey and London Association Of Gay Organizations Conference
23rd October 1999
We realise that we didn’t address all the issues people wanted to talk about. Delegates’ contributions on the response cards often developed ideas which were hardly touched on in discussion. These have been included in these notes. In particular there was a strong sense from the presenters and emphatically from the floor that we were seriously failing to fulfil the needs of young gay groups and lesbian groups and their members. Specific proposals to address these areas were agreed at the subsequent SLAGO liaison committee meeting.
We asked, “What can SLAGO do for your group?” We are still asking. Please feel free to contact us via PO Box 243, London SW19 1XW, or call us on the SLAGO phone line, or e-mail us.
Our guest speaker, Peter Robins, stressed the diversity of our constituent groups and the importance of recognising this. Gays are united only in being “the last minority which it is safe to insult”. But this is less true today, and younger gay men and women are much less attracted to our groups and less active in them. Gentlemen of more senior years join with a different set of aspirations, often to find a partner. And we fail, inevitably to fulfill this, and other dreams. He recommended that SLAGO should set up a working party to promote appropriate inter-group social activities in the next 12 months. He cautioned that attention to campaigning on gay issues would immediately scare off certain individuals and groups. He identified the older, nervous gay man, who wanted to be involved in social groups but needed a lot of gentle encouragement and consideration.
Terry Murphy, chairing the discussion that followed, identified the lack of provision for youth, for ethnic minorities and for lesbians, as areas in which we are seriously failing. It was suggested that being gay was one of the things which bound us together, and that SLAGO might offer regular information on gay issues to groups who wished to receive it, and guidelines on consultation with the police, as this is new.
Tea came early. This, like the main thrust of almost every item in the afternoon took, on a will of its own, which surprised, and sometimes frightened, the organisers.
This was as nothing compared with the heckle which changed the direction of the second session. In the first few minutes Roger Burg outlined the role that e-mail was playing in gay groups. Some members preferred to receive their newsletters by email, saving a significant part of the group’s annual budget. E-mail allowed rapid contact with a section of the membership, in response to unforeseen circumstances, in a way that had not been practicable before. It allowed us to consult quickly and was not bound by the format and cost of printed material. It allowed us to circulate the public version of our newsletters more cheaply than before to the local press, and rapid communication with the media and MPs.
At this point, some interjected that there was a danger of developing a two-tier membership of have-emails and have-nots, and that the have-nots could be disenfranchised. A show of hands indicated that a half of those present were already using the Internet. These issues were not resolved in the time available.
Instead Roger outlined some of the potential of local group web sites. Our groups represent a tiny fraction of the gay community. Careful use of links from the group’s web page could relate the group to neighbouring and overlapping groups, to special interest and national groups, to gay-related community facilities like police liaison and gay men’s and women’s health initiatives, and to local, and relevant local authority facilities. There were various ways to include gay news and gay issues. These links can be mutually beneficial – for instance giving coverage to local gay businesses. Links are usually two-way, which is useful in introducing or developing our relationships across the community. Judicious use of these cross-references could help redress the balance of support for women, youth and parents. This did not yet touch on the way web sites promoted the groups themselves. The rest of this material, and another contribution from Ros Jackson, a web consultant and a delegate, are available on the SLAGO web site.
Successes and failures
Philip Bayliss led a carefully planned discussion based on the response cards which we had filled in earlier, and sought suggestions on what made our groups work, or fail. The reasons why people joined the group included seeking a partner, to be less isolated, to enjoy a more active social life off scene. The age-range of a group was one of the major deterrents to new-comers, and the programme of events could be a deterrent, but finances were seldom a problem for membership or for the treasurer. Social events that drew and held members could be specific to the group (like the CAGS tennis group). Parties, general social events like coffee evenings and pub evenings were constantly popular, though a “themed” coffee evening with a break of 20 minutes on some interesting topic was proving more popular. But these were older groups’ activities; the Pinks’ G.A.Y. night was more typical of their age range. The “special event” on which a lot of work was expended, the big garden party, the day out or weekend away, Christmas and New Year parties had been big successes.
There had been many effective means of publicity, but outstanding were the free use of the Yellow Pages and Thompson’s Local community listings, the free poster or other coverage at the local library. Time Out and the gay press were unpredictable or costly, but could be very effective. Gay Times and Gay Switchboard offer free listings. Writing to the Samaritans and local doctors had been very successful.
Several means of money-raising were discussed, though the their importance was in the public profile of the group or in getting members working together, since cash was not a problem in the groups represented. The best ways to get members involved were to ask directly, never by a sentence in the newsletter, to get people to commit to a short spell on a sub-committee (members imagine that joining “the Committee” is too much of a commitment). Offering to support them financially in giving any social event, and ask people to help in small, one-off jobs like asking the library to display a poster, or taking a specific role in one event.
Philip was clearly working against the clock when he handed over to Ross for the final session. Please contribute further thoughts on these topic. The speed of discussion almost prevented a representative of Pinks Down South from putting a major new perspective on the discussion. But she is not one so easily deterred!
What can SLAGO do for your group?
Ross Burgess began from SLAGO’s aims of social contact, co-operation and mutual support, and promoting equality in law and society. Good social events had been the Brighton day out, the sculpture afternoon, the SLAGO tournaments and events shared between groups. But these tended to appeal to some people more than others. The distances travelled were a deterrent, and they were popular with too few groups.
At this point the delegate from Pinks Down South protested that the analysis so far was that of the silver headed, middle class males who predominated in the room. We were missing provision for women and two younger generations. Although this had been incorporated into the material planned for the conference it was clear that the minority which is SLAGO was not beginning to make contact with these identifiable large groups. SLAGO’s member groups tend to be strongly male-dominated or men-only, and we are often reminded that women find it difficult to find any adequate social contact in gay groups. The number of women involved has often been the problem in promoting lesbian groups, or encouraging women to join mixed groups. It became clear to us during this session that SLAGO needs to act to promote social networks particularly amongst women through the coming year. We are now actively contacting the lesbian members of London and Surrey groups to seek their ideas, and get their reactions to suggestions on activities and promotion which might be effective in supporting the large number of gay women our areas. (The Liaison Committee has asked Roger to get a female working party together, to contribute ideas and propose some actions by the next quarterly liaison committee meeting. If you are interested, or know anyone who can help, please call the SLAGO phone line)
Youth provision is another matter, with different needs and different solutions. David from the Croydon Lesbian and Gay Forum told us about the strong involvement of the Forum in the publicly financed gay youth group. Pinks Down South outlined a few of the activities that attracted their younger members.
It was an afternoon packed with the unexpected. The points which delegates raised were further debated at the SLAGO liaison committee meeting on November 22nd, and further contributions from all concerned will be dealt with constructively.