Islington’s secret LGBT history

Credit: Islington Local History Museum

There is a rich history of LGBT+ action in Islington, from the first gay rights demonstration in the 1970s to the first openly gay MP. The first openly transgender Labour councillor to be elected, Osh Gantly (Highbury East), is just one of the latest milestones passed in the borough.

2017 is a very important year in the history of LGBT+ rights in the UK, as it is fifty years since the Sexual Offences Act was passed, which decriminalised homosexual acts between men over 21.

To mark the occasion, a special artwork was put on display in Islington Museum for LGBT history month: ‘World of Cats’, a collage of cats on four panels. It is work of a former Islington resident, Kenneth Halliwell, who lived on Noel Road with his partner Joe Orton between 1959 and 1967.

Credit: Islington Local History Museum

Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton

Artist Kenneth Halliwell and acclaimed young playwright Joe Orton are just two of the (in)famous gay residents that Islington has had over the years. They stole and defaced library books in the 1960s before returning them. After being arrested they were sentenced to six months in prison, which many thought was a severe punishment as a result of their homosexual relationship. After their release, Halliwell tragically murdered his lover before committing suicide in 1967.

Robert Crossman and Chris Smith

Robert Crossman, the first openly gay mayor in the country, served as Mayor of Islington from 1986 to 1987 after having been an LGBT activist before that. He was the founder and chairman of Islington Lesbian and Gay Committee and co-founded the Gay Labour Group in 1974.

Islington was also home to the first openly gay MP, Chris Smith, who was MP for Islington South and Finsbury from 1983 until 2005. He also was the first MP to announce he was HIV positive in 2005. After standing down he was made Baron Smith of Finsbury, became Chairman of the Environment Agency and then Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge.



On Caledonian Road is Housmans Bookshop, opened by Laurence Housman, the younger brother of AE Housman, which is renowned for its radical politics. In the 1970s and 1980s it became a hive of LGBT activism. The Gay Liberation Front had offices there and the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard also operated from above the shop.

The first gay rights demonstration in Britain occurred at Highbury Fields, Islington on 20 November 1970, when 150 members of the Gay Liberation Front protested and held a rally against police harassment.

Islington Council flies the LGBT flag above Islington Town Hall every year for LGBT history month. Let’s hope the proud history of queer activism in Islington continues in future.