THE ‘GALE COMES OF AGE
I began my research into Birmingham's queer scene through the archives at the Library of Birmingham; boxes filled with gay publications, badges of sexual resistance and architectural plans for spaces which would never be. Two cardboard boxes relate to The Nightingale Club, which formed out of a Moseley house in 1969, celebrates its 50th birthday this coming May.
Spaces such as ‘Gales can so often seem ahistorical; it is a fixture within the city's queer community and many of us have grown all too familiar with its three floors. However, the club's history is a long and resilient one born out of gay-only nights in the city's straight establishments - where drink prices were hiked up for the occasion - and role-playing communities which provided distance from the realities of stigmatisation.
The ‘Gale first operated out of the Queen Victoria Club in Victoria Square before moving to a derelict Indian restaurant – from which the name ‘Nightingales’ was taken – at Number 50, Camp Hill. After the building and surrounding area was bulldozed due to a road-widening scheme, the association took over a football social club on Witton Lane, Aston from 1975 to 1981. However, the gays who occupied the establishment did not erase its patriarchal remnants; women picketed for membership to be extended to them but were not allowed to enter the club until the early 1990s unless accompanied by a member. A lack of integration disregarded the crucial role that queer solidarity played in overcoming the impending AIDS crisis and its accompanying anti-queer rhetoric.
The focus of the ‘Gale was to allow its members to function outside the confines of marginalisation. Founded in the 1960s by Peter Scott-Fleeman and Laurie Williams, ‘The Royal Court of Campania’, was a members-only group and fictional country where all its inhabitants were gay; it was a space where queer individuals could co-exist without heterosexual nuisance. Honorary titles such as ‘Prince Regent’ and ‘Duke’ preceded the individual’s place of birth, and court members were presented with medallions and ribbons from the Rag Market, each bearing the country’s seal in a display of camp solidarity.
The club occupied another premises on Thorp Street in 1981 before moving to its current location in 1994. Endless meeting minutes display a back and forth between the club’s future, accompanied by architectural plans which outlined the potential of moving to The Institute on Digbeth High Street. While the proposal suggests that the establishment would be five-minutes from Hurst Street by car, it raises questions around the street’s functionality and how Birmingham’s queer nightlife could have been different today without the club’s proximity to nearby venues. Nightingales invites us to consider the city’s cross-generational queerness; a symbol of a community’s progression from secrecy to unrestrained mode of being.