A conversation with Lucie Warrington, the filmmaker taking us Into the Cellar to meet the women who came out of the closet

BY GEORGIA BUTLER

If you are reading DIVA, the odds are that you’ve been there – in the cramped and uncomfortable closet. The very nature of a heteronormative society means that, to some extent, coming out can feel more literal than metaphorical.

But for most of us, once we come out, there is a place to go. At the very least, an open gate to a community. It is hard to imagine that community as being a 630ft squared cellar. But for decades, it was. Our home was The Gateways Club.  

DIVA: For readers who have never heard of The Gateways Club, can you explain what it is?

LUCIE WARRINGTON: The Gateways Club started in the 1930s as a bohemian members-only in London. During the Second World War as there weren’t many men around… for obvious reasons, it grew towards lesbian women. By 1967 the owner – Gina Ware – made the decision to make it female only, and it became one of the most famous lesbian clubs in Europe. 

What made you want to make a documentary about it?

Some writers and I were in the pub after a meeting and one of them, Andrew, started telling us stories about The Gateways. His mum, Leslie, went in the 60s after she came out as a lesbian. She became great friends with Gina Ware and Smithy, so she was quite a prominent character on the scene, and Andrew grew up as friends with Gina Ware’s daughter. 

I went home and I thought to myself, “This is amazing. There must be a film to watch,” and… there wasn’t. It’s as simple as that really. I searched and there was no documentary about The Gateways Club. Jill Gardiner’s book From The Closet To The Screen, which I bought straightaway, was completely fascinating, and I spoke to her in the early days of the idea forming to make a short film. She warned me that she wasn’t sure many people would get on camera. 

I started interviewing people, one of whom was Trudy Howson who is the LGBT poet laureate. I sent her a message and said, “Did you ever go to The Gateways?”, and she replied, “Of course I did. Where else would I go?”

I’d done three interviews when I interviewed Trudy. I arrived at her flat and she said to me, “I’m really excited. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve put something on Facebook and it’s kind of blown up.” She showed me her Facebook post and there were about 90 comments. Whilst I drove back to Leeds, I thought, “This isn’t a short, this is a documentary”.

You’re going to have to spill some of the juicy details for me. What was it like being a gay woman then? What stories have you heard?

A couple of women came from a military background and told some pretty horrific stories about what it was like to be a gay woman in the military; a lot of witch hunts in the early 70s.

There were also women I interviewed who didn’t feel like that at all. I suppose because of the professions they were in. One of them was an artist and she started going to The Gateways in the early 60s. She was in that creative world, and she said to me, “I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘in’. It was completely fine”.

Maggi, another interviewee, talked to me about the first time she went to the club and everybody she spoke to said they were a swimming-pool attendant. She thought, “Oh, I’d best say I’m a swimming-pool attendant as well!” Or a bus conductor; those were the two professions. We aren’t sure if this was a code, but Maggi realised, “I can’t swim… I’d best get out of this lie just in case”.

The bar was very much divided into butch and femme women. Did anyone you spoke to touch on that? 

One woman called Sheena started going in the late 70s. She said there was a butch woman who always wore a full-tweed-three-piece and would have a live parrot on her shoulder. Absolutely amazing. 

It was so butch and femme, you had to be one or the other. For example, the femmes would sit down at the table and the butch women would go to the bar, buy drinks, give them to the femmes and then the butch women would go back to the bar and just talk to each other. It was really quite 1950s heterosexual stereotypes, even though by this point things were changing in society. It was a unique place.

Lots of the women said to me that, “I don’t think people really realise what it was like. For lesbian women to only have one place to go and feel safe”. This has changed and I think quite a few of the women were happy to take part in this documentary, because they want the younger generation to know about this part of queer history. 

Finally, what can our readers do to get involved and help? 

Well, we are launching a Kickstarter campaign to get this all finished. Up until now I have self-funded the project, because I’ve got a video production company. But I am at the point where I need help. So basically, donating any money and spreading the word as much as possible.

Find out more about Into The Cellar and donate to the Kickstarter here

DIVA magazine celebrates 26 years on the newsstands in 2020. Get behind LGBTQI media and help us celebrate another 26, at least. Your support is invaluable. Get the latest issue here now.

divadigital.co.uk // divadirect.info // divasub.co.uk

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.