Sandi Toksvig uncovers forgotten history of London’s raucous lesbian-only club in intimate new film

Sandi Toksvig holding up a blue plaque

Presenter Sandi Toksvig sits in the back of a black cab, a mischievous smile on her face.

She’s speaking about the hidden backstreets of London’s fabled King’s Road. Within minutes, she’s pulled up outside an inconspicuous white door with a slightly confused look on her face.

“I swear this door used to be green,” she says, disappointment in her voice. “That’s the thing with lesbian landmarks. They literally get painted over.”

Filmmaker Jacquie Lawrence knows this better than most. For more than two decades she’s been writing, directing and commissioning queer content across huge mainstream TV channels, fighting to excavate the buried stories of LGBT+ trailblazers. Recently, she turned her attention to the Gateways, a little-known lesbian club centred in her latest documentary Gateways Grind, premiering this week at London’s BFI Flare film festival.

Prior to filming, Lawrence had only heard the occasional mention of Gateways. The iconic Chelsea venue opened back in 1931 for a mixed crowd, before being taken over by Ted and Gina Ware in 1943. Ted’s role in the club’s maintenance gradually rescinded; by the mid-50s, Gina was more or less running the club with Smithy, an American butch lesbian (and Gina’s rumoured lover) who worked as manager and held fort behind the bar.

By the mid-60s, Gateways was a lesbian-only club, but the intriguing lives that played out behind the mythical green door were news even to seasoned queer researchers like Lawrence.

Telling these stories has been far from easy. Lawrence began delving into the history of the Gateways before the pandemic, but shortly afterwards, the world shut down. Before she knew it, two women featured in the documentary had passed away. Lawrence knew she had to commit these stories to tape now, before they were lost forever.

Two women kissing

Gateways Grind. (BFI Flare)

The result of this mission to preserve a key lesbian legacy is an intimate documentary, which tells the stories of women who danced, loved and more (in the toilets, of course) in this sweaty, smokey basement club. Historically, the Gateways has been explored only sporadically – most notably in the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George, which recruited the regulars as extras for a pivotal, 10-minute scene.

Gateways Grind goes deeper. There are celebrity anecdotes, tales of working-class lesbians finding refuge in this misfits’ paradise and the occasional illicit tale of dance floor dry-humping. It’s a documentary which celebrates lesbians in all their multiplicity, which so few queer histories do. Ahead of its premiere, director Jacquie Lawrence spoke to PinkNews about the club’s raucous backstory. From Mick Jagger begging to drag up to an infamous altercation between Gateways staff and the Gay Liberation Front, there’s plenty of gold to uncover.

In the documentary, the Gateways is framed as hugely mysterious. Was that your impression of the club going into this?

Jacquie: I’ve been producing, directing and commissioning queer content for over 25 years, so I thought I knew everything about lesbianism. I had heard of the Gateways – sadly I just missed out on going myself – but I had no idea it was this amazing historical onion; the more you peel back, the more you learn. We knew we were opening the green door, but we had no idea how much we’d find. We interviewed around 35 people, but since then we’ve had new women come forward to tell their stories. I think there will be life after this documentary, maybe an exhibition.

Gateways opened in 1931, but when did it become what we know it as now?

Jacquie: When it opened in 1931 it was a basement-only members club. It was mixed-gender, incredibly diverse and absolutely packed. It appealed to jazz musicians and artists in the area, and it also attracted people like [iconic lesbian novelist] Radclyffe Hall and Quentin Crisp. In his diaries, he said he went with his two lesbian neighbours, and he was thrilled they stopped fighting for long enough to take him! Gradually, more women were encouraged to go. By the mid-1960s, it was lesbian-only.

There’s a story in the documentary about Mick Jagger asking if he could drag up to get into the Gateways. Do any other celebrity anecdotes stand out?

Jacquie: It’s breaking my heart that we couldn’t find anyone to verify that Dusty [Springfield] was there, but she was! Diana Dors and Kenneth Williams were both thrown out twice too, back when the club was mixed. There’s still more stories coming out though, we need a sequel!

We have to talk about the “Gateways Grind,” too – basically, when lesbians grind against each other on the dance floor to the point of orgasm. Were you surprised to find that out?

Jacquie: As Trudy [Dawson, poet] says in the film, she was shocked. Everyone knew about the Gateways Grind apparently, but I didn’t! Bloody hell, I would have made sure I went down there if I’d have known! It’s shocking because there were strict codes of conduct when it came to public displays of affection. You couldn’t snog on the dance floor, only in the toilets and the crevices of the club, if you were lucky enough not to be caught.

In one of the opening scenes, [presenter] Sandi Toksvig looks at the now-white door and says lesbian landmarks are “literally painted over.” Do you think lesbian histories are disproportionately erased?

Jacquie: Absolutely. Gay men were criminalised, so that was something to protest against and build stories around. Also, in any genre, male stories are pushed to the front. There are so many incredible documentaries and dramas which eradicate or minimise the role of lesbians, because Queen Victoria said we didn’t exist. Because we weren’t criminalised it’s like we weren’t there.

Gateways Grind. (BFI Flare)

There’s more awareness of lesbian salon scenes in Paris and Berlin, which were framed as exclusive and glamorous, whereas the Gateways was for lesbians of all stripes, according to the documentary. How much does class factor into that invisibility?

Jacquie: Massively. I think the first documentary I made for Channel 4 was called Working Class Dykes From Hell, which dealt with class as a kind of a sexual commodity, but also within lesbian feminist politics. It’s probably the first and last documentary I’ve seen that deals with class within lesbianism. I was one of maybe three commissioners in total that were working-class, so middle-class people get into these industries and then they tell their stories.

The Gateways was classless. There were the politics of who could be more visible outside the club, but people used it as a form of refuge. There’s the question of access, too. A lot of queer working-class people who didn’t live in cities couldn’t afford to come in. They couldn’t access the funds to get there, but if they could, the Gateways was very much open to working-class lesbians.

There’s mention of the Gateways being racially diverse, too. How important was it to you to touch on that?

Jacquie: Really important. I would have loved to have more queer people of colour in the documentary, because Gina and Ted [the owners] were real diversity champions, but we found that there were some people who still can’t talk openly on-camera about being there.

Did you come across any stories of trans men or women throughout your research?

Jacquie: Gina mentions when she’s going through one of the paintings that hung in the Gateways that there’s a trans man, we tried to push a bit more on that but we didn’t find anything out. Nobody that we talked to identified either then or now as trans, but I can’t say for sure that none of the butch lesbians there wouldn’t identify as trans men now. There wasn’t the language then; some women even say in the documentary they could barely bring themselves to say the word “lesbian.” I’m sure if this existed now there would be a lot more gender diversity, which is really liberating.
After our conversation, Jacquie emailed the following: “It occurred to me that one of the interviewees who identified as a butch lesbian during their Gateways’ days did eventually identify as non-binary. This was Jamie Wildman, who unfortunately passed away before we finished the film.”

Did it come as a surprise to you that the Gateways supposedly had a good relationship with the police?

Jacquie: What we understand is that there was a good relationship because there were donations to the Policeman’s Ball. It was never confirmed, but we think [co-owner] Gina and [manager] Smithy would get into butch/femme drag and go to the ball, but we couldn’t verify it. The main reason it closed was that Chelsea went from being multicultural and very accepting to being gentrified… it got a lot posher, basically. Posh people didn’t like lesbians spilling out onto the pavement at 11.30pm every night of the week!

Before that, the Gateways was tolerated by the police. The only time you would see them there is if there had recently been a divorce; men would sometimes hire secret officers or private detectives to find evidence that their wives were lesbians.

I guess it makes sense that the Gateways remained a members’ club, in that case!

Jacquie: It did – the password was ‘Dorothy’! You had to be a member, but it only cost about a shilling or something like that. It was because of licensing.

It’s touched on in the documentary, but a lot of lesbians couldn’t “come out” because they had kids and families. As a result, there was tension between the Gateways and political groups like the Gay Liberation Front. Can you tell me about that?

Jacquie: It’s a fascinating story. The Gay Liberation Front were out on the streets making noise, and some women – including Elizabeth, who’s in the documentary – went to put posters up for a fundraiser, and to encourage more people to join. Smithy saw it as taking away their custom, so there was an altercation. News got back to the GLF, so they held a protest which turned into a standoff. Lesbians were in the basement, and there there lots of largely middle-class, metropolitan gay men upstairs throwing leaflets down. I think Gina called the police and a few GLF protestors were arrested, but the police also arrested three random straight men who had absolutely nothing to do with the protest! We only found about those arrests later, but I think the mention of GLF is one of the gems in the documentary. It opens up conversations around who was actually able to be out on the streets, who was able to be loud and proud.

Gateways Grind. (BFI Flare)

We touched on the invisibility of lesbian history earlier. Do you see that starting to change?

Jacquie: Something has definitely been unhinged. We’ve silenced ourselves a lot throughout history, but now we’re starting to say, “wait, hang on a minute!” Because we were involved in the AIDS crisis, we were at protests and we were marching the streets to campaign against [Thatcher’s famously homophobic legislation] Section 28. What about lesbians abseiling into the House of Lords, or hijacking the BBC television studios? We’ve always been political, but I think it’s up to us now to tell our stories.

Do you see Gateways Grind as part of that mission to document lesbian histories?

Jacquie: We are seeing documentaries like Ahead of the Curve and Rebel Dykes, but like Gateways Grind, it was largely self-funded. Where’s the documentary about Greenham Common? Actually, if I see a male filmmaker pick that up, I’ll kick myself! We need to be the ones to tell our stories. Hopefully Gateways Grind is part of that movement, and it’s only going to grow.

There’s talk in the documentary of a Gateways revival, as well as the campaign for a blue plaque. What do you ultimately want people to take away from Gateways Grind?

Jacquie: I want them to take away the fact that there is this history of a lesbian-only club that was incredibly successful, and it’s a rich history. I remember in the ‘90s I could go out to a lesbian-only night every day of the week. I could be surrounded by lesbians, and I don’t think I realised then how lucky I was. Now, I’d love to go a pub or bar where I could have a drink, a chat and a dance, and be surrounded by lesbians – both cis and trans – and non-binary people. I really hate what’s happening [in terms of transphobic conversations around safe spaces,] so I think that’s important to say.

Gateways Grind shows at BFI Flare on Friday (25 March) at 6pm, and on Sunday (27 March) at 3.20pm, both at the BFI Southbank.