The Gateways Club, or the Gates as it was known, was the centre of lesbian London for decades. A watering hole in the heart of Chelsea, it one of the only exclusively lesbian venues in London, frequented by a mix of women of all classes, including the likes of author Patricia Highsmith. Running from the early 1930s until the mid-80s, it is a pivotal piece of London’s queer history, and the focus of Gateways Grind directed by Jacquie Lawrence’s feature documentary Gateways Grind which received its world premiere at last year’s BFI Flare.
Danish-British lesbian icon and national treasure, Dame Sandi Toksvig, fronts the film , interviewing former patrons about their memories of the venue, which she used to frequent herself. A fascinating illustration of London lesbian emerges, with a strong focus on the 60s to the 80s, when most of the film’s contributors were at the club.
At one point, artist and former Gateways patron Maggi Hambling reminisces about the place: “Down the dark seedy stairs and through the dark seedy door there was heaven.” Behind a nondescript green door just off the Kings Road, queer women gathered in private to dance, which the Grind of the film’s title refers to. Through personal recollections we learn about the club’s owner Gina Ware, who by all accounts ran the venue with an iron fist, keeping to a strict entry policy, creating a world of butches and femmes from all strata of society.
While a world away from being a perfect place, its importance to London lesbian life is undeniable. The array of contributors present include inaugural LGBTQ+ poet laureate Trudy Howson, DIVA magazine publisher Linda Riley, Stonewall co-founder Lisa Power, and artist and writer Jude Adams among others. Together their stories paint a picture of an oasis of somewhat debatable character. There is the distinct impression that everyone is looking back fondly without necessarily ignoring the dramas that went on within its walls, in the same way I myself look back on the seedy and dilapidated gay bars of my youth, that a mix of nostalgia and sense of, “I can’t believe I used to come here every week!”
The Gateways has become part of London’s lesbian pop cultural narrative, from being used as a location for the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George, to appearing in an episode of Call The Midwife. While the location is no longer a club, the building is waiting to find out whether it will be awarded a blue plaque from English Heritage, denoting its historical significance. If it is, it will become the first lesbian location to do so.
Gateways Grind goes out of its way to be jaunty and positive, helping to support the campaign for official recognition. There are some juicy stories to be told, with many merely hinted at. The glimpse we get here, during the film’s zippy 80 minute runtime, is of a safe space, a refuge, and a place to find companionship, sex, and love. A place for women to be themselves.
By Chad Armstrong