Gay West is a social and support group covering Bristol, Bath and the surrounding area. It can trace its origins back to April 1970 when the Bristol group of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE Bristol) was founded. The other founding organisation was Bath Gay Awareness Group (BGAG), which was set up in autumn 1971. Both groups had a campaigning function, organising events to highlight the legal and social discrimination to which LGBT people were subject. The groups held regular meetings of their members, invited outside speakers and wrote to MPs and Councillors to try to get them to support changes in the law to remove some of the anomalies left by the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality. Bristol CHE was also active in raising the question of employment rights.
In 1982, CHE restructured itself and the Bath Group renamed its self to GAYWEST, aiming to become a more social group but still involved in political activism. Early the following year, CHE Bristol merged with GayWest, which since has covered the area of the old County of Avon (Bristol, Bath and surrounding areas). In the 1980’s, it had a very active social programme with events on most nights of the week, the membership increased rapidly, reaching a peak of over 400 in 1992, of which about a third were women. GayWest gave support and a sense of respect at a time when Gay people felt under attack from vicious headlines in the tabloid press over the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the governments section 28, which tried to prevent local authorities from taking positive measures towards LGBT people in Education and other facilities. The group made great efforts to reach out to the local community and in return received support from other people and organisations.
In the 1990’s, public opinion began to change and a more balanced debate emerged nationally. As more attractive commercial venues and social and sports organisations catering for LGBT people appeared locally, the need for GayWest diminished and the number of members gradually fell. Membership stabilised around 80-90 in the early 2000’s and since then GayWest has continued to thrive. It’s main activity is a coffee shop, now known as The Rainbow Café, which has operated in the centre of bath every Saturday morning since 1983. The Café is run by volunteers and is open to everyone. Around 30 people usually come and it is a place where lasting friendships have been made. The Group has an active Website and issues a regular Journal. It also organises occasional events such as the Christmas Dinner – the highlight of the year – Picnics and outings for it’s members.