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 90s 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 regularly 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 Magazine. It also organises occasional events such as the Christmas Dinner/Party – the highlight of the year – Picnics and outings for it’s members.
GayWest Prison Outreach work
GayWest first became involved in working with prisons in 2014, supporting the community and objectives of the prison’s Diversity & Equality team, at HMP Ashfield. Our ‘Community Outreach team is now proactively working with four men’s prisons in the South West, giving visibility, influencing change, and helping to support often vulnerable GBT prisoners. Working directly with the prison’s Diversity & Equality officers and occasionally the Probation service, we attend LGBT meetings and other events, including Prides, support individual prisoners with social visits, and offer sometimes vital local support when they’re resettling back into the community.
In 2020, GayWest reached its fifth decade. The group is again growing and now has over 100 members, a proud achievement in our modern world. Planned events to celebrate these 50 years have been delayed by the Covid 19 pandemic, as have our regular social events, however our members have have instead been able to keep In touch by using our new WhatsApp group. GayWest will continue to provide a space for LGBT people to make friends, socialise and maybe find lasting partners.