Getting to Know the Gay Next Door
Torsten Højer

Torsten Højer talks to historian Rose Collis about the launch of a new app that uncovers the hidden homo past of one of Britain’s gayest haunts.

Sheesh, we’re everywhere, aren’t we? Everywhere you look it’s ‘gay, gay, gay’ these days. Gay marriage, gay adoption, gay equality. Where will it end? Well, according to many a queer activist, the question we should be asking is ‘where did it start?’ Or, to be more specific, ‘what went before us?’

Gay history is important. As a good friend of mine said recently, "To understand who we were—where we’ve been—helps us to understand where we might be going." Because, contrary to the concept that gay is everywhere, we’re actually still pretty much invisible.

In the 1950s, there was a string of now-infamous propaganda advertisements attempting to educate the public about how to "spot a homosexual." One that still makes people’s Facebook walls is the American black and white video entitled Boys Beware, about a boy who’d been playing baseball and innocently hitches a ride home from a seemingly nice man. But, as the narrator warns, "Be careful, as you never know when the homosexual is about! They may seem normal…."

In the 1950s, people didn’t know when we were about. And for the most part, we did seem normal. In 1950s Britain, homosexuality was illegal, so one had to be most careful when prancing the streets or—shock!—displaying public affection.

We were invisible then, but due to some twisted queer hangover, we still are, despite legal and societal advances.

One woman who thinks this needs to change is the British writer and historian Rose Collis, who’s recently dunked her encyclopedic knowledge of queer history into the hungry cauldron of cell phone app technology.

“There’s a wealth of gay history in cities across the UK that’s hidden from view,” she says. “And I think it’s time the general public knew about it.”

To make this happen, Collis is launching an app for iPhone, focusing (to begin with) on the English south coast city of Brighton, where she is based. Called ‘Brighton’s Pink Plaques,' the idea is to place virtual plaques—or ‘e-plaques’—onto buildings around the city, visible via the app, which reveal the secret history of gay goings-on within its four walls. Believed to be the first of its kind in the UK, the app features original text and photos by Rose, and takes users on three themed ‘trails’ around the city’s LGBT history: hotels, pubs & clubs and shops & cafés.

“Visitors to the city, or even people who live here, generally have no idea of the rich and fabulous history of the venues they frequent,” says Collis. “During my ongoing research for carious projects I’m involved with—for instance my recent book The New Encyclopedia of Brighton, and my walking tours of the city—I’m constantly uncovering weird and wonderful stories about LGBT history. Finally, I’ll be able to share this often forgotten knowledge.”

Specific content is strictly confidential until the app is officially released, but Collis hints that the stories range from the famous (Oscar Wilde spent a lot of time in the city before his arrest) to the magical (a young man, Paul Frecker, who entered the Miss Brighton competition and did rather well under the cover of convincing drag). There are 75 ‘e-plaques’ in total.

“Brighton’s gay history isn’t always scandal,” Collis laughs. “But the city sure has attracted a lot of that. But the outrageous behavior is balanced with educational elements of the important people who identified as LGB or T who lived there or had a strong connection with the city. I’m hoping schools will pick it up and use it as an tool for learning. So here, kids, is the app that’ll finally teach you the LGBT past of the city that you call home! And for visitors, well, they can retrace the steps of some of the world’s most intriguing and fabulous homosexuals.”

‘Brighton’s Pink Plaques,’ by Rose Collis and programmer Stephen Watson, will be available from the end of February, price £1.79, via the App store, which can be accessed from iTunes (Mac or Windows) or any iOS device (iPhone, iPod touch or iPad) running iOS 4.2 or higher. For more about Brighton and Hove, visit


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