Cumbria’s Hidden LGBTQ+ History
Cumbria is a county rich with heritage. From Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in the south to the ports of Whitehaven in the west and Carlisle Castle in the north of the county, Cumbria is an area of the UK that holds a strong heritage.
But little is known about our counties queer roots. This LGBTQ+ history month we invite you to celebrate little known LGBTQ+ figures in the place we call home and look at what impacted they had in Cumbria.
Kris Kirk: The openly gay journalist from Carlisle who performed Radical Drag to challenge public perceptions of gender and LGBTQ+ identity.
Born in 1950 Carlisle, Christopher Pious Mary Kirk colloquial known as Kris Kirk grew up and went to school in the county’s capital. In early adulthood Kris went down south to the University of Nottingham where he studied American Literature.
Kirk came out as an openly gay man whilst attending the university and founded the universities first Gay Liberation Society.
This is when Kris first took part in radical street theatre and drag. “Radical Drag” was the use of drag in public as a form of protest. Kirk appeared as Maid Marian in a gay street theatre performance of Robin Hood known as Robina Hood and her Gay Folk. This was in 1975, and The Campaign for Homosexual Equality was also involved as well as the Gay Liberation Front.
The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded in 1970 at the London School of Economics, where they would hold their meetings. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality was founded at the same time and focused on providing social facilities, counselling ‘sympathetic listening’ and education to the wider LGBTQ+ community.
The Gay Liberation Front thrived on spontaneity and zapping public events which would gain them notoriety. Zaps was a term to describe what we would now call direct action, a form of protest. One former member described how they went up onstage to demonstrate for The Campaign for Homosexual Equality at the London Palladium.
Zaps involved wearing outrageous costumes and cross dressings as a confrontational radical tool. The GLF once interrupted a Festival of Light Rally in 1971. Other GLF theatre goers went to Kings Cross tube station in highly decorated costumes and handed out leaflets with their campaign message.
Shortly after graduating Kris became a journalist and wrote amongst other subjects about pop music and wrote openly as a gay man.
Kirk fell into music journalism and a collection of his articles featured in a book ‘A Boy Called Mary: Kris Kirk’s greatest hits’.
Kris alongside his partner and photographer Ed Heath brought out a book on drag and gender called Men in Frocks in 1984.
Clearly these actions, whether protests, demonstrations, or street theatre challenged public perceptions. Kris was the leader of the GLF in Nottingham and it really succeeded under him however when Kris became ill with AIDS and sadly died in 1993 much of the GLF disbanded.
Without Kris Kirk’s work as an activist much of the privileges and acceptance we have now wouldn’t have materialised.
In the 70s and 80s we needed figures like Kris Kirk to challenge the gender norms and conservative thinking of the time. Kirk’s actions contributed to the wider acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and that even meant putting himself in danger by dressing in drag and protesting in very public areas where he could well have been a target.
Not bad for a lad from Carlisle.
If you’d like to learn more about Kris’s life Channel Four made a series called Six of Heart’s where they interview him about his life in an episode called ‘A Boy Called Mary’ which aired in 1986.