LGBT History Month - meet Dani Ahrens

Posted February, 2024

We are delighted to share this article by one of our Trustees, Dani Ahrens, during LGBT History Month. Dani Ahrens is a founding organiser of Brighton Pride and is a lifelong activist who has fought in solidarity with migrants, for safer streets for children and cyclists, for living rents, for the rights of Gay and Lesbian people, and against austerity.

Tom and Dani

“I've been a RISE Trustee since June 2022. I got into that through the RISE UP campaign, which a few of us started when we heard that RISE had lost the refuge funding from Brighton and Hove Council a couple of years ago.

I've been an activist for many years. I came up through the peace movement when I was a really young teenager and then moved to Brighton in 1987, to come to university. I immediately got involved in the Section 28 campaign. That was my first big activism as an adult, and I was a core organiser of that group, being part of Brighton Area Action against Section 28 from 1988 through to 1991 when the campaign merged into the beginnings of Brighton Pride, and then centrally involved in organising Pride until 1993. There was a Brighton Pride event in 1973 but 1991 was the beginning of the current run of Brighton Pride.

Campaigning against Section 28 made for a really exciting time. We were young. We were angry. The government was bringing in this law and we just refused to let that make us feel like victims. We were not going to accept it. We knew we were just going to just come out on the streets and be loud and be proud. It was a really vibrant and exciting campaign - we did loads of actions. We even did a tour of the country! We made an exhibition, printed a monthly newsletter, held an annual march from Hove Town Hall to Brighton Town Hall, and we had a big demo outside the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth in 1990 with three giant papier mache heads that symbolised Hate, Fear and Ignorance, to reflect back to them what they were giving to us. [see Dani's photos from this action below]

The most thrilling was the action we did in 1990 in the Brighton Centre at the International Congress for the Family, an evangelical Christian right wing conference. The people there had lobbied the Conservative Party to bring in Section 28 - it was basically their idea. The opening speech was given by Princess Diana. A few of us booked tickets, and we smuggled in pieces of paper - when we got in, we rushed into the toilets and turned them into placards that we could hold up that said ‘Lesbian Mothers Aren't Pretending’.

The action was done by four lesbians and one gay man. We sat and listened to Princess Diana’s speech, which was actually quite nice. Princess Diana was a kind and tolerant person, and she was saying ‘all different types of family are valid’ - I don't know how that went down at the conference! As soon as she finished, we marched onto the stage and held up these placards, then put them down in front of her and walked out of the Brighton Centre. It was incredible - we didn't even get arrested! We walked out of the Centre and gave interviews to the media. Of course, because it was Princess Diana, it was on the front page of every newspaper the next day. It was amazing, but that was the kind of thing that women were doing at that time.

The whole Brighton Section 28 campaign was astonishing. Someone - not me - had put out a call saying ‘we're going to have a public meeting, there's this new law coming in’. And, you know, 50 or 60 people turned up.

There was a lot of energy and anger in the room and we quickly set up subgroups to look at different things. There was a trade union group, there was a group of nurses, there was an education and schools group, which was a mixture of teachers and some sixth form students who had really different perspectives on what to do in schools. The students were angry and wanted to break out of the gender norms - a group of these amazing young women wore tuxedos to their 6th Form Ball - but the teachers were clear that they couldn’t be out at work as teachers.

Back then, The Argus ignored us or printed the most vile letters about us. At times, the Argus Letters page was full of blatantly homophobic letters every week that we felt we had to respond to - letters asking ‘Why do they have to shove it down our throats’ and saying how shocking we were. The Argus was really hostile to us, and the gay scene also basically ignored us. There was a gay scene, there were clubs. But when we wanted to raise money, when we were shaking buckets and giving out leaflets in the bars and organising Pride, we didn't get any support from the gay, commercial gay scene. It was all grassroots. Volunteer led, funded by donations from individuals and really heavily dominated by women. That was in part a conscious decision, because we knew that in a mixed group, if you don't do something about it, men will just tend to dominate the space.

After we did all that Section 28 campaigning, I was completely burned out and I went travelling. I'd already met my partner by then, so even though it was a plan I’d had for a while, it was quite hard. We were apart for about nine months but when I came back, we settled down together. We rented a house in Brighton and then we raised our children here together. It was a great place to bring up kids as as a lesbian couple. We had a lot of support and the fact that we were lesbians was pretty unremarkable. We set up Rainbow Families, which is still going, and that was great. It was a place where we could meet other lesbian parents and talk about anything, give support and share information about things like how to get pregnant. And the kids could play. It was fun. We took the kids to Pride. One year we organised a creche there, which was great, so we had a few minutes to wander around and look at things just ourselves. But we also did children's events and activities at Pride and had a presence - we used to take the buggies and attach flags to them..

In later years, I’ve been active in other areas. I was involved with Thousand 4 £1000 for about five years after I did a big crochet project that lots of other people got involved in. It had on it the wording from the Patcham Pylon at the entrance to Brighton. It says,

Hail Guest, we ask not what thou art

If friend we greet thee, hand & heart

If stranger, such no longer be

If foe, our love shall conquer thee

This is the motto of Brighton. I made all those letters and then other people contributed squares. We ended up with this lovely thing - the Brighton Welcome Blanket - which I donated to Thousand 4 £1000. I'm also a welfare rights adviser, which I volunteer to do once a week at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project. And I'm involved in feminism, mainly through a group called Sisters Salon locally.

I’m proud to have been asked to contribute to RISE’s articles in LGBT History Month, LGBT History Month is worth remembering because the campaigns we fought were really not that long ago but it was a very, very different time. It's interesting to reflect back on how different it was. When you look around now, there are rainbow flags everywhere. From where I'm standing, I think the Conservative government misjudged the mood of the country at that point in the late 80s, thinking they could pick up some easy votes by having a go at gay people. We were still in the midst of the AIDS crisis, there had been a huge amount of real nasty homophobia around that. Gay men, as well as suffering terribly from the actual illness, had to cope with horrific abuse and hostility. The Government didn't realise how much people were going to be prepared to resist them.

When we did resist, and produced this really joyous, vibrant, exciting campaign, we went out and talked to people and said, ‘Look, this is not okay. We're just your neighbours, we live here, we work in your schools, our kids go to these schools, we’re people who have children and love our children’. Most people said, ‘Yeah, that's true’.

It took ages for them to repeal the law but what is important about that, as a piece of history, is that it's not just important for lesbians and gay people, bisexual people, it's important to everybody. Because what you can learn from it is you can change things. We can change the course of history from below. Nobody's coming to fix things for us. That's what I learned. Not just from the Section 28 campaign or from lesbian and gay history, but from all of my work in grassroots campaigns - nobody's coming to fix these things. We have to sort it out ourselves and we can change things if we are strong and rely on each other and trust each other. And that's the story of RISE as well.

Women were second class citizens in this country in the 1960s. There was no equal pay act, women couldn't even have their own bank accounts. And from then to now is the blink of an eye. It changed because women collectively said ‘No, we can't live like this anymore’, and supported each other and really changed history.

I got involved with RISE when the refuge funding was removed, because it felt like what women had created, built and sustained, together, was commodified and sold off as if it could be delivered by anyone. It couldn’t. Women from the second wave feminist movement had created a refuge in Brighton. They created the refuge project out of nothing. They found a house, women volunteered to run it and slowly that had built up into a substantial thing. RISE organised the development of the current refuge, designed the building - that all came from that grassroots movement, rooted in what survivors needed, and eventually it was a thing that was funded by the Council and owned by a Housing Association. And that meant that it could be taken away.

The Council awarded that funding to someone else, and someone else could then rent it from the housing association that owns it. That just seems so unjust to me, that the council has this power because they're the ones that provide the money. Even though all of the initial idea and need and organisation of it came from the movement. And the same thing is happening now with LGBT refuge provision. RISE initially bid for that funding. The idea was developed through a whole process with the LGBT community in Brighton and Hove. Brighton has always been a place where people found sanctuary and acceptance. It is pretty shocking, that part of that acceptance and sanctuary in Brighton and Hove, this LGBT refuge provision is being threatened with being taken away. I think it's a real shame.

RISE has created, and continues to create, every day a community of care. All the different bits of RISE’s service are connected through that community. If you slice bits off of it, you end up with something that's so much less than the sum of its parts.

I want to close by mentioning some of the people who were centrally involved with the Section 28 campaign and the start of Pride. I won't remember all of them, but I want to acknowledge Melita Dennett who was centrally important. Arthur Law and Richard Smith who have both sadly passed away now. Judy Richards, who is still active and standing strong for black women in the city. And Linda Pointing and Tom Sargant, who set up a fantastic organisation called Brighton Ourstory, which is how we know a load of stories of Brighton’s Lesbian and Gay History from before that time. That was also part of the legacy from Brighton’s Section 28 campaign - they collected lots of amazing oral histories from people who lived through the time when homosexuality was illegal.

Remembering how dramatically things can change is why Lesbian Gay History Month is important - it's about looking back on how we have changed things collectively together, especially when we need to come together to change things again.”

We're grateful to Dani for sharing her time and memories with us, and for providing the photos in the gallery below.

We acknowledge Dave Jones as the owner of the header photo we've used, of Dani with Tom, more of which can be seen here