These are the words of Sandi Hughes, whose personal archive of over 300 videos and thousands of photographs from 1975 to 2005 - alongside magazines, flyers and posters - are the subject of a new project, Rewind Fast Forward.
Over the next year, with the support of Liverpool Records Office in Liverpool Central Library, Rewind Fast Forward will digitise, archive, and make Sandi's collection freely available for the public to access online. The project will culminate in a Homotopia event next year, using archive footage and interviews with people from the time the footage was originally shot, and will coincide with next year's Scalarama festival which will focus on archive film.
The generous spirit that led Sandi to donate such a personal collection is evident in how open she is in telling me her extraordinary story. She sums it up accurately when she says "I have lived the phrase 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger'."
"When I first came out in 1970 - you got a job, got married, had a family.” She explains, “the gay and black communities were underground due to racism and homophobia - back in the day you would get a smack for no reason when walking down the street. The life we had was fierce because in order to be yourself you would be a challenge to those who didn't like you."
Thankfully this changed after moving to Toxteth in the early 1970s. Sandi had "never been happier. There was no abuse." Sandi is at pains to counter the stereotype of black people being homophobic, saying "I used to go to clubs with black gay men. The black elders - the hustlers - used to protect me and the gay boys", and it was during this time that Sandi became more comfortable in her own skin; “I realised that my growth was stunted [by homophobia and racism]."
Later in the 70s Sandi took a film and video course, and found the process similar to cooking, having previously worked in catering; "I bought my own camera and filmed everyone." After a nasty custody case in which Sandi was told by the courts that, due to her sexuality, she was unfit to mother her daughters but allowed to keep her son, Sandi channelled her mothering instincts in to taking care of the young gay men who had been thrown out of their family homes due to their sexuality. "The gay boys called me 'the godmother of the gay scene’” she laughs.
The 80s saw the beginning of an increased awareness of LGBT issues, and "acceptance opened up. I became aware of how wrong everything was" she recalls. "The gay and black community became an alternative education." In the time of Thatcher's infamous Clause 28, Sandi started to document stories. "By this time I was well in to filming the gay community underground. We felt safe underground. In the street we had to put on a different attitude."
Set against this landscape of political and social change, Sandi, who had grown up in a children’s home in Bristol, made efforts to find her birth parents. She found her mother, but with limited success. "She was made up to see me, but she instantly said, 'you've seen me, you'll have to go'". An unlikely series of events, coupled with Sandi’s dogged determination led to her daughters eventually discovering that their grandfather had lived in Chicago - where her daughters lived at the time - until 10 months prior, when he had sadly died of cancer.
This brought about a beautiful example of the L8 community spirit that had presented itself when Sandi's son had also died of cancer, as the community held a party to raise money for Sandi and her family to fly to Chicago so that Sandi could put flowers on her father's grave. This in turn led to Sandi finding her last living blood relative, Ella May, in a nursing home suffering with Alzheimer's disease, who said that Sandi and her father looked alike.
"That went deep on how I felt about everything, filling me up and feeling strong with who I was". It's clear that identity plays a significant part in both the making of Sandi's archive and the letting go of it, and Sandi agrees that letting go of the archive is symbolic. "[When I was younger], listening to others' stories made me relate to them. I’d listen to black groups and think, ‘I’m like them’.”
In several ways this project is coming full circle – both in the sense of Sandi giving to others what she didn’t have when she was younger, and that the young people in the videos and photos are now adults. "There is true power is valuing yourself and celebrating your diversity and individuality" she says.
Tim Brunsden - a collaborator on the project, who first approached Sandi with the idea of making the archive public - explains that the project has two aims; the first one is to digitise Sandi's extensive photo and video archive and make it publicly accessible, the second is to make three short BFI-funded films based on themes that emerge from the archive, for example feminism, politics, and music. It is clear that social activism - while not an explicit aim of the project - is very close to Sandi's heart, and showing the previously unseen LGBT/BAME history, culture, and life is important.
As Sandi said in a speech at the project launch, "there is more equality now, but that doesn't mean you should be complacent." As well as showcasing her work and commissioning new films, the project will also train volunteers in digital archiving, and include pop up events and talks using Sandi's footage to talk about issues of the time that footage was taken. "To me, history belongs to everyone" Sandi says.
The launch of Rewind Fast Forward took place on 24 November at Liverpool Small Cinema, and the atmosphere was reminiscent of a family get-together - open, friendly, and with plenty of free food and drink. The venue's cinema screen showed a loop of photos, film, and audio from Sandi's archive, shedding light on the LGBT/BAME life in Liverpool and giving a taster of things to come - clubbing, music, carnivals, street parties, politics, and humour - as part of Rewind Fast Forward in 2016.
To find out more about the project, or the volunteering opportunities availabe click here.