Jill Gardiner, celebrated lesbian historian and poet, dies aged 63. Words by Jane Traies.

April 18, 2023

The lesbian historian and poet Jill Gardiner has died, aged only 63.  Probably best known for her book From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club 1945-85, Jill was a teacher, librarian, researcher and writer.

Born to a teacher mother and historian father, Jill had a gender-relaxed childhood, featuring both a dolls’ house and a toy fort. Her parents encouraged her to aspire to a career, and she studied history at Somerville College, Oxford, where she also discovered feminism and Spare Rib magazine. (Her journalistic career began with an article about homeless people in Oxford, for the student magazine Cherwell.)

While still at primary school, Jill had been outraged by the sacking of a teacher who had been discovered to be gay. As she grew up, she became aware of her own bisexuality but, like so many queer people at that time, felt unable to disclose or act upon it. However, when she moved to Brighton to take up her first teaching post, Jill and her landlady fell in love, and she soon discovered Brighton’s lesbian scene.

Despite having to lead a double life, Jill’s teaching career flourished: she taught history to both A Level and Access students, becoming Head of Politics, and (of course) Equal Opportunities Co-ordinator. Alongside her teaching, she wrote essays on politics and gender for Causeway Press, and a book, Women and Politics: Progress without Power?  for the Politics Association. While on a women’s walk one day, she was recruited to the Brighton Ourstory project, eventually becoming one of the editors of their book Daring Hearts: lesbian and gay lives in 50s and 60s Brighton (QueenSpark, 1992). Encouraged by the inclusive poetry scene, she also became Chair of Brighton Poets.

Jill Gardiner

Writing was Jill’s passion. From an early age, she used verse to express her undeclared love of women. Born Jill Longmate, she first adopted the pseudonym ‘Gardiner’ in 1992, in order to submit a (prize-winning) lesbian love poem to the Cardiff International competition; it was a time when her sexuality could have got her sacked from teaching. She found fiction difficult, so embarked on a social history of lesbian life in the second half of the twentieth century. From the Closet to the Screen was published in 2003 and has been in print ever since.

Jill was a familiar figure at the Women’s International Festival on Lesvos, where she wrote and performed some of her poems. In 2019, her poetry reached a wider audience when her collection With Some Wild Woman was published by Tollington Press. Before she died, she was working on a biography of the author Maureen Duffy.

Her death has come as a shock to her many friends, and is a loss to the wider lesbian community. As well as being a significant historian and poet, Jill will be remembered as a loyal and generous friend, who has been taken from us far too soon.

Jane Traies