It is with incredible sadness that I have to announce that my dear friend, and my lesbian big ‘sister’, Gonul Zeki passed away at The Martlets Hospice on Saturday, March 5, 2016 after a long and brave fight against cancer. She was just 55 years old. Her wife Debbie Brixey was by her side until the very end. In fact Debbie had hardly left Go’s bedside for the past 10 days – these two women were utterly devoted to each other.
A photographer and graphic designer by profession, Gonul (known to her friends as Go) is best known for her company Shrinking Violet Designs who were a regular feature at pride festivals around Britain for the past twenty years with her trademark t-shirts and mugs. Many of her unique designs featured the ‘C’ word, mainly because she had a completely potty mouth and, as she often used to tell me, it was also her favourite word (before she would then call me ‘one’…). If you’ve ever seen anyone wearing a t-shirt or mug with I Can’t Even Think Straight!, I Think My Girlfriend Might Be A Lesbian, Honorary Lesbian, Boys Who Do Boys or Ladies Muff Diving Team – then that will have been one of Go’s designs.
Gonul was born in Cyprus in 1960 to Turkish Cypriot parents. When she was nine and it became obvious that the political situation was deteriorating her family decided to leave everything and came to London, although they told her that they were going on holiday to visit relatives. Go arrived without being able to speak a word of English but she soon went to school and became friends with a Greek girl called Helen who has remained one of her closest friends. Their friendship is also a delicious irony considering the Cypriot Civil war was all about hatred between the Turks and the Greeks. Go didn’t do baseless hatred.
After finishing her education, Go got a job at the famous Woburn Studios where she trained in photography, graphic design and reprographics becoming a professional photographer as the 1980’s dawned.
Gonul soon became involved in London’s increasingly visible lesbian and gay scene. Her images became flyers for many women’s club nights as well as nights at Heaven and for Diva magazine. She used to love whizzing around London in her beloved sports cars (which were often red). She even learnt to drive in a MG Midget. “I was the lesbian people noticed” as she once said to me.
In the mid 1980s Go became involved in the LLGC (the London Lesbian & Gay Centre) in Farringdon and this was where she first met her future wife Debbie. Debbie says she used to regularly be press-ganged by Go into ‘volunteering’ for various jobs such as running the bar or being the bouncer at the women’s disco. There was often a fight, which Debbie then had to break up. ‘The Brixey look’ is something Debbie is still famous for and it can stop traffic if she wants it to. The two kept in touch for a few years afterwards with Go often whisking Debbie off for lunch in her red Triumph Spitfire but their two planets wouldn’t align again for another twenty-five years. More of that later.
During the 1990’s Go spent a lot of time in the USA mainly in Florida. It was around this time that she became friends with Gabriella who has remained her closest friend. I had the privilege of meeting Gabby a few weeks ago when she flew in from San Francisco to visit her best friend for the last time. The three of them spent several days together swearing at each other and crying in equal measures. Gabby also provided some much-needed love and support for Debbie and the two have continued to share friendly insults and love via telephone and messenger in the days since Go’s death.
Go had to return to London in the late 2000’s when her mother became terminally ill. Within months of her mother’s death, her father also became ill and he passed 18 months later. Throughout this time Go travelled the length and breadth of the UK during ‘Pride Season’ pitching her Shrinking Violet stall at most Pride festivals to “spread the C-word” as she liked to put it.
Fast-forward to 2012 and Gonul and Debbie find each other again on Facebook. They start chatting, then they start flirting, then they meet up and by early 2014 they had fallen in love and they both decided to leave London to start a new life together buying their beloved home together in Saltdean moving down with their 7 cats They married at Brighton Register Office in the December of that same year.
Go and I became friends through the ‘Save Brighton Pride As We Know It’ Facebook campaign that she started in 2011. I got involved because I had been a trustee of Brighton Pride in 2003/4 before I took on 3SIXTY magazine with others in 2004. At that time we both shared the belief that the people running Brighton Pride had lost their way and I whole-heartedly supported her fight, along with several other people, to reclaim it for the gay community of Brighton. The campaign worked – just look at the success Brighton Pride has become since Paul Kemp took it on. Much of this is thanks to Go and also her good mate Laura Bright.
Go was diagnosed with cancer in late 2014. She went through several painful operations, a lot of chemotherapy, and radiotherapy too – but ultimately it didn’t work. She fought so hard and never really gave up hope although deep down she knew she was going to die. Last October she helped me clear out my flat up in London in her trusty Transit van. As we swopped London shagging and cruising stories on our way through Hammersmith, she turned to me and said “Jamie – you know it’s terminal. Please look after Debbie for me when I die.” I started blubbing and she turned to me, told me to man up and then handed me a lit cigarette. That’s why I loved her. It’s the little things.
A couple of weeks before Go died, she wasn’t in a good way but she wanted to get out of the house and do something that wasn’t about her cancer. So Graeme and I decided a picnic at our beach hut on Hove Promenade was just the ticket. We duly collected the ladies from Saltdean (Go was in a wheelchair by now, so it wasn’t the easiest thing to orchestrate) and we spent a couple of hours in the winter sun, eating egg sandwiches and drinking coffee out of a Thermos. We all remarked that we felt like we were in a Victoria Wood sketch.
Gonul Zeki was a one-off. She was a force of nature. She was fiercely loyal to her friends but she had no time for fakes or for arse holes or for people who were vain. She had an incredibly strong moral compass and she had impeccable manners. She was also an old school lesbian: she didn’t hate men, she just loved women. She also loved cats. Lots of cats.
There aren’t many gays or lesbians these days who stick their head over the parapet. We’re often too busy staring at Grindr or at Facebook. Gonul did stick her head above the parapet, in fact she would actually build a ladder (using her own power tools of course) and then she would jump down so she could have a pop at various ‘idiots’. They don’t make them like that any more. We all owe her an awful lot of thanks.
I loved this woman and I know Debbie will love her for the rest of her life.
Jamie Hakim, March 2016
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