The Sentinels – known variously as ‘Dorothy Towers’ and ‘Fairy Towers’ in Birmingham’s LGBTQ+ communities – are two residential tower blocks – Clydesdale Tower and Cleveland Tower – located in Birmingham’s city centre. During the 1970s and ’80s, the site gained a reputation for being a place where many gay men lived. During the height of the HIV epidemic in the mid-’90s, many living in these blocks had the virus; some sadly passed away, leading to the towers also becoming known as the ‘Pearly Gates’.
Well-known drag artist Twiggy, who still works in Birmingham’s drag scene and lives in Dorothy Towers, shared his memories of the towers with Gay Birmingham Remembered, a project initiated by Birmingham LGBT to document local stories. He told them that he moved into the building in 1994, after being rehoused by the council.
Talking to Scene, he explains: “I did specifically ask to be housed in either Cleveland or Clydesdale Tower as I thought it’d be more comfortable there with ‘my people’. Although there was still a lot of homophobia around at the time. It was mostly gay men living here at the time and, in fact, it was also a bit of a dumping ground for those diagnosed with HIV. At that time there wasn’t really an easy effective medicine regime. I don’t know many people who were positive and died, but the towers were often referred to by some as ‘The Pearly Gates’.”
Many other people also shared their stories with Gay Birmingham Remembered, thus shining some light on why these blocks became so entwined with Birmingham’s queer history. Much of this was due to the buildings’ proximity to the city’s LGBTQ+ scene and the local health resources.
Richard Keddie, who moved into the towers in 2008, explained: “When I moved from London, I wanted to live here in one of these towers. I knew about them and knew people that lived in them […] Everything’s two minutes away; you can stagger back!”
In 2022, a new project hopes to uncover more memories like these, exploring the story of Dorothy Towers. “The project is a collaboration between local artists and organisations and responds to a collective impetus to celebrate Birmingham’s social histories,” explains the website for Vivid Projects.
Dorothy Towers, a project by Sean Burns, is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and supported by Birmingham 2022, Heritage Lottery Funding and Vivid Projects. an artist, writer and editor whose work and research interests focus on regional, social, LGBTQ+ nightlife histories.
Though Burns currently lives in London, he was born and raised in Birmingham and is keenly interested in researching the West Midland’s colourful LGBTQ+ experiences. The project will culminate in a screening event on September 23 and 24 at Vivid Projects, Digbeth. A 40-minute film will appear projected into a purpose-built installation designed by Intervention Architects.
If you’re interested in learning more about the project or have a story related to the towers, you can contact the artist via email: firstname.lastname@example.org