The little giant Elaine Evans has been supporting the LGBTQ+ community in a variety of ways for many years.

Jaq Bayles March 17, 2020

The little giant

Elaine Evans has been supporting the LGBTQ+ community in a variety of ways for many years. She talks Jaq Bayles through her life as an ally

At almost any given LGBTQ+ fundraising event chances are the diminutive figure of Elaine Evans BEM will be seen weaving her way through the crowds, smiling sweetly and rattling her collection box.

“I love shaking boxes and getting money out of people. I don’t try to push them but they find it appealing, this little old lady coming up and asking for donations.”

‘Little’ she may be, but what this 82-year-old lacks in stature she makes up for in presence, dedication and zest for life, and much of that has, for many years, been directed at supporting the LGBTQ+ community.

Last year Elaine was awarded a Golden Handbag for her contribution to the community as an ally, following which she said: “What an honour to receive the Golden Handbag LGBT Allies award. When I thought about it on the bus the next day, I started to cry. I receive so much love, kindness and support from the LGBT community, they deserve an award.”

Having lived in Brighton & Hove since the age of 11, Elaine’s introduction to the LGBTQ+ world was somewhat circuitous. It all started with the school of English she set up in the early 1970s and which, by 1976, was big enough for her to buy her own premises in Portland Road.

“As the school got bigger I had to stop teaching in order to run it and had to employ more teachers. When I used to look at the CV if it ever said they were into amateur dramatics or something like that I would think ‘Oh good’. When you’re in the classroom you need to be able to get the students’ attention and keep it, so if you are used to amateur dramatics you have a sort of way as an actor with audiences. It helps a lot if people are very big on personality,” says Elaine.

“It didn’t matter to me if they were straight, gay or anything. I used to ask for feedback from students and we had a very camp man who taught teenagers in the summer. He had such a way with him and used to get top marks from his class – I knew he was gay without even asking. Another time a secretary said her partner was giving her a lift home and I was quite surprised when a young woman walked in. But I thought so what?

“I’ve never had any feelings that it wasn’t good.”

While running the school Elaine witnessed the coming out of teenage boys who were subsequently kicked out of their family homes. She shakes her head: “It’s so unfair. I love the song I Am What I Am – you are what you are born.”

Some 30 years ago her husband, Steve, got the couple into karaoke – a world that would eventually become the jumping off point for the real beginning of Elaine’s immersion into the LGBTQ+ community.

“Steve died in 2006 and for two years I was deeply unhappy and stayed indoors. Then one day I thought I would like to go to karaoke, but I didn’t want to go to a straight bar because I didn’t want to get chatted up. So I went to the Queens Arms where Betty Swollocks was hosting and it was mostly gay men. On the other side of the road was Poison Ivy and they used to have karaoke as well. Then I heard about the Bedford Tavern so I started going in there and I gradually got to become known.”

But it was while volunteering to provide refreshments for runners in the half marathon that Elaine fell into the fundraising side of things.

“This fella came along and I noticed he was wearing a Sussex Beacon T-shirt. I always took some cash so with me to offer someone who had made that special effort and was raising money for a good cause, so I asked him if I could donate a fiver I had. He gave me a Bear Patrol (LGBT social/leisure networking group which strongly supports the Beacon) badge, which was what got me introduced to that.”

She started turning up to fundraising events and also got involved in The Martin Fisher Foundation, working towards zero HIV in Brighton and Hove – then came Pride.

A staunch supporter of the parade, she would take her students – teens of all nationalities – to watch the event. Some of them were from countries whose laws were not particularly inclusive of LGBTQ+ people and she would take the opportunity to educate them on the importance of inclusivity.

Pride meant – and still means – a great deal to her and her fundraising efforts went well beyond box shaking. Even while recovering from a back operation she determined to undertake the Pride Rainbow Run in Preston Park. “I was pushing my Rollator and was determined to do it. It was more a Rainbow hobble than a Rainbow Run, but I did that two years running.”

Among the other LGBTQ+ feathers in her hat, Elaine has been a Gold Friend of The Actually Gay Men’s Chorus for 12 years and became a sponsor of the Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus last year.

She was featured in Gscene back in January 2017 on account of her distributing the magazine in Spain, where she had a flat just down the coast from Benidorm. “We used to go there for entertainment. There was a very nice gay café on the seafront and they said they got people in from Brighton and I said I must bring Gscene over for them. I used to take five issues each month. I told James I had been doing it for three years and he ran the little article.”

Later this year Elaine will again feature in Miss Jason’s House Party – The Great British Gad About on Latest TV, in which she plays a somewhat deaf cocktail waitress who hands out drinks to the panel. So far she has featured in four series.

And as to the future? “Who knows what’s going to be up – I’m game for anything.”