Eastbourne campaigner recognised for her work battling for equality

A woman from Eastbourne is being honoured for her work in a special booklet being printed by the Unite union.
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Betty Gallacher has been campaigning for more than 40 years as a trade union representation and a gay woman fighting for equality.

The booklet – called Betty Gallacher: Standing up for all workers – launches later this month and it tells Betty’s life story.

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Unite is interviewing activists from its past and Betty is only the ninth person to receive such an accolade.

Betty Gallacher SUS-201119-110438001Betty Gallacher SUS-201119-110438001
Betty Gallacher SUS-201119-110438001

Betty said, “I am absolutely thrilled to have been recognised nationally in this way. It is a great honour and I feel very humbled. But the battles go on and there is so much to campaign for.

“I lived in Scotland until I was 17. I knew I was different from the age of about 13. In those days you thought you were the only one. Life was so very lonely.

“I went into the army at the age of 17 because I knew that there would be people there who were like me. Yet within eight months I had been thrown out because of what was referred to as ‘lesbian tendencies’.

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“My mum had died when I was just 11 and the first my dad knew was when the letter arrived from the army explaining why I had left. I hadn’t told them the truth, I couldn’t, but suddenly my family found out from this one letter.

Betty Gallacher SUS-201119-110428001Betty Gallacher SUS-201119-110428001
Betty Gallacher SUS-201119-110428001

Betty then worked in the Outer Hebrides for three years in a Naafi shop selling items to members of the armed forces. She said how her boss at the shop ‘backed her’ even when the army explained to him why Betty had been made to leave.

When she was 20, Betty moved to London and worked in a butcher’s shop before joining London Transport.

She said, “In those days women were not allowed to become drivers so I was a conductor for 17 years and then a driver for 25 years. I ended up being responsible for more than 4,500 staff and in that time I was fighting for their rights.

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“I became a union rep because at first I felt frustrated that not enough was being done. I was the first female union rep and I can remember fighting to save one of the depots.

“I was also the union convenor taking on appeals. I never made deals with management – I fought every case on its merit. I sat on the regional committee and I was determined to make progress.”

She said how at first only the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ were recognised, then ‘bi’ and ‘transgender’ slowly came through – leading to the LGBT phrase.

Betty said, “It was more than a phrase; it was a reflection of how far we had travelled in terms of equality.

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“Now I realise the power of a trades union and I always advise staff to join one. It’s the unions which have brought about so much change and better equality in society today.”

Betty was just 21 when she met Eileen who was 40 at the time. They were together for 25 years.

She said, “Eileen meant the world to me and when she died from cancer I was devastated. I can always remember going to register her death and being asked if we were related. I said she was my partner and in those days things were still difficult.

“Eventually they allowed me to be recognised as her partner, just like husband and wife. It was a horrendously sad time. Half of me had gone. I was suicidal at the time.”

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Six years later Betty met Mandy and then retired to Eastbourne in 2011.

She said, “We wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of London and I had known Eastbourne for many years because I visited regularly on union business.

“I can remember back in 2015 going to a LGBT social and everyone had gone by 8.30pm as they said they were off home to bed. It was that night that I decided I wanted to do a Pride in Eastbourne.”

There have now been three Prides in Eastbourne. Sadly it was cancelled this year due to lockdown.

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Betty is chair of Bourne Out, a group which supports the LGBT community locally.

She said, “We are there to provide support. We have a drop-in cafe open Friday-Sunday in Mark Lane and we want to make people aware of this.

“We want to break down even more barriers and also raise awareness of the work and support that we provide.”

Anyone wanting more information can go to Bourne Out LGBT on Facebook.