Open The Door 2023: Iona McGregor (1929-2021)

Iona McGregor (1929-2021): Scottish LGBTQI+ activist and author and teacher best known for her written work and her contributions to gay rights activism, especially from the 1970’s onwards

Iona McGregor by Phil Ewe. Copyright Lighthouse Bookshop

Iona McGregor was one of Edinburgh’s first lesbian novelists. Well-known for her YA historical fiction in the 1960s and 70s, she was warned by her publisher never to include queer characters. In 1989 she was finally able to publish a lesbian mystery, set in Edinburgh in 1860 – Death Wore a Diadem. She was also an activist who risked losing her job as a teacher in order to support LGBT people. 

Death Wore a Diadem came to become Iona’s first novel capturing, no, I must say, setting free, ideas of a story carried by a lesbian character. Her story arrived in 1989 and came to be published through The Women’s Press. It liberated this strong Scottish author who would have been born in Scotland, rather than England, if she hadn’t been a premature child. Iona was born in 1929 in Aldershot (town in England). She knew she was different from the age of eight. Iona conveyed this to Bob Cant, author and editor of Footsteps and Witnesses: Lesbian and Gay Life Stories from Scotland that she was aware of her differences. Looking at the tapestry of her life, we can say she was destined to become an activist and remain in the hearts of her friends, including gay friends, who called her passing in 2021, as the end of an era, according to an obituary covered by The Guardian in the same year. It was written by her long-time friend Marsaili Cameron.

During her youth, this author challenged her nuns at her convent school, especially about Darwin. She wasn’t the one to be silenced, for a long time. Although the attitude towards homosexuals and other LGBTQ+ community in Scotland was not a safe ground. While romantic pursuits could not be followed in the public eyes, friendships became a central part of her life. She felt supported and encouraged by her friends, for in the eyes of the legislation from the ‘40s to the ‘70s, having friends were a permitted luxury. She spent a long time socializing with people and making lots of friends in this way.  

Iona’s family were her father Michael Joseph MacGregor who was a teacher in the Army Educational Corps and her mother Clarice Mary (nee Watkins). She was the eldest sister to her two younger sisters. She used to like the sun more than shadows. She paved her way to fight for gay rights after her education, in the ‘70s. She joined hands with Scottish Minorities Group, a safe space in Glasgow for people conforming to other genders and identities to meet in a maskless location, removing the shadow of pretending from their lives. Iona helped to create such safe spaces with the Group’s help in Edinburgh. It was a burgeoning feat, considering her then time profession as a teacher. Looking at the situation in Scotland, she moved to London for a job and secured a spot as a grammar schoolteacher. The salvation for people identifying as non-heterosexual was to come late in Scotland. Pioneering for LGBTQ+ rights or supporting their ‘under the shadow meetings’ could get one removed from their profession in the country. 

It is interesting to observe that Iona chose to reveal the story she had in mind, through Death Wore a Diadem, after retirement. When she thought she had entered a sort of safe space in her environment for gay people. Coming to her private life, Iona pursued relationships on her own terms. Under the roof of lesbian pubs. Her friend, Marsaili Cameron, describes the woman that came later, as the love of Iona’s life. The light among the shadows I would like to say. Iona and this woman spent 12 years of a lifetime in Edinburgh together, after leaving London, before having to, separate. The woman was weighed down by family tensions and the entire burden of ‘keeping it all a shushed business’.

Iona herself couldn’t reveal where her identity lied. Having a hold on her profession was also important. Later, she also became a Befriender on the Gay Centre Switchboard in Broughton Street. It is a one-stop listening service for queer and people conforming to diverse genders to share their daily sorrows, pressure, and suffocated feelings. Nearing her retirement, she left both this posting and her job at the school. Iona in all, lived a very active life, emotionally and physically. She didn’t leave many stones unturned to say. She used the strong support of her friends throughout youth, work, leisure and writing. 

We at the Glasgow Women’s Library were extremely pleased and grateful to have received the boxes Iona had to leave behind, in order to move into a care home, in her later years. A splendid collection of books trying to envelop someone’s, mine, maybe yours, life story with a different gender identity and lack of social and communal acceptance. 

Iona McGregor passed away in 2021 at the age of 92, in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

Complied by Aishwarya Balasubramanian, 2022

Further Reading:

Lavendar Menace: Iona McGregor – Scottish Lesbian Writer

Iona McGregor obituary

The lives and works of Iona McGregor, Edinburgh lesbian novelist by Sigrid Nielsen

Interview with Iona McGregor

Life of Edinburgh lesbian novelist: Iona McGregor