Richard Unwin explains the appeal of one of London’s longest running LGBT+ social clubs, The Sisterhood of Karn – the social group for LGBT+ fans of Dr Who.
The Sisterhood of Karn is the London social group for LGBT+ Doctor Who fans – named after an order of space nuns from a 1976 Doctor Who story called ‘The Brain of Morbius’.
We’ve been meeting on the third Thursday of every month, in the upstairs bar of the King’s Arms in Soho, for the past twenty five years. Quite why the adventures of a nine hundred year old alien travelling through time and space appeal so powerfully to gay people is a question that’s often been asked. Sisterhood member Richard Parker suggests: “Because the Doctor champions the outsiders, the underdogs; and gay kids often feel like the outsider before they even know why.” Another member, Ivan Kirby, has an alternative theory: “It’s the only TV show to ever feature Kate O’Mara disguised as Bonnie Langford. That’s all you need to know.”
Whatever the reason, gay boys and girls have been besotted with the show for over half a century, and in February 1994 our group was founded as a place for queer fans to meet and socialise. I started attending the monthly meetings about a decade ago and haven’t looked back.
We’re well aware that we are not always regarded as the coolest kids on the scene – but we really don’t care. We’re all about having fun with like-minded people and have been well taught by the Doctor not to give a toss about what other people think of us! (And at least things are generally better these days than in the nineties, when Loaded magazine famously described Doctor Who as ‘the TV equivalent of anal warts’ and its fans as ‘anorak clad wankers’…!).
The management and staff of the King’s Arms have been incredibly welcoming and generous to us over the past quarter of a century, and for that we are hugely grateful. Our meetings are very informal – there are no agendas or leadership structures – we spend most of our time drinking and gossiping and laughing.
Often Doctor Who is simply used as a springboard for other topics – over the years I’ve come to know and love many of my fellow Sisters as a very special family. We learn about each other’s lives and support each other through difficulties. Member Chris Smith told me: “Personally Karn is my great big extended gay Doctor Who family, the place I can be completely out. No matter how many or how few sisters are here each month there’s always a connection and a great evening to be had.” Pietro Rossi added: “In the words of ‘Cheers’, it’s somewhere ‘where everyone knows your name’. A fun and friendly hangout where you can be yourself.”
We do occasionally have special events on top of the monthly meetings. One of my first memories of Karn is being incredibly hungover during an exploration of Chislehurst Caves – one of the locations used for the planet Solos in the 1972 Jon Pertwee story ‘The Mutants’. Not an ideal condition for traipsing through miles of dark, oppressive, labyrinthine underground caverns infested with evil looking massive spiders… but it was a very bonding experience! When we finally emerged into the sunlight at the adventure’s end, our guide realised that he’d completely forgotten to show us the portion of the caves where Doctor Who was filmed – so the delegation from Karn never actually made it to Solos after all.
And we’ve also been known to invite stars from the TV series for intimate Q&A sessions with us at the King’s Arms, which have always been a hoot. Our special guests have included ‘Leela’ actress Louise Jameson and ‘Adric’ actor Matthew Waterhouse. The wine tends to flow freely and we’ve been regaled with anecdotes and gossip that are wholly unprintable.
But for me, the regular monthly meet-ups are the beating heart of the Sisterhood. Whether we’ve been happily plastering copies of Boyz magazine with stickers of Doctor Who monsters (sorry), or engaging in our favourite parlour game of Tardis charades, that warm and joyful room above the King’s Arms has always been such a happy and hearty place.
Never, in all my time involved with the group, have I seen a hint of the egos or rivalries that one hears stories of other fan gatherings being plagued by. Maybe we’ve just been lucky –maybe we’ve just been too silly. But I like to think that there’s something rather special about our little gathering of like-minded folk, who find kinship with each other, month after month, in a bustling bar, slap bang in the absolute centre of London’s tireless and trendy LGBT heartland – mainly to talk about an eccentric alien time-traveller with two hearts and a dimensionally transcendental police box.