All photographs courtesy of Rebecca Thomas, unless otherwise stated.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK
One of London's most anarchic LGBT venues, the Joiners' Arms, is to close on January 15, 2015. Why? Because London needs more housing. The venue's location, in the middle of aspirational Hackney Road, screams bespoke kitchens and walnut wood roof terraces.
We've seen a huge chunk of London's gay venues close since 2008, when the recession forced us all into a downward spiral of low pay rises and increased costs of living. While some closures were down to economic reasons--they simply weren't bringing in the pounds to cover the costs--others have met the gentrification guillotine. The Shoreditch borders are widening with arms wide open to London's high earners and pushing out those that can no longer afford to stay.
One of those, sadly, is the Joiners' Arms.
When the Joiners' opened its doors in May 1997, London was a very different place. Labour had moved into Downing Street. There was energy in the air. LGBT rights in England at the time were still on the long crawl towards equality, but social acceptance of alternative lifestyles was beginning to creep into the nation's Conservative psyche.
Over in East London, David Pollard got the keys to his new pub, and the Joiners' Arms was born. It was proper Hackney territory and, surrounded by empty shop fronts and council estates, the Joiners' (literally) flew the rainbow flag proud.
"It was very cruise-y back then, but the police weren't bothered at all," Pollard tells VICE. Because of course, in the late 90s, London was still in the nascent stages of internet dating. Grindr was more than a decade away. You'd go to a gay pub, sit with a beer or play pool while eyeing up a guy, then maybe take him home for a quickie or upstairs into the dark room for a five-knuckle shuffle. The punters were a mix of closeted local East End blokes after a bit of cock, older gents or young council lads, all after a haven from a traditionally homophobic part of town.
But beneath the thin veneer of the chipped tables and hodgepodge furniture, the rough-and-ready bar was a centre of LGBT political activity. Pollard is an affirmed leftie. "At heart I'm just a red," he says. "We've always had a role in the community."
From holding charity fundraisers to local artist exhibitions, and right up to this week when they hosted a debate about LGBT sex and drugs, the Joiners' never shied away from battling the encroaching diktat of political correctness.
Writer Paul Flynn, a long-term local resident with a warm fondness for the place, captures its spirit perfectly. "The Joiners' was a social space that symbolized a decade of gay counterculture which felt at joyful war with gay assimilation," he says. "It represented a little assault against Civil Partnerships, gaybies, It Gets Better, Lady Gaga, and Glee.You need that tension when social and political change is moving at such a swift pace."
It was, Flynn says, a proper mix of high and low cultures. "It was lawless in a joyful, lunatic, druggy, sexy way," he says. And he's right. The Joiners' built up a set of myths that no other gay bar in London did. Among such fables were the one-armed pool-playing speed dealer and the (alleged) dead body on the staircase, along with those dark-room-upstairs early years.
There was also Shirley, who lived upstairs but supposedly got kicked out when she squirted glass cleaner in a customer's face.
At its peak, the Joiners' was not, as Flynn rightly points out, "a cowering little fairy in the corner complaining about being bullied."
No. The Joiners' was the bully.
"It was a strong pose for a gay boozer to strike," says Flynn. Not only that, but it was the amyl nitrite-scented antithesis to what was happening at the area's new member's club, Shoreditch House (which Flynn refers to as "the Starbucks of VIP") up the road. "It was tough, aggro and noticeably cross-class." It smelt of raucous mischief.
Even though the early naughties saw Shoreditch growing in its number of cool, young, creative inhabitants, the Joiners' was still an unlikely destination for young club kids. But they soon took to it as an after-hours venue. It was seedy, underground-feeling and, crucially, friendly. In fact, the Joiners' absence of snottiness might be its legacy. It stood for something other than rinsing the punter dry. It stood, in its late-night wildness, for true inclusiveness. From big-name fashion designers to prolific photographers, estate lads to old geezers in food-covered jumpers, everyone was welcome. Everyone got along.
I remember endless late nights there as I'd hop into a cab with Jonny Woo, Russella, and Scottee after their latest mental cabaret show at nearby Bistrotheque. Five minutes later and a parade of wigs and heels would spill into The Joiner's until closing (and later) after almost every show they did. And where a trail of drag queen glitter leads, the gay boys aren't far behind. Evolution took its natural course and the Joiners'--once a seedy local boozer--basically became East London's hottest new late night gay club. Dalston Superstore, East Bloc and, most recently, Shelter were to follow.
Writer Joe Stone first moved into the area in 2009 and remembers The Joiners' during the first years of its transition from gay pub to queer club. "I chose my flat partly because it was across the road [from The Joiners']. In the years since I've met my boyfriend in the queue. I've accidentally interrupted a toilet blowjob and slut-dropped to Beyonce more times than I can count. I've seen hysterical gays go into meltdown because they thought Lady Gaga was in the building (turned out to be just a woman in a hat) and mused over why the same Hasidic Jewish man apparently uses it as a home from home." He has, he says, "rarely been more apoplectic than when they first introduced a door charge."
This all comes to an end in January. Last year, the Joiners' community united to fight against the attempts to curb the venue's operational capacity by cutting its opening hours and imposing tough restrictions. A petition featured thousands of signatures and even a YouTube video was made by one of its patrons. The Joiners' won the battle.
Next year, though, the building will be demolished. Brand new flats will take its place. Pollard is, understandably, melancholic. "I think London will end up destroying itself," he says, with a sting in his voice. "London depends on people moving here that can afford to live here. It's a big city, but London has always been more than a playground for the super-rich. We mustn't forget that."
The Joiners' disappearance from the tapestry of East London gay nightlife will be a travesty. Having somewhere that has represented a raucous, welcoming (unlike many Soho haunts, there had rarely been a "you're not gay, you ain't coming in" door policy), messy and character-rich up-yours to the stuff going on a few miles down the road in W1, in a slightly decrepit old boozer, in the middle of an area that has been flat white-d and artisan burger-ed within an inch of its life, has been wonderful.
The Joiners' will be missed not just as an after-hours venue, but as a place where you could, truly, be who you are. Whoever you are. Whoever you're with.
Follow Cliff Joannou on Twitter.