Hundreds of members of the kink community gathered outside Tower Hamlets Town Hall on Tuesday to protest a hearing in which Tower Hamlets Council is seeking to impose a “no nudity or no semi-nudity” condition on E1 – one of the last remaining queer-friendly nightclubs and kink spaces in the borough.
During the hearing, Tower Hamlets also admitted it had published CCTV pictures of people at Torture Garden on its website as evidence that nudity and semi-nudity was taking place at E1. VICE has seen evidence that this was available for two hours before they pulled it. Faces from the fetish club were partially blacked out, but tattoos and various other distinguishing features were not censored.
Leo Charalambides, a leading sex establishment licensing barrister, argued that the council’s plans were discriminatory. For instance, it would require venue staff to inquire about someone’s genitals before they would be permitted to be in certain states of undress. This, he argued, would discriminate against nonbinary, gender-fluid and transgender people.
Charalambides then went on to demonstrate the safeguarding activities that these club nights undertake and brought out members of the kink community who attested to the social importance of such events. Tower Hamlets was also challenged on its use of 30-year-old legislation to impose its policy on E1, each development met by thunderous applause from the protestors outside watching proceedings on a generator-powered TV.
A decision on all this will be made public in the next five days, but we asked some of the protestors why they were there.
George, 23, on the kink scene for five years
I’m here to support something that I feel is right. This community is very special, caring and kind. It's “dress how you like, express yourself however you want”. It’s open-minded and very sexually liberal. The safest I’ve ever felt is in kink spaces.
It saddens me to see people trying to shut it down, especially using illogical arguments. They are suppressing a community which means a lot to me and to many people. If these spaces didn’t exist there would be fewer places in London where I’d feel like I could really express myself in certain ways and meet people who express themselves in similar ways. It’s been crucial for my development as a person.
Hackney Toy, 28, on the kink scene for six years
I’m here to support Klub Verboten – it’s a safer place for people to explore and be themselves. They are being unfairly persecuted by Tower Hamlets Council. When you go to an event like that the rules are clear, if there’s any issues you can go to the monitors and they will sort it out. You don’t get that in your standard nightclub. When you go to something like Klub Verboten, where everything is based on consent, then you go to a “normal” club it’s a bit weird because you realise that inside the club there isn't really anything to stop harassment or consent issues.
Liv, 30, on the kink scene for 10 years
If you lose these spaces you lose places where safety and consent is a priority. And you lose spaces where LGBTQ people can find their community. It’s much safer than your average nightclub; it’s ticketed, there is a dress code and a vetting system – there’s no way that someone would accidentally be exposed to this if they did not want to go. There are arm-band wearers who are monitoring all the activity. It’s a culture of consent. There are a lot of misconceptions about our community; that it takes place in public or members of the public could be exposed to it without their consent – none of this is true. It’s just people being who they want to be.
Sabina, 33, on the kink scene for two years
I’m here to protest kink spaces shutting down. Klub Verboten is an amazing, happy consent-centred space. If these spaces shut down I wouldn’t have anywhere where I could feel safe. I don’t go to many other nightclubs because I’ve had too many bad experiences with harassment, arse-slapping and things like that. At Klub Verboten nobody can even look at you too much if you didn’t want that because they know that they would be reported to the safeguarding team and barred for life.
Voi, 32, on the kink scene for two and a half years
Today I am here to respectfully protest oppression against sexual liberation in any possible manner. This is an amazing, loving, caring community and it’s needed in society. But today isn’t about the kink community itself – it’s small steps: You know what the government is like; first they ban the licence, then they ban expression and then we’re only one step away from banning Pride march. Where do they go from there? Then will they want to ban gay marriage? I don’t know.
Holly, 28, on the kink scene for six years
If these places didn’t exist I’d feel trapped to be honest. For me it’s a safer place to explore my sexuality and kinks. These environments are so well staffed, you have monitors everywhere keeping an eye on everything. Everyone knows the rules, you wouldn’t get in otherwise. I think if these places went away this sort of thing would be pushed into unsafe environments.
Millie, 23, (left) and Collete, 22, (right), on the kink scene for two years
Millie: We’re here to support this community who create this space where we feel so at home and welcomed into. We’re both nonbinary and this nudity or semi-nudity thing it really reinforces the fact that we are still going to be viewed as women. It’s problematic. I can be in that space and not get attacked or touched by people I don’t want to be touched by – that’s a huge thing for me. A place where we are not sexualised but we can express our sexuality – it’s a utopia.
Colette: It’s fucked up really. We come to Klub Verboten once a month and it’s a chance to have a release from all the shit that happens in our lives every day. Then to think about being stopped at the entrance of a venue and asked about my genitals – that would be triggering and traumatic. We spend our whole lives processing our gender. Then to have someone who doesn’t even know us to perceive us in a way that we don’t wish to be perceived is a problem. We go through so much trauma: not just nonbinary people; trans people, gay men and women too.
Eden, 22, on the kink scene for two years
We’re here to politely show that we are as important as any other group in society. We deserve our spaces; if they all shut down it would be devastating for me and so many other people. They are healing, loving and accepting places – like nowhere else in the world. Most people could never understand. It’s categorically so much safer than a [vanilla] nightclub, you have whole safeguarding teams. But when I go to a “normal” nightclub you can guarantee I’ll be harassed in some way.