East London Used to Be a Queer Mecca. What Happened?

An excerpt from VICE staffer Daisy Jones's new book "All The Things She Said", out now.
Daisy Jones
London, GB
Clubbing East London LGBTQ Queer Party
Photo: Chris Bethell

Below is an excerpt from VICE UK Associate Editor Daisy Jones’ All the Things She Said (2021, Hodder & Stoughton), a book about modern lesbian and bi culture. The book is out today.

These days, when we think of east London, we think of tech start-ups and branches of Pret a Manger stacked with identical triangular sandwiches to be consumed quickly on lunch breaks. We think of white city boys in brown shoes and jeans finishing work at 5.30PM and getting a few pints in at the Big Chill. We think of hotels and high rises, bank chains and Byron Burgers, late-night Subway joints nestled up against gastro pubs that used to be old man pubs that will soon become nothing. We think of construction sites – bulldozers, diggers and posters advertising luxury flats – and we think of vegan doughnut shops and cafés with millennial pink lights and millennial pink walls that will end up as millennial pink pictures on glistening white screens. 


Parts of east London look the same as they did ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Parts of east London even look as if they could have been transported straight out of a Victorian novel. “Two plants for a fiiiiivah!” they shout down Columbia Road every Sunday, as they always have done and always will do until we can no longer grow or sell plants. Brick Lane smells like salt-beef bagels and London Fields remains bustling and green in spring, damp brown in winter, burnt yellow in summer. But the area has also been changing forever, long before any of its current residents arrived. This is a place whose essence is constantly rearranging itself, like a coral reef at the bottom of the sea. And as with inner city neighbourhoods across the globe, evolution is part of its character. 

Rewind to the late 1990s and 2000s, and east London was considered by many to be a sort of queer mecca. A combo of art school kids, fashion students and LGBTQ clubbers lived and worked there, which is often the case during the early stages of gentrification: right before property developers get their claws into a low-rent, high-culture area. (See: Berlin, Paris, New York, certain parts of Los Angeles. Some sociologists, like Sharon Zukin, have even theorised that LGBTQ residents actually boost property prices because we cultivate and gravitate towards creativity. The lesbians get priced out of other areas and settle into new ones, the gay men follow their lead, the gay men then build the institutions because they earn the money, and eventually the straight people arrive. The lesbians get pushed out and the process starts all over again. It’s just a theory – and it’s also intimately bound up with class and race, not just queerness – but there’s a glimmer of truth in there somewhere.) 


East London’s reputation for being a queer neighbourhood back then came down to a multitude of factors – the people who rented there, obviously, the places they hung out. But a lot of it was down to the clubs, which were having a moment. They were cooler, younger and grottier than the clubs in Soho, which were slowly becoming shiny, cocktail-slick establishments. They were less cruisy or testosterone-fuelled than those in Vauxhall. Spaces like The Joiners Arms, The George and Dragon, Nelson’s Head and, later, clubs like East Bloc, fostered a sense of community; made going out in east London feel exciting, like the night was a big expanse that belonged to you rather than the other way around. The “straighter” clubs played the wrong music. They were full of cheek-boned indie lads in leather jackets and pretty girls with fringes, no dancing. But the East End gay clubs and nights were alive and colourful and filthy, crammed with zigzag leggings, zebra-print creepers, Peaches on the speakers, dykes everywhere. 

I am not old enough to remember the majority of this golden era. In the early- to mid-2000s, I was more likely to be found revising for my mock GCSEs while listening to “Glamorous” by Fergie on my Motorola flip phone. But the tail-end of that decade, as a teenager, was spent discovering what it meant to Go Out properly. And if I close my eyes, I can just about recall what it felt like around east London during that time: the feverish lightness after hours, the yellow-red flashes of night buses, the bitter taste of MDMA stirred into lukewarm Tyskies to be consumed on the street in between roll-ups. There were options back then, too, and they felt endless: Would we go there or there? Should we get a bus or walk? Which clubs are open all night, and whose flat might we end up at later? How many people might be able to afford an Addison Lee? 


These options soon dried up, quicker than we realised they had even been a choice. By the time the 2000s made way for the 2010s, many of the city’s most beloved LGBTQ clubs were closing down, one by one, until they were eventually non-existent (none of the clubs I’ve mentioned so far are still around). This was the case across the capital. One report, published by University College London Urban Laboratory, revealed that London had around 127 venues in 2006. By 2017, that number had dwindled to just fifty-three, meaning we’d lost more than half of our LGBTQ venues in the space of a decade – usually to make way for unaffordable housing, another grey stack of offices, a new fluoro-lit branch of Tesco Express. 

This wasn’t just a London thing either. In urban areas across the UK, the picture unfolded in very similar ways. Manchester’s Canal Street – a gay village once crammed with neon-lit clubs, darkrooms, fetish spaces – gradually evolved into a hotspot for wasted students and straight people on hen dos. Rising house prices in Brighton meant that LGBTQ homeowners would flee to London to work and party, leading to an identity crisis in the area. Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, Liverpool – there was not one city in the UK left unaffected by the wave of gay club closures throughout the mid-2000s to 2010s. In 2015, the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers reported that in 2005 there were 3,144 clubs across the UK. In the space of a decade, that number had become 1,733. 

Eventually there would be new nights, new clubs, new faces, different versions of community, different ways in which people would gather (more on that later). But gay nightlife as we’d known it was dying. And by the time the curtains had closed on the 2010s, it was basically already dead.

‘All The Things She Said', Daisy’s debut book, is out 3 June, via Hodder & Stougton.