This article originally appeared on VICE UK
"You've got to go to the city," George Michael once sang, encouraging young gay fans to swap small-town suffocation for the bright lights and wider LGBTQ community of the metropolis.
Broadly speaking, the late pop icon was giving good advice: though LGBTQ hate crime in London is on the rise, the capital is still a place where you can spread your big gay angel wings and find your tribe. One growing queer tribe is Gaymers Inc., which bills itself as "a community of more than 2,500 LGBT+ London gaymers and geeks who share one mission: to play video games, make lasting friendships and geek-out".
"We want to give a space to people who might not feel as though they fit in the [traditional] gay scene," says Yusif Ali, one of four "admins" who run the group. "We want to create a community – a place where people can meet up and play games and make new friends without having to go to bars or clubs, which is a lot of what the LGBTQ scene in London is about. Our group has really thrived, I think, because it offers something different to that."
"Really, what we've focused on is creating an environment where there's not as much pressure as you can find in some of the regular LGBTQ venues," adds fellow admin Kristof Hamilton. "I'm talking about the pressure to dress a certain way, look a certain way or be a certain type of person. Gaymers is very laid-back: everyone's welcome and can come along, relax and be themselves."
Gaymers Inc. began unassumingly in 2015 with Ali and some gay friends gaming together after work and at weekends. "Then we found out we had more friends who were also gamers," Ali recalls. "These were people who didn't know any other gamers, and they were almost embarrassed to say, 'I play games in my free time.' So every weekend we'd lug TVs over to each other's houses and have meet-ups where we'd play games and hang out. And really it just grew from there. We got more and more people saying, 'Oh, I'm a gamer too, can I come?' Eventually the meet-ups got too big to have in anyone's house, so I found a venue, [London Bridge bar] The Old School Yard, where we now do our big monthly meet-ups."
These monthly meet-ups have become so popular that Ali, Hamilton and fellow Gaymers Inc. admins Roony Aka-Haroun and Chris Fox have introduced a ticketing system so the venue doesn't break health and safety regulations. A ticket to the meet-up, where you can play everything from Just Dance to vintage SNES games with around 250 other gamers, costs £2 – money that goes straight back into the group. "We're completely nonprofit, so it goes towards paying for things like breakages, new games and controllers," Ali explains.
Though Gaymers Inc. has grown partly because it's an alternative to the pop, shots and tops-off vibes of some London LGBTQ clubs, Hamilton is keen to make clear it's not about pious sobriety. "We've got plenty of members who don't drink, whether that's for religious reasons or because they're teetotal or have had issues in the past with drugs and alcohol. And that's totally accepted. But at the same time, we do hold meet-ups in a bar and lots of our members drink. But there's not that pressure you get sometimes when you go down the pub and people start saying, 'Oh go on, have a drink.' Whoever you are and whatever your choices are, it's accepted at Gaymers."
Because the group's aims seem relatively straightforward, it's easy to underestimate just how much it's helped many of its members. Kieran Lowe, a 30-year-old PR director from east London, tells me Gaymers Inc. was "really, really important to me after my break-up".
"I'd been in a relationship for eight years and I had mainly a straight friendship group in London. It was a point in my life where I was feeling quite low and lonely and wanted to make more gay friends. Gaymers helped me start a new chapter in my life," he says. "And actually, I think Gaymers kind of taps into a missing link. There's a lot of gay geek culture online, but it hasn't necessarily had this in-person element before. I think London's quite an alienating and isolating place sometimes. And what Gaymers says is: 'Bring that online side of yourself to this real-life meet-up and find new friends.' That's quite attractive to Londoners, especially if you're new to the city."
Hayden Dunbar, a 20-year-old student and barman from Portsmouth who catches a train to London each month for the big Gaymers Inc. meet-up, says he "couldn't really associate with any one part of the LGBTQ community before I found them. It's probably the most inclusive and welcoming thing I've been involved in."
George Jennings, a 25-year-old from south London who works in luxury men's fashion, calls it an "unashamedly open" space that doesn't tolerate any kind of body fascism – a major problem for young gay guys bombarded with images of toned torsos on Instagram. "We march at Pride in London every year and people are body-painted or Cosplay-ed for the Gods, and get to express who they are," he says. "I've made some fantastic friends at Gaymers, something that's not so easily done in a crowded room blasting out 'Thank U, Next'."
Though Gaymers Inc. began as a gaggle of gay men – and still attracts more of this section of the LGBTQ community than any other – Hamilton says it also has trans, non-binary and queer female members. Leonie Schlising, a 32-year-old actress from south London, says she sees more female gamers at each meet-up. "Gaming is often a rather solitary activity, but the regular Gaymers Inc. events mean we can make new friends and pursue the hobby of gaming in a community rather than alone," she says.
In addition to the main monthly meet-up at The Old School Yard, Gaymers Inc. organises quizzes, cinema trips, board game nights and "Gaymers Active" events, where members try everything from archery tag to dodgeball trampolining. "We also do newbie nights every few months because some people who are gamers are shy or not quite so outgoing, and we find smaller meet-ups help to break the ice," Hamilton adds. But he and Ali say they have no grand masterplan for Gaymers Inc. other than to continue building and supporting their community.
"None of us [admins] has an events background, and when we started none of us knew how to run a community group," Hamilton says. "We're all very aware that we've learned a lot from doing this. We've grown on word-of-mouth and we've worked hard to listen to people and build it up as we go. People feel there's a community to the group and that's what keeps them coming back. Yusuf and I have made a lot of really good friends through the group, so we've benefited in the same way as the other people who come along, and that's really what fuels our passion for it."
"Everything we've done, we've done organically," Ali adds. "So we just want to keep building what we have and coming up with new events for our members. We want to keep making sure we're helping people to build new friendship groups and come out of their shells. We want to keep making sure LGBTQ people in London don't feel like they're alone and know they have a community that will welcome them."