We Watched Queer Shamans Curse the Property Developers Killing London's Gay Saunas
Chariots sauna in east London is being turned into a luxury hotel, and these radical queer witch doctors are pissed.
The green-cloaked shaman lifts his hands to the sky. To his left, one of his acolytes cradles the bowl containing the magic potion. The magic potion, it turns out, is a mixture of glitter and human semen.
"Queer ancestors come forth," cries the shaman, "Stand strong beside us. Banish this evil from time and space." The acolyte hurls the jizz-potion to the ground, and the assembled crowd erupts into furious drumming and chanting.
Don't worry, you haven't stumbled onto a piece of Game of Thrones fan fiction gone horribly wrong. In fact, I'm in a car-park in Shoreditch, outside Chariots Roman Spa, which for two decades has been east London's most notorious and best-loved gay sauna. At the start of the month it was announced that Chariots would be knocked down and turned into a luxury hotel, and the radical queer faeries are pissed off.
"It's an ancient Romany curse," one of them says excitedly. "We're cursing the descendants of these property developers to be queer for 13 generations – only for us to be queer is a blessing – so this is really just a blessing on this space, to make it sacred." As he's talking, the glitter-jizz mixture congeals into a slightly toxic looking sludge on the car-park floor.
It's becoming clear that London's queer spaces, like so much else that's vaguely fun and transgressive in the city, are under attack. We've watched the names of closing pubs and bars stack up: The Joiner's Arms; The George & Dragon; The Mother Black Cap; The Nelson's Head – Chariots is the latest casualty.
The LGBT activists, drag queens, and queer shamans who have gathered for this protest situate this loss within the wider context of London's relentless, steroidal regeneration. "It's another example of stupidly inflated rents forcing out a queer venue. But it's not just the LGBT community – it's people on low income, artists, anyone who doesn't fit that particular mould," says James Johnson from Act Up, an HIV/AIDS charity. John, another activist, puts it more bluntly: "It's the bland following the bland imposed by the rich."
It should be noted, though, that in recent years Chariots, and sauna culture in general, has received fairly extensive derision from within the gay community itself. Saunas are frequently looked down on as sleazy, grotty, and potentially unsafe embarrassments from a time when gay men were forced to live in the shadows. Why do we need saunas, ask a series of snippy op-eds, when we now have apps like Grindr and Scruff?
Activist Dan Glass, also of Act Up, offers a countering argument. "Grindr is great – but it's mainly great for white, financially secure men. Places like Chariots, for all their faults, offer a sanctuary for people who may not feel safe expressing their sexuality – people who are poor, people from certain ethnic communities – even middle-class men who may not have come out to their families."
Jamie McCarthy, a Chariots devotee who came down to say goodbye to the venue, echoes this. "I always found it a lot more accepting than most clubs and bars. For a start, you simply saw older gay men – even up to about the age of 80. What other spaces are there for older guys in London? I'm pretty sure there are guys for whom there is no other space where they could just hang out with other men who have sex with men."
Glass also takes on the sexual health implications. "Chariots provides on-the-spot HIV checks. Yes, some people act recklessly, but the alternative to a space like this is folk using apps to organise their own chem sex parties, with no safety whatsoever. What we are seeing is the destruction of all the infrastructure and spaces where these issues can be tackled, and people educated as a community."
Eventually, one of the guys who actually manages Chariots comes out to talk to the gathering – partly to gently ask them to wrap it up soon, as all the drumming was scaring away potential customers. He also says that their landlords had actually let them stay on longer than they strictly needed to, and that the sauna would try and find a new home. "Shoreditch has been changing for 10 years," he says. "We should have been protesting years ago when they started throwing artists out of their studios".
And maybe that is the point. Chariots going down isn't just a loss for the gay community. I'm straight. I'd never been to Chariots before tonight. But all my friends spoke about this place with such a mixture of joy, humour, devotion and occasional disgust that it always felt like part of my London. It was nice to sit on the 67 bus, knowing that 100 metres away people were having wild and anonymous sex, exploring their own boundaries and figuring out who they were. Like the ozone layer, or the continued existence of Paul McCartney, it was one of those things that has no obvious impact on your day-to-day life, but was comforting to know existed.
And crucially, the rent hikes and gentrifying forces that have swept the artists out of their studios, and are now destroying Chariots, are accelerating. The battles over preserving east London's Norton Folgate Monmouth House building – approved to be turned into office space by mayor Boris Johnson earlier this month, against Islington council's wishes – and the Bishopsgate Goods Yard continue. The loss of alternative, wild transgressive spaces is a loss for all of London.
"It's the destruction of another of the messy, dirty, human spaces we have, in favour of bright new, luxury spaces for those who can afford them," McCarthy, the Chariots veteran, says with a sigh, as the protest winds down. As if in direct opposition to this thought, a drag queen in a nun's habit shouts from behind us: "Right then, anyone for cock?"
By now the older shamans have all drifted off. The fabulously sequined younger activists all look at each other. "Shall we go in for a sauna, then?" one asks.
"Nah, "they decide, "let's go to the Glory." And they all pile into a car and head off to the trendy new gay bar in Dalston.
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