Meet the Activists Running London's First Queer Tour of LGBT History
In a year when David Cameron's been hailed as an LGBT ally, this group are taking back ownership of queer culture's fight against conservatism.
Despite what your beloved great-aunt believes, queer people weren't made in a lab in 1996 to piss her off and infiltrate the soaps. A new group have organised a walking tour of queer culture landmarks in London, to make visible history often overlooked rather than let right-wing politicians take credit for magically solving The Gay Problem under David Cameron.
The tours don't properly kick off until February 2017, but on Saturday the 26th of November a group of activists from Russia and its former satellite states were treated to a preview. Tour guide Dan Glass rattled through a breakneck history of London's queer dives, electro-shock clinics and cottaging toilets. "Is there a manual to the cruising spots we can see?" a Ukrainian activist asked with a grin.
A Belorussian delegate enthused about a defunct factory floor in her home city, taken over by queer youths and turned into a community centre. "But maybe you don't need such a space in London?" she asked.
"We absolutely do," said Dan.
The queer tour crew estimate that one-third of London's queer spaces have been closed in the last two years – and the project grew from drunken conversation in the smoking area of a now-shuttered gay bar, The Joiners' Arms. Two more gay venues may be in their final days, according to Dan's tour introduction. London has no queer museum, and no longer has a dedicated queer centre.
Saturday's tour headed to a legendary drag venue, the Black Cap. Since closing its doors in 2015, it plays host each week to a sombre vigil of former regulars. Britain's first transgender MEP, Nikki Sinclaire, picketed outside the forlorn pub front. "I used to come here back in 1983, when I was only 15," she said. "We're very fortunate in this country to have won employment rights and marriage rights: but our next fight is for our history."
This is the battle the Queer Tour crew are preparing to fight. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, when the government finally permitted 21-year-old men to have sex with each other in private. "Those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame all their lives," then-home secretary Roy Jenkins famously said.
In defiance of their persistent opposition to LBGT rights legislation, the Tories have a track record of trumpeting themselves as Macklemore-level queer allies. So it seems likely they will try to piggyback next year's celebrations. "Fuck them if they're going to pat themselves on the back without recognising the problems they caused all over the world," Dan said. "And if you look at cuts in services, the rise in queer youth homelessness, the rise in HIV... we are still not free."
As Dan observed, the peddling of easily-digestible, pro-gay schtick by corporations and careerist politicians means "most people probably think Gay Pride started in Tesco". The queer tours are countering that narrative, with pink tiles planted at the sites of historic shags, dildos inscribed with the 1533 Buggery Act popping up across the city, and "cruise your MP day".
Future tours will travel from Mother Clap's molly-house, where 18th century cross-dressers canoodled, to the Admiral Duncan pub, where a neo-Nazi nail bomb which killed three queer revellers in 1999 has been refashioned into a chandelier.
And organisers say tours will honour those radical queers who gave their lives in the ongoing struggle for liberation. Some will star the Lesbian Avengers, the "caped crusading dykes" who abseiled into Parliament and stormed a BBC studio. Others will remember the Gay Liberation Front, the "radical drag" connoisseurs who were chased by police after snogging in full ecclesiastical garb. Homeless youths, one in four whom are queer, will be given work speaking to tour groups. So will sex workers, LGBTQ* people of colour, and queer activists currently battling deportation.
As many as 98 percent of queer asylum-seekers to the UK are deported, according to research by the UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group. Closer to home, austerity cuts have slashed queer service funding by a third. Yet Theresa May – who oversaw these lethal deportations as home secretary – is painted as an "unsung hero" of gay rights, and David Cameron won this year's Ally of the Year award from LGBT website PinkNews.
This is why the real history of London's living, breathing, fighting, fucking LGBT community must be made visible – in all its messy glory. "It's been so fun to research, but I keep bumping into old flames," Dan said, with a rueful grimace. "I've signed up for a lifelong walk of shame."
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