London's LGBT scene has had a pretty tough year. Iconic venues such as Madam Jojo's and the Joiners Arms have shut up shop, hate crime against trans people is at an all time high, and you only need to stroll around Soho to realise that an un-bookable table at an overpriced tapas bar is pretty much as queer as it gets.
But last Sunday, The Black Cap shut its doors for the final time, and it seems to have hit a nerve amongst the city's LGBT community. The site is being sold, and supporters fear that the new owners have plans to redevelop the first floor bar into flats, and the ground floor into more profitable retail space.
"The Black Cap has been a gay venue for more than fifty years, before it was even legal to be gay in the UK", producer-promoter Joe Parslow told me, as around 150 people gathered outside the pub in Camden on Saturday afternoon to protest against its closure. "But it's also played a huge part in the history of drag in this country, with people like Mrs Shufflewick and Regina Fong having had residencies here."
For Joe, The Black Cap wasn't just somewhere to grab a pint; he's been putting on nights here for well over a year, alongside his partner, co-producer and brilliant drag queen, Meth.
"We still need these spaces, it's all very well that we can get married, work for a bank or join the police – we can be our own oppressors now! But spaces like The Black Cap allow people to invest in being queer, lesbian, gay, trans or straight in a way that sits outside of that logic."
The #WeAreTheBlackCap protest kicked off with two of London's most recognised Queens shouting down a megaphone. "I wouldn't be Titti La Camp if it weren't for this place," yelled Titti, "I feel like a part of me has been ripped out."
"It's a travesty," said Sandra, who hadn't made quite as much of an effort for the occasion.
"If it wasn't for this place, for The Meth Lab and the Familyyy Fierce [drag collective], I would still be closeted and hating myself. I love this place", Lexie gushed, having travelled down from Cambridge for the afternoon.
"I don't want to walk into a bar and be touched up, or for men to make assumptions of me. I want to have fun, and this was a wonderful creative space I felt safe in."
Back in the crowd Zia, who was channelling Budapest charity shop realness in a second hand wedding dress, made clear this wasn't just about the Cap. "I'm concerned about gentrification in London," he told me, "and the disappearance of queer culture in the city."
I chatted to Mel Howes, who'd been a regular at the pub for close to 40 years. "I started coming here when I was 15, when all this still had to be behind closed doors, I was brought up here, growing up it was the best place in the world."
I asked if, many years down the line, she still needed somewhere to run to when it all got too much. "Yeah, of course. People still get attacked, get battered, hear homophobic remarks, wherever you are. I'm 52, but when I walk down the street my neighbours still say to each other, 'oh, that's the fucking lesbian, don't talk to her.' Honestly."
There were plenty of younger generation punters around too. "This was a world class drag performance venue, it's not limited to the gay community," explained Jacob. "It's a queer idea for anyone, whatever their sexuality – a place for artistic experimentation, and it's a travesty to have that taken away,"
Richard Rock, who has lived opposite the Cap for the past 35 years, wasn't looking forward to saying goodbye either. "This place is important to people like me, people met their first lovers here, or came out when it was so difficult."
"But there's a wider issue, pubs are being developed and luxury apartments are popping up, communities, not just ours, are being eroded."
The bloke has a point. Last year it was reported that, every six hours, a pub closes somewhere in the UK. Granted, this isn't quite as alarming as Bob Geldof clicking his fingers to the disturbing beat of dying children, but it's still a worrying trend.
Pubs aren't just a place to get pissed. They're a second home, a community centre, a place of refuge. Especially for gay venues, and it's gay venues that seem to be getting hit the hardest. Heather Doon reckons it's not just because there are less of them than their normal counterparts. "There is a specific issue within the queer community, that certain segments aren't as recognised by capitalist society; it's not as lucrative to be a lesbian, it's not as lucrative to be trans or queer."
One of London's only remaining gay pubs is The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, has a campaign behind it now to keep it alive. "Sitting back and hoping for the best just isn't enough," explain Ben Walters, who is part of the RVT Future campaign. "Its history as an LGBT pub goes back to the post-war era. It's where Lily Savage kicked off a riot in 1984 when the police raided the tavern wearing rubber gloves because they were scared of getting aids."
For Father Bernard Lynch, The Black Cap was the first gay bar he stepped foot in, when he rocked up in London 23 years ago. Up until last weekend, he used it as a place to work with the community in Camden, as the Chair of the LGBT forum there. "We all know that transgendered crime, right here in Camden, is at an all time high, but this place was a safe haven", he told the crowd, in what was a pretty emotional address.
Catching up afterwards, he told me just what The Black Cap meant to him.
"This is the cathedral of the drag queens, and we must never forget that the drag queens are the genesis of our freedom. Without them we would not be here, but today they've lost their sanctuary. The people who entertained us, who enabled us to feel good about ourselves. It's a labour of love. This place isn't just a space for us, it encapsulates a spirit."
As the crowd headed off, I asked Meth what happens next.
"This fight will continue until there is nothing left to fight for, until our very last breath has been sucked out of us; until queer London is saved. If not, we'll have to find somewhere else. I hope we don't have to do that, but it's the beauty of the queer community, we're like whack-a-mole, you can keep knocking us down, but if we have to we'll pop up somewhere else."
Words and photos by @MikeSegalov
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