London's queer scene has had a testing decade.
A 2017 report by UCL Urban Laboratory found that the number of LGBTQ venues in the capital had more than halved since 2006, with gentrification claiming queer institutions including beloved Shoreditch dive The Joiners' Arms, Camden drag sanctuary The Black Cap and Vauxhall leather and fetish club The Hoist. Soho remains London's de facto gay heartland, but its LGBTQ bars and clubs are now outnumbered by chain restaurants. They may hang rainbow flags in their windows for Pride season, but for most of the year feel about as queer as a Tory cabinet meeting.
Still, instead of blaming dating apps for killing off gay bars, it's important to highlight the exciting ways in which the scene continues to evolve. Thanks to a grassroots campaign to protect it from property developers, for example, the future of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern looks less precarious than it did five years ago. The RVT Future campaign's Rob Holley says this historic south London venue is now "flourishing" as a business, but points out it's still owned by the same Austrian property development company that wanted to flip it for a profit.
"While that's the case we need to be vigilant," he warns. "If some rich sugar daddy with deep pockets wants to buy the RVT for the community and protect the UK's first Grade II listed queer building forever, we have plans. Call me!"
Also flourishing is The Glory, which this month celebrates five years of bringing forward-thinking drag and off-the-wall parties to an east London area it's playfully renamed "Faggerston". Co-owner John Sizzle told VICE last year: "The reason we make money is because we work bloody hard and our emphasis has been not on profit, but on glamour and fun and entertainment and theatre and community. All these elements have created something that people have embraced and really run with."
The Glory isn't the only LGBTQ venue to have launched successfully in the last five years. The Queen Adelaide in Cambridge Heath appeals to the sort of progressive East End queers who used to love The Joiners Arms; The Cock Tavern in Kennington attracts a slightly older crowd who have laid down routes in south London's Vauxhall-adjacent "gaybourhood". And last summer, the capital welcomed its first nightclub that's solely for queer womxn, LICK.
LICK grew from a monthly club night to a permanent venue in just three years because it gave London something it never really had before: a diverse and inclusive womxn-only space. Founder Teddy Edwardes says she started her own night because she was "disappointed with the lack of diversity and effort being made" when she worked at a lesbian bar in Soho. "From then on, there were queues going down Old Compton Street of women wanting what we were offering," she recalls.
Since LICK opened its permanent space in Vauxhall last summer, Edwardes says she's seen "a lot of new nights" launched as "people have realised how just popular and needed" they are. Still, she concedes that "we definitely still need more [nights for women]", adding: "As long as they’re being started for the right reasons and run in the correct way, then the more, the merrier."
Like LICK, The Apple Tree in Clerkenwell provides an alternative to older venues that have often catered mainly to cis gay men. Owners Lucy Fenton and Phil Hunt say they opened their "unconventional neighbourhood public house" in 2018 to create a "space where the LGBTQ community and other people living an alternative lifestyle can be themselves".
Everyone's welcome, but Fenton reckons around 80 percent of their customers are LGBTQ, and says: "We’re all about bringing the greatest diversity of people together." Their super-inclusive entertainment programme has made The Apple Tree a destination for queer folks who may feel alienated by more traditional gay venues.
It almost goes without saying that launching a venue in London – especially a queer one that’s niche by design – is eye-wateringly expensive. Because they made money through previous business ventures, Fenton and Hunt were able to buy The Apple Tree's freehold and keep their costs down. "We did this not for financial gain at all," says Hunt. "For us, it's all about giving back to the community, so all our profits will continue to be ploughed back into the business and the community."
Their business model is incredibly admirable, but clearly unrealistic for anyone without independent wealth. Still, The Chateau in Camberwell offers a possible template for a new, more affordable kind of queer venue. Frustrated by south-east London's lack of LGBTQ spaces, founder Laurie Belgrave launched a pop-up in the unoccupied basement of a Camberwell hotel. It was only supposed to open for two months, but has now been going for 18. Belgrave admits The Chateau will never have long-term security because it "operates on a temporary rolling basis – effectively on a handshake agreement", but believes this can be a blessing in disguise.
"Because there's no long-term financial risk," he explains, "The Chateau can be more daring and radical in our programming." Belgrave also admits that keeping The Chateau afloat hasn't been easy, but says "we're proof that you don't necessarily need lots of money or even direct experience to create a space and positively affect the lives of LGBTQ Londoners".
This DIY queer spirit is echoed in popular London club nights such as Pxssy Palace, which "prioritises womxn and femmes of colour and other queer, intersex and trans people of colour", and Sink The Pink, a glitter-drenched pop party that regularly fills the 3,000-capacity Troxy. LGBTQ Bollywood night Hungama has been taking over venues such as The Chateau and The Glory since 2018, and founder Ryan Lanji attributes its success to radical inclusivity.
"Instead of a space which prioritises one type of person, race, religion or gender, we're a dance floor full of like-minded people," he explains, saying Hungama "not only creates a platform for queer South Asians, but a home and community that encompasses the future of diversity and togetherness." It's exactly the sort of warmly inclusive night that can help LGBTQ London to thrive.
As we enter a new decade, London’s queer scene is also poised to benefit from last year's launch of RuPaul's Drag Race UK. Adam All, founder of drag king cabaret night Boi Box, says the capital's LGBTQ venues really embraced the British spin-off by hosting weekly screening parties. "And lots of them chose to feature live performers [from the scene] who might not otherwise have been seen by that audience, which is great."
All predicts that Drag Race UK could also boost the capital's drag scene in a more subversive way. "There was a worry we'd all have to be and do what Drag Race demands," he says, citing the show's narrow interpretation of what a drag performer should be – namely a cisgender male portraying a heightened form of femininity. "But I honestly think that we love a rebel as much as a champion here in London – and often underdogs get their shot here." Still, All warns that we can't allow drag to become an Instagram-based art form. "Without our queer spaces and faces," he says, "London's scene can't flourish and our performers can't survive."
So, where does all of this leave London's queer scene in 2020? There's no way of spinning fewer venues into a positive, but at the same time we shouldn't underestimate the scene's durability. As RVT Future's Rob Holley puts it: "Our community has always been like knotweed – we find a crack, dig in and thrive."
Queer people learn to be resilient from a young age, and there's no reason why our queer resilience can't help to keep London's LGBTQ nightlife alive.