Beleaguered by redevelopments and rising rents, London's most iconic queer venues have had a rough year. Stalwarts such as the Black Cap and the Joiners Arms have shut their doors and many more are currently under the avaricious leer of property developers and landlords, so their cards are likely marked too. But while the well-documented gentrification of London is leaving an indelible stain on the capital's queer scene, the reality is that it's always been in a state of flux.
"Over the years, the scene has always been fluid and moved from area to area," says club promoter Wayne Shires, a titan of London's gay scene since the early 80s. "When I was 15 or 16 and first out, people were still going to Earls Court. It was everyone's scene really. People used to go out there because it was a little group of bars: Bromptons, Copacabana and the Coleherne."
All three venues have now either been closed down, reopened as mixed venues, or redeveloped entirely. Once the city's most prominent gay village, Earls Court's queer quarter—a bustling hive of pubs, cafes and saunas—has all but vanished. That particular moniker passed to Soho in the 80s, a title it's held for some time. Such is the rate of closures now though, there are fears it could suffer a similar fate. Madame Jojo's, Candy Bar, the Green Carnation, and Manbar are just some of the establishments that have recently closed. It's left many asking, what next for queer London?
East London has always housed a handful of queer venues, but it was in the 90s that the scene really thrived, with venues like the Bull and Pump on Shoreditch High Street, Oak Bar in Stoke Newington, and the legendary Joiners Arms. All may now be closed, but the area has experienced something of a resurgence; Dalston Superstore, The Glory, East Bloc, and Vogue Fabrics (now VFD) represent a new slew of gay bars and pubs.
"The scene shifts to different locations in London and that's down to economy," says Shires, who now runs East Bloc. "There were always gay things in east London; the George and Dragon was one of the first places and the Joiners had been there for 20 years. They were very much the fledglings. But obviously, over the last five years, it's really taken off. Pubs have come and gone, but it's always been about the energy and the music and the vibe that clubs and the scene create, rather than the bricks and mortar. It's always about people."
In post-war Britain, London's scene has never been stagnant. As the city, social attitudes and economic climate have changed, so too have the city's queer "villages." The scene in some areas will respond to these shifts by flourishing, others flicker and fade. Trying to deduce any sort of consistent pattern to the LGBT scene's evolution seems to be a futile exercise.
"What's interesting, when you start picking apart London's gay scene, is that at any one point there will be two or three different scenes going on," says historian Matt Cook, author of Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London. "There's queer stuff happening at different levels now as well. What you can see is the commercial scene, but then there are movements like Queeruption who are squatting in places, putting on ad-hoc exhibitions, and cinema stuff and one-off nights."
"The scene will reflect a number of things, in particular the cultural positioning of queer people," he continues. "It's no surprise that some of the bars in the 1950s were private members clubs which were very discreet, where you had to sign in and be a member. So maybe it's also no surprise that there's less appetite for gay bars now that people are tending to socialize in mixed bars."
As well as a more dramatic physical shift, London's gay scene has also witnessed something of a psychological one. At the height of the AIDs epidemic in the 80s and 90s, gay pubs provided sanctuary, a platform for launching the kind of activism that raised essential awareness and funds. They fought back against a belligerent government and media.
"When I came out in the late 80s, it felt very important to have our own space," says Cook. "It felt very politically important at that moment of rampant homophobia, acute anxiety and grief, and all that community activism around Aids. Now LGBT people are much less affiliated to the Left and feel much less embattled."
The community may now be less embattled, but bigotries remain. Despite unparalleled social acceptance, LGBT-designated places are still a necessity. Places like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern offer a much-needed safe space for the vulnerable and alienated, not to mention queer artists and performers. So much so that grassroots preservation societies like "Royal Vauxhall Tavern Future" are springing up, campaigning for them to be protected against the developers. Huge support from the community has since earned the Vauxhall Tavern a listed status.
"There is still tension between queer people and straight people," says Jonny Woo, legendary drag queen and performer, and one of the owners of the Glory in Haggerston, east London. "There's still that tension so there is still a need. In that sense we've got a gay scene in east London, but I don't feel like it's ghettoized. Gay bars are definitely part of the wider community now. Dalston Superstore is partly responsible for Dalston's revival, its resurgence. I bet it's really connected to the places up there and I bet all the businesses have a lot of respect for those guys."
Aside from the usual antics that go on in an east London drinking hole, Woo's venue the Glory has become something of a hotspot for community campaigners and activists. In the last few months, it has opened its doors to HIV activists organizing blind date nights, held a fundraiser for the refugee crisis, provided a space for underground feminist publication Polyester to hold workshops and panels, and challenged chemsex culture through a performance of Tennessee William's cult classic "Suddenly Last Summer." It even held its annual "Boobathon," a night designated to raise money for trans women in the midst of their transition.
Venues like the Glory and Royal Vauxhall Tavern champion their inclusivity. Progressive, considerate attitudes, particularly on the alternative queer scene, are now a fundamental expectation from patrons. As a group that faces greater persecution than most in mainstream society, the trans community has perhaps been one of the bigger benefactors of the scene's progressiveness.
"Before, it may have been the case that stealth trans people didn't go out to trans nights or gay nights, and trans people that didn't pass only went to trans nights," says Munroe Bergdof, DJ and trans activist. "The trans girls who would go out with their gay friends would get constantly confused with drag queens. Now, it's completely blended; trans girls can go out with their gay friends and not have to worry about that because everyone's a bit more clued up about what trans people go through."
"We're also now talking about the problems that we have on the scene like racism," continues Bergdof. "My black gay friends wouldn't go out in Soho because they felt they were looked down upon, no one would find them attractive. Now I think they don't even think about that, really. Racism does go on in the scene, but I think it's a lot less."
The rise of chemsex over the last decade is another issue Bergdof feels the community is finally addressing. As well as the media attention it's got, out on the scene nights like "Let's Talk about Gay Sex and Drugs" have been set up as an open forum for discussing the topic in a non-judgemental environment.
Queers are like cockroaches – we'll be kicked out of somewhere and we'll infiltrate somewhere else
"I do think there's much more social awareness," says Miss Cairo, a drag artist. "People are being a bit kinder to each other. People are understanding where people's insecurities are coming from better. Being queer is about a way of thinking, a way of engaging with the world and the things around you. You're not going to be able to please everyone, but you can try your fucking hardest to understand others, and I think that's definitely happening."
"Queers are like cockroaches; we'll be kicked out of somewhere and we'll infiltrate somewhere else," she continues. "It's really important that we as a community find ourselves in places where we are needed the most. Not everyone has access to the community in London, and it's about finding spaces inside and outside the capital where people can feel safe to be themselves."
With near total legislative equality, there's been some suggestions that there is no longer any need for LGBT-designated spaces. Integration, not segregation, is apparently the way forward. There's even a fear that a lack of patronage, and ultimately profitability, is the reason bars are shutting—that people feel comfortable enough in straight venues and simply aren't using their local gay spaces anymore. However, the success of new venues that have opened in the last year suggests the appetite is still very much there.
"There will always be some sort of scene and I think it would be a shame if there wasn't," says Jonny Woo. "People have different tastes and needs and wants. The energy in a gay bar, a queer venue, is different to the energy in a straight venue. I don't think gay people should stop being gay or flaunting their gayness and a safe environment is where you can do that."
For the doom-mongerers, every venue closure represents a death knell. But the strength of the scene is far more complicated than just cataloguing the number of bars that have opened and closed each year. Judging it solely on its commercial effectiveness does it a disservice.
"We're going through very conservative times," says Woo. "We've got very liberal laws and kids are very liberal now, but it's a very straight society. I think there are a lot of people who naturally have the urge to rebel or to be different, so there will always be some underground, subversive culture. I think sexual identity is always going to be part of that."
Protecting historic, iconic, and valued venues represents the latest battle for a community that's won tougher fights before—in many ways it has galvanized queer London. As the pace of gentrification quickens, the bricks and mortar may be lost, but the community, its people and its values, will remain.
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