Identity

London's LGBT Community Protested the Closure of an Iconic Drag Pub

The war to save London's LGBT venues rages on. We talked some of the people on the front lines this weekend.

by Michael Segalov
Apr 20 2015, 7:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

London's LGBT scene has had a pretty tough year. Iconic venues such as Madame Jojo's and the Joiners Arms have closed up shop, hate crimes against trans people are at an all time high, and Soho has transformed into a place where an un-bookable table at an overpriced tapas bar is the queerest thing the neighborhood has to offer.

But the closing ofThe Black Cap last Sunday was the last straw for many activists in London'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 50 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."

Ben Walters and Meth

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."


Heather, Jacob, and Sarah

The #WeAreTheBlackCap protest kicked off with two of London's most recognized 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."


Lexie

"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," a protestor named Lexie gushed, having traveled 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."


Zia

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 also chatted with Mel Howes, who had 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 neighbors 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

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 center, a place of refuge. Especially 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 cis-gendered counterparts. "There is a specific issue within the queer community, that certain segments aren't as recognized 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. It has a campaign behind it right 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."

Father Bernard Lynch

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 labor of love. This place isn't just a space for us, it encapsulates a spirit."


Meth

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."

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