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A queer history of Vauxhall

We take a look at the LGBT heritage of London's original gay village

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Long before the so-called gay village, Vauxhall was already steeped in LGBT history. This weekend Duckie presents Vauxhall Bacchanal. There’ll be talks, performances and the Duckie Summer Party. Among the talks is a tribute to The RVT, which turns 150 this year. In addition, historian David Coke will be discussing the history of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which opened in 1661. Here are a few queer moments in the history of Vauxhall.

According to David Coke, ‘the first authentic appearance of a gay man at Vauxhall was at the very exclusive Ridotto al Fresco which re-launched the refurbished Vauxhall Gardens on June 7, 1732. A chap called John Cooper, better known as Princess Seraphina, turned up dressed in a very smart calico gown, with a mob-cap and smock. Cooper was well-known as a “molly” or homosexual man.’

The RVT becomes a destination point for post-war entertainment, specialising in drag performance. Actor and activist Bette Bourne first visited the pub in the 1950s. ‘There was something very wicked and naughty about drag in those days,’ Bourne recalls. ‘It was quite underground, a great naughty secret.’ Paul O’Grady, then known as drag queen Lily Savage, begins a residency at The RVT which lasts for eight years. In 1988, at the height of the Aids crisis, the pub was raided by police wearing rubber gloves. O’Grady encouraged the punters to riot, and was promptly arrested. Diana Princess of Wales visits The RVT – dressed as a man. In her book, ‘The Power of Positive Drinking’, Cleo Rocos describes how she, Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett took the princess to the pub, disguised in ‘man drag’. Arty party Duckie launches on Saturday nights at The RVT. Hosted by Amy Lamé, with DJs The Readers Wifes, it quickly becomes a cult hit. Eighteen years on, it’s still going strong. Manchester’s David Hoyle aka The Divine David launches his London career with Viva Apathy! on Sunday nights at the Elephant & Castle pub (now a Starbucks). Time Out is the first mainstream magazine to interview him, high on top of our building on Tottenham Court Road. Gay dance venue, Crash, ushers in a new wave of gay clubs to the area. Some have since closed, but Area, BarCode, Factory, Fire and Union are still going strong – as are Duckie and Horse Meat Disco at The Eagle.

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