London should lead the way in love, says Paris Lees. We’re the best qualified in the world to do it.
As the Orlando shootings and murder of MP Jo Cox tragically reminded us, there’s still a great deal of hate in the world. Anyone who has ever felt that it wasn’t safe to hold hands with the person they love in public will know that a gay club is so much more than a place to dance. It’s a refuge from discrimination. It is where gay and trans people have traditionally come together to create a sense of belonging and it’s why the killings in Orlando felt like an attack on a whole community. It is why so many thousands of us took to the streets of Soho the next day in solidarity. The message was simple: we will not give in to fear. We will not give in to hate. Love wins. It has to.
The worst of human nature brought out the best of our city. But why does it take an act of horror to bring us together? And how do we keep this feeling of community moving forward?
My first proper trip to London was when I was 16. I had been once with my mother as a child, but this was the first time I’d ventured down of my own accord. I’m from a rough council estate in Nottingham and London seemed to me to be this huge glamorous metropolis. Which, of course, it is. I was mesmerised. I came with two friends who were both, like me, transgender women who had yet to take the plunge and ‘transition’ from male to female. We caught a bus from King’s Cross to Soho, by jumping on the back. In Nottingham you had to get on buses at the front and pay the driver. Even London buses seemed exciting.
In Soho we jumped on a rickshaw and asked to be taken to ‘the centre of everything’, like Madonna arriving in New York for the first time. Five minutes later and £20 lighter we were delivered to Old Compton Street. I felt like Cinderella. It was thrilling. A bar was playing Kylie Minogue, so we went in. It was G-A-Y and from there we went to Heaven, in every sense of the word. I remember being amazed to see so many gay people from ethnic minorities. My friends – both of whom are black – were equally impressed.
That diversity is what makes London so special. All of human life is represented here. Get on the Northern line at any hour of the day and see for yourself.
Why do so many people from gender and sexual minorities come here, though? The sad truth is that many of us were unwelcome in our hometowns. Like many LGBT people, I was bullied relentlessly at school and at home by my father for ‘talking like a girl’ and ‘acting like a poof’. Later, when I transitioned and was still finding my style as a woman, I was abused on the streets and called a ‘fucking tranny’. Can you blame me for wanting to run away to a big, anonymous city where anything goes? London is a sanctuary for misfits from across the world.
That doesn’t mean it is always safe to be different in London. People are still attacked here – murdered, even – simply for being gay or trans, but it is better than many other cities. London is one of the few places in Britain that I have seen same-sex couples walking around hand in hand.
The community we’ve formed here is rooted in escapism: in bars and clubs, in drink and drugs and risky sexual adventures. I’m not judging. I like to party as much as the next girl. There’s a growing sense, though, that unchecked hedonism could now be causing us harm. As Attitude magazine’s departing editor Matthew Todd points out in his new book, ‘Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy’, LGBT people are more likely to experience mental health issues, addiction and sexually transmitted diseases. Why? Family rejection is one factor, but mainly, he argues – and I agree – it is almost impossible to have grown up gay or trans in Britain and not be deeply scarred by discrimination. Many of us were made to feel ashamed simply for being ourselves as children, and the effects of this toxic shame can last a lifetime. It is why, in 2016, gay and trans people are still much more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population.
Thankfully, London’s queer community is leading the way in addressing these issues. No one is saying we can’t have fun any more, but we need more ways of coming together as a community that don’t involve getting blind drunk. More and more gay men are meeting at groups like ‘Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs’ and ‘A Change of Scene’ to discuss self-esteem and self-care. There’s a swimming group for trans people in Lewisham. Todd would like an LGBT centre in Soho to be used in the same way that Jewish people use the Jewish Centre. Clearly that will require big money, political backing and support from the community, but it’s not impossible.
Gay people are known for setting trends. So are Londoners. Our community is in a unique position to set an example not just to other LGBT people, but to the world. If London can elect a pro-gay, Muslim mayor in the current climate of fear and prejudice, we can do anything. Think of it as a revolution of love. I don’t care if I sound sentimental. The world is in a bad place right now and the only way to begin healing it is by spreading love. That includes love for ourselves. Love is about connection and caring for others. So is community. The only question now is: how will you make sure that love wins?
‘Straight Jacket: How to Be Gay and Happy’ by Matthew Todd is published by Bantam Press.
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