Throughout my life, I’ve constantly interrogated what exactly ‘queer London’ is. Growing up in the ’90s under the vice of Section 28 (a Thatcherite law prohibiting the ‘promotion of homosexuality’), Soho held an unknowable allure whenever I visited its higgledy-piggledy streets. It maintained that magic as I became a teenager: Soho was where, aged 14, I went alone to my first Pride, only to bump into my biology teacher on Greek Street. I remember the nervous excitement that hummed through me as I walked with the crowd, soaking up the fact that there were so many LGBTQ+ people in London. The first gay club I went to, Ghetto, was tucked away between the Astoria and Soho Square. Like many queer kids who came of age in the 2000s, my gay education began and ended with ‘Queer as Folk’. I devoured both the British and American versions, and believed that – like Manchester and the fictional version of Pittsburgh – each city around the world had its own gay village. In my young mind, London’s was Soho.
Naturally, that changed. On a night out with my sister, we (rather naively) went to Fire in Vauxhall. It offered a version of what I’d come to know from Soho, but on steroids. Muscular men danced with their tops off, people were clearly on drugs and it was, for me at least, a little too much – although none of that stopped me going back. When I returned to London after studying in Brighton, wizened a little to the realities of the gay scene, Soho had lost its shimmer. I started exploring further afield and soon became whisked up by the bars, clubs and alternative queer nightlife of east London. For a time, Shoreditch and Dalston offered me the version of queer life I had read about in Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’, albeit one in a different century and with much less sunshine. The anarchic pull of The Joiners Arms and the creative energy at The George & Dragon were sacred, and I met people there who I am still friends with today. Of course, I still ventured into Soho, finding comfort in spaces like The King’s Arms and nostalgia in the basement of Ku Bar and the dancefloor of G-A-Y Late. I also started a love affair with The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Dalston Superstore and The Glory (although, I’ll admit that I was not a fan of The Black Cap). These places, many shabby and all with terrible toilets, became a part of me.
However, I also witnessed in real time London’s insatiable appetite for change.
Over the years I had spent venturing on to the queer scene, nearly 60 percent of the city’s LGBTQ+ venues closed. This was thanks to a mixture of redevelopment, rising business rates, sky-rocketing rents and changes of ownership. I watched as Ghetto was demolished to make way for Crossrail; saw Madame Jojo’s cease to exist in the blink of an eye; and mourned the loss of the Joiners, which – still empty today – was once the epicentre of the east London scene, and around which I had started to build my life. My ‘queer London’ was being eroded.
But the disappearance and destruction of these physical spaces woke me up to another aspect of ‘queer London’. While the number of places where LGBTQ+ people congregated was shrinking, a sense of community that I had so far been oblivious to, but which has always existed, came to the fore. Thanks to friends I made on the scene, through my work as a writer and on Twitter, I discovered the incredible work of grassroots LGBTQ+ organisations and queer artistic collectives, as well as an underground, alternative nightlife. This was solidified for me when I wrote an article for Time Out about a proposed LGBTQ+ community centre in the city. Here were people from all intersections of the LGBTQ+ community, of every race and age, coming together off their own backs to create a space for the city’s queer community. In the face of what seemed like ‘the beginning of the end’ for London’s LGBTQ+ scene, they showed me that there was hope. My relative privilege as a white-passing mixed-race person and my general uninterest in Pride had made me unaware of UK Black Pride, an essential organisation that both demands and creates space for Black LGBTQ+ people and QTIPOC. ‘Queer London’ wasn’t the bricks and mortar. It was – and is – the people who create and breathe and dance and live in those spaces and beyond.
Beginning the research for ‘Queer London’, this was my mentality. I scurried off to the Bishopsgate Institute and pored over old copies of Gay News, Capital Gay, ‘Kennedy’s Gay Guide’, ‘London Scene’ and all the ephemera I could find. I read history books and, with the help of many people, spoke to LGBTQ+ individuals who had been alive since before homosexuality was legal in this country; along with young folx on the frontiers of new queer culture. I learned that corners of London I’ve barely visited were once hubs of queer life. I read about the lives of people who died during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I was introduced to the world of molly houses and proto-drag queens like Princess Seraphina. I eventually came to understand that ‘queer London’ was a depthless ocean – one I had dived into headfirst, swam in for what seemed like miles and yet still only scratched the surface of.
More than anything, though, I realised I’d attempted to quantify ‘queer London’ through things that were physical. While it is important to incorporate the people and the places and the histories, the defining feature of ‘queer London’ is resilience. Looking at the lives of LGBTQ+ people and the spaces they’ve claimed over hundreds of years, I can see how cyclical things are. Not only have queer people been a part of the fabric of the city since its inception, they have watched the places on which they staked their claim be gobbled up time and time again. And so they have fought – not only to make room for themselves in a city that’s constantly changing, but against persecution and violence, erasure and hate.
I have tried my hardest to capture this in ‘Queer London’. This book is by no means exhaustive but I hope it proves a useful guide to LGBTQ+ life in the capital. Interspersed with listings of bars, clubs, shops, charities, club nights and community organisations are pockets of history and tales that demonstrate the strength and fortitude of the LGBTQ+ people who have come before me. Writing it hasn’t been easy. Aside from the usual difficulties that accompany any project, the global Coronavirus pandemic has put up innumerable barriers. As I’m writing this, we don’t know what the long-term implications of the virus will be. The pandemic has already affected the city’s LGBTQ+ community, be it through the loss of work or illness. I’ve only been able to maintain some semblance of normality because of the lesson this book taught me: that ‘queer London’ has battled fiercer foes. It has been, and will always be, resilient.
‘Queer London’ by Alim Kheraj with photographs by Tim Boddy is out now, from ACC Art Books. £15.