Londoners are crowdfunding to open a community centre that reflects the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum of this city
It’s a balmy Wednesday night and in a cavernous room in Hackney Downs an excitable crowd is watching performance artist Ray Filar aggressively stalk around a stage, lip-synching to a remix of ‘Heads Will Roll’ by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. As Ray rips off elements of an intricate Elizabethan costume, whoops of delight and screams of ‘yas!’ and ‘work!’ can be heard as people snap their fingers in the air.
Midweek drag shows aren’t unusual in east London, but this one is special. Tonight hundreds of people have come together to help kick off the fundraising for a London LGBTQ+ Community Centre. It’s a project that – if successful – could transform life in the city for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer Londoners.
‘I had no sense that there was a community that I could be a part of’ - Dani Singer
The centre is the brainchild of journalist and activist Michael Segalov. He’d always assumed that London had an LGBTQ+ community space and, when he found out that wasn’t the case, decided to do something about it.
An enthusiastic group of volunteers now plans to create an inclusive space in east London that belongs to our city’s LGBTQ+ community. It’ll host everything from drag shows to Christmas dinners for lonely Londoners. It’s something that this city is in desperate need of – although it might not initially seem that way from the outside.
‘We’re told that in order to find our feet we have to go to bars and clubs’ - Michael Segalov
London wears its diversity and inclusivity as a badge of honour. Our annual Pride march is a tangible sign of solidarity from a city that, over the past two decades, has seen exponential growth in LGBTQ+ rights and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people. But as much as things are progressing, the community is still under threat.
The last decade has seen the traditional stomping grounds of the LGBTQ+ community – bars, clubs and pubs – closing at an alarming rate thanks to large-scale developments and rising business rates and rents. Queer performance spaces such as the historic Madame Jojo’s are disappearing, while anarchic and messy venues such as The Black Cap have also shut their doors. In fact, nearly 60 percent of London’s LGBTQ+ venues have closed since 2006, leaving the number of such spaces in the capital woefully low.
‘This centre could be the place where people can express themselves properly’ - Benedict Stewardson
It was for this reason that Benedict Stewardson (who is non-binary and uses the pronoun ‘they’) initially became part of the events team for the proposed centre. As a performer, they saw it as a place where queer art could flourish in the face of nightlife closures . It was only as the project developed that they realised that the centre could also play an essential role as an escape and a place of discovery. ‘I often worry that I read as cis male, even though that’s not how I identify,’ says Benedict. ‘This centre could be the place where people can express themselves properly.’
Having somewhere safe for self-expression is particularly important given a recent YouGov survey of 5,000 people which suggests that verbal or physical attacks on LGBTQ+ people in the UK have increased by nearly 80 percent since 2013 (the real number is believed to be higher due to underreporting). It’s something that Benedict has experienced first hand. They’ve lived in London for six years and tell me that they’ve been the victim of more transphobic and queerphobic abuse in the past two years than ever before.
‘To be in a place where you’d just get instant support would be amazing’ - Molly
The last few years have also seen the dissolution of a number of LGBTQ+ charities, such as the domestic violence organisation Broken Rainbow and mental health charity PACE. Likewise, cuts to local authority funding have meant that other essential services are stretched to breaking point.
Such services would have been a godsend for Molly and her 12-year-old son Ned, who came out as trans last year. ‘There’s a lot of chat on the internet,’ she explains, ‘but I needed people that I trusted to do some quality control about all the information.’
Thankfully, Molly has found a trans youth group for Ned, which has been a revelation. Likewise, she’s made friends with the mother of another trans child. Still, she hopes that the LGBTQ+ Community Centre will provide somewhere she and her son can go, meet new people, get advice and avoid awkward and tedious questions. ‘To be in a place where you’d just get instant support would be amazing,’ she says.
'It’s about bringing together a community that can be disparate’ - Michael Segalov
Not every parent is as brilliant and accepting as Molly. Shockingly, the Albert Kennedy Trust suggests that 24 percent of homeless young people identify as LGBTQ+ and 77 percent of them believe that coming out to their parents was the main factor in their situation.
Dani Singer, who is part of the community outreach group, also recently came out as trans, understands how isolating it can be to grow up LGBTQ+. ‘I went to an Orthodox Jewish school where students were expelled for being openly gay,’ Dani tells me. ‘I had no sense that there was a community that I could be a part of. I can’t express how much of an impact it would have had.’
‘I really want to get more POC involved and more people with disabilities’ - Ola Awosika
Stories like this show that this community space would provide essential services even if the old LGBTQ+ bars and pubs still existed. ‘It always strikes me as odd that as a community, and for many young people, we’re told that in order to find our feet we have to go to bars and clubs,’ says Michael Segalov. ‘It’s not necessarily healthy. Having a visible alternative to those spaces seems important.’
In fact, it’s so important that New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Los Angeles and Manchester all already have LGBTQ+ community centres – and London used to. The short-lived London Gay and Lesbian Centre in Farringdon was forced to close in the early ’90s due to a lack of funding and internal political instability. The 78-year-old activist and author Stuart Feather, who was involved in the old centre as well as this new one, explains: ‘[That centre] just didn’t have a picture of what it should be and nothing had been agreed. Closure was inevitable.’
‘You feel like something is really going to happen’ - Sarah Moore
He explains that he’s been excited by the professionalism of the new volunteers – and their work is paying off. Hackney Council and the London’s Mayor’s office have both come out in support of the project. There are also events planned to raise money, ranging from club nights to community picnics. Plus, they’ve set up a crowdfunder to raise the £50,000 they need to start the project. ‘You feel like something is really going to happen,’ says Sarah Moore, who volunteers with the communications team, although she admits there have been some obstacles.
One major factor is ensuring that, from the start, the centre is as inclusive as possible. Stuart is keen that the centre serves the often neglected older LGBTQ+ community; getting a car so that less-able members can be picked up. Volunteer Ola Awosika has also highlighted that for him, as a person of colour, LGBTQ+ spaces can feel very cis male and white-dominated. ‘I really want to get more POC involved and more people with disabilities,’ he says.
It’s the drive for inclusivity that seems most powerful about this project: it’s about much more than just a physical space. ‘The fundamental aim is setting up the centre,’ says Michael. ‘But it’s also about bringing together a community that can be disparate, whether that’s because of their ages, backgrounds or where they live. We’re trying to bridge those gaps.’