Coming out to play

London Essays – Issue 9: Play

Coming out to play

Playful LGBTQ+ venues have been vital to the community – but they are disappearing.

By Robert Bevan

“In the evening the real me comes alive
I can feel it
In the evening something happens that I can’t describe
But it helps me to survive”

— Sheryl Lee Ralph 10

Sheryl Lee Ralph might be singing about ‘80s New York in her disco anthem, but there will be few LGBTQ+ people in London who don’t know the overwhelming experience of coming together with like minds under the cover of darkness – discovering, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone in their feelings or their identity. The camaraderie of the disco ball might appear superficial, but nobody should underestimate the power of being able to be the “real them” for a few hours. LGBTQ+ venues have long allowed people, especially the young who are finding themselves, to both play and to stop playing at being someone else.

But most of the venues where this happened have now closed, often not through lack of patrons but because of redevelopment or raised rents. An interim report by UCL Urban Laboratory, LGBTQI Nightlife; London from 1986 to the Present, in collaboration with the Raze Collective and Queer Spaces Network, sets out the extent of the losses: since 2006, 58 per cent of LGBTQ+ venues in London have closed their doors. This compares to 44 per cent of nightclubs, 35 per cent of grassroots music venues and 25 per cent of pubs across London. 11 Play appears to be dying out.

Even these dismal percentages don’t reveal the effect of absolute numbers: there are just 53 LGBTQ+ venues left. Eleven boroughs have lost all their spaces; there are almost no “locals” anymore if you are LGBTQ+ and there is precious little choice London-wide. This, in a growing city that is much younger than the UK average. Much-loved venues such as The Black Cap, Madame Jojo’s and The Joiners Arms have shut down – sometimes with little or no notice. Each has seen dismayed patrons campaigning for their reopening. Many LGBTQ+ people feel not just gloom but grief.

But they’re just clubs and bars, aren’t they? Well, no.

These venues were the latest manifestation of the spaces in which LGBTQ+ people have been exploring identity for centuries, often through play – from the 18th-century cross-dressing molly houses (where mock marriages and births took place in an atmosphere of drenched lace and sex) to London’s first real “gay bar”, the bohemian Cave of the Golden Calf – which opened briefly in 1912 – and the infamous travesties of Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball parties of the same era.

The lesbian Gateways club survived in the King’s Road from the 1930s to the 1980s, during which time pubs – or, as often, the back bars of pubs – offered sanctuary, often in the rougher parts of London. When the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) and The Black Cap first became permanent gay establishments is unclear, but it was at least from the mid-1960s; and the scene slowly blossomed after the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in 1967.

Gay social spaces often remained discreet well into the late ‘80s. Many pubs and clubs still had “private party” notices on the door to discourage those not knowing that it was an LGBTQ+ venue. It was normal to have to knock on the door to gain entry, and for the windows of a venue (if windows even existed) to be blocked to protect the anonymity of those inside and for security. This was often true of even relatively prominently sited venues such as the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

In the late ‘80s, London’s gay scene really began to find its feet – and they weren’t just dancing feet. As well as nightclubs and bars, there were cafés and social centres, roller-skating sessions, and opportunities to meet others – whether that was in a fetish basement, on the badminton court or with a hill-walking group. There were fewer choices if you were trans, a lesbian or from BME heritage, but they were there. Safe spaces arose amid homophobic laws such as Section 28, street violence, and hostile police raids, in which people were arrested for being “drunk on licensed premises” by officers wearing rubber gloves.

With a fatally late state response to the AIDS crisis, venues such as the RVT were not just boozers but de facto community centres, vital in raising funds for the care of people who were positive, in the fight for legal changes such as an equal age of consent, and for wider activism that, knowingly, put the camp back into campaigning – proving Susan Sontag’s point that playful camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious”.

The writer Neil Bartlett articulated the importance of the RVT during this period: “You have to remember what else was going on at this time in our lives … So to go into this absolute knockdown ramshackle old pub with all of these extraordinary people … it was meat and drink. It was lifeblood.”

Central London’s Soho “gaybourhood” joined longstanding enclaves of gay life in Islington, Hackney, Brixton, Notting Hill and Earls Court 12 – and the openness that emerged in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was mirrored in the changing physicality of venues. New café bars such as Village, The Yard and The Box were characterised by their confidence and openness to the street – plate glass windows featured. It was a claim to greater ownership of the city.

Some argue that the need for safe spaces has become irrelevant in a time of same-sex marriage, when young LGBTQ+ people are more likely to socialise with their straight friends. Online dating and phone dating apps have also been blamed for the decline in LGBTQ+ venues.

Yet according to statistics compiled by rights group Stonewall, 45 per cent of LGBT school children are still being bullied and more than one in five lesbian and gay young people have attempted to take their own life – a figure that doubles for trans youngsters. 13 Significant areas of life remain unwelcoming: among LGBTQ+ adults, some two-thirds felt that homophobia in sport was a barrier to their participation, while a quarter altered their behaviour in order to avoid being victim of a hate crime. 14 Physical and verbal attacks are on the rise, with the Metropolitan Police reporting that homophobic hate crime rose by 12 per cent over the year to March 2017.

Gay venues are not simply hedonistic (although, thankfully, they can be that too) but safe spaces where playful communication helps shape identities. Brian Sutton-Smith noted the importance of adult play in this regard in The Ambiguity of Play. 15 A sense of belonging to a place, and the attachments formed there, has been identified as crucial to the formation of a sense of self. And play has enabled the questioning of hegemonic ideas about masculinity and femininity, sexuality and gender.

LGBTQ+ venues have been a cradle for fashion, performance, popular music and film. Given the intense interweaving of play and creativity, this is not surprising. Much of today’s dance music, for example, has its roots in black and gay scenes in US and UK cities from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, where the spotlight was on the crowd as much as the stage. This wasn’t passive spectacle: the clubs were places where people entertained themselves rather than paid to be entertained. “It’s the people who are the real show at discos,” the writer Kitty Hanson says: “they’ve come to play.”7

Sheryl Garratt makes a similar point: “At their best, clubs are places where the marginalised can feel at home, where we can experiment with new identities, new ways of being. They are places where cultures collide, where people dance alongside each other and then, when they meet again in the real world outside, understand each other a little better.”8 No wonder that one respondent in the UCL study remarked: “Something in the community dies with every closed door.”

According to the UCL report, the consequences of the loss of LGBTQ+ haven spaces – which have disproportionately hit black- and lesbian-favoured venues – go beyond the loss of safe spaces to include an anxiety about memories and heritage being invalidated and erased, the loss of a community and a sense of belonging, and the disappearance of places with a creative past which are still platforms for creative futures.

Attempts to defend the remaining spaces are hobbled by the weaknesses of London’s planning system and absence of adequate rent controls, as well as by the fact that many existed in marginal areas that are now gentrifying (often territories once pioneered by LGBTQ+ people) or have been displaced by infrastructure-related redevelopments such as those at Vauxhall, Tottenham Court Road, and King’s Cross.

It was hoped the Asset of Community Value (ACV) regime would help stem venue closures. It hasn’t, much, but it has helped hinder redevelopment in some cases. In October 2017, the ACV-designated Black Cap, a pub that had been shuttered for years, was put up for sale to an LGBTQ+ operator after years of campaigning.

When it comes to Statutory Listing of places with an LGBTQ+ heritage, however, a problem is that, for the most part, this is an intangible heritage and history, rather than one that is expressed architecturally – queer theorists have made a good fist of describing the Queer Gothick design of Walpole and Beckford but the arguments for there being a queer architecture are pretty thin.

The RVT is the first building to be listed in part for its LGBTQ+ associations (though, short-sightedly, these don’t include the bar interior). It survives, just, to continue a Vauxhall tradition that stretches back to around 1660, when the extensive pleasure gardens opened. (Today, the entertainment on the patchy park remaining is more likely to be the RVT Sports Day, featuring competitive events such as the 50m mince.) The Yard bar in Soho has also repeatedly fended off redevelopment threats for the moment, in part by invoking its importance to London’s LGBTQ+ story.

Activists are having to be increasingly planning-savvy: The RVT Futures group, for instance, has won a sui generis use classification including for its upper floors that would otherwise be fatally attractive to residential developers. Lambeth’s nighttime economy policy in its Local Plan should also make a change of use more difficult (although the building’s owners are still trying to flog it and its future remains uncertain).

And there has been nothing to prevent a gay venue turning straight – at least, until now. In Tower Hamlets, campaigners won a significant first in October 2017, ensuring that The Joiners Arms is re-provided as an LGBTQ+ bar and community space as part of the planning permission for residential redevelopment proposals. Conditions included a long lease for an LGBTQ+ operator, adequate sound-proofing, and what would, astonishingly, be London’s only dedicated LGBTQ+ community centre.

Almost the same day, however, West End club G-A-Y revealed it was facing a rent hike of £400,000, more than doubling its current rate. It is this Anglo-Saxon obsession with property that poses the greatest threat to bars whose potential clientele will always be smaller in numbers than straight venues: London, New York, San Francisco and Sydney are suffering far more than cities such as Paris, Berlin and Madrid. Long-term solutions need to go far beyond tending to LGBTQ+ venues to look at answers such as community commons ownership trusts and land value taxation.

In the meantime, the UCL report made recommendations to protect London’s remaining LGBTQ+ spaces – including amending Use Classes and polices for the retention and re-provision of spaces in the London Plan and borough plans – and for better use of Equality Impact Assessments in making planning decisions. The UCL report will feed into the Mayor of London’s Cultural Infrastructure Plan to be published in 2018.

The value of playful places is, then, finally getting some recognition. As Joiners Arms campaigner Peter Cragg persuaded Tower Hamlet’s councillors: “Everything fun happens after midnight.”

  • 10 Ralph, S. L. (1984). In the Evening. New York: New York Music Company.
  • 11 UCL Urban Laboratory (2016). LGBTQI Nightlife; London from 1986 to the Present. Interim findings.
  • 12 Ibid.
  • 13 Stonewall (2017). School Report. Retrieved from:
  • 14 Stonewall (2013). The Gay British Crime Survey. Retrieved from:
  • 15 Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press.