pleasure, sex and desire: an oral history of the hoist

As London lost yet another vital LGBT space over the weekend, we salute The Hoist as they close their dungeon doors for the final time, and go out with a bang.

by Tom Rasmussen
12 December 2016, 9:18pm

The Hoist has been a beacon of subversive sex in London for 21 years. Famed internationally as London's longest running leather and dress-code club, The Hoist -- housed in Vauxhall's railway arches -- signified the desires of parts of the gay community, publicly, in the centre of London. Opened in the 90s during the AIDS epidemic, the Hoist did, and continued to, signal the gay community's commitment to pleasure, sex and desire.

The closure of countless LGBTQIA+ spaces has been reported time and time again over the last three years, and the Hoist is the most recent to follow suit. Shutting its dungeon doors for the last time this weekend sees the loss of yet another of London's gay institutions, a move which only serves to sanitise our streets more each time.

"We always said that we wanted to close at a time of our choice and not be forced in to it," Guy Irwin, Managing Director of the Hoist told i-D. "We wanted to do what Abba did, step aside at the peak! Rising rents played something of a factor. We also had just had enough. I'm 56 now, and live with my husband and two dachshunds, Teddy and Toby, in rural Norfolk."

With most of the LGBTQIA+ spaces lost of late being physically unable to stay open due to skyrocketing rents, and forced sales to make way for new 'developments', the closure of the Hoist has at least been through the choice of the owners. But one still can't help but wonder why it has become too much for its owners; why it is so hard to keep a gay venue going.

"I think the closure's message is that there's not room in neoliberal Tory post-gentrification London for a place like The Hoist. It shows that the council and the government are happy to let go (or make life uncomfortable) for spaces of local community value, spaces full of history, and spaces that aren't respectable or tidy," Sam Cottington, staff member at the Hoist explained. "For me this closure solidifies a depressing feeling I've had for a while in London. That it's too late, that it's been gentrified and our experience with the city is increasingly boring, frustrating, expensive and unimaginative. This weekend's is the third gay bar closing party I've been to in two years, and I still really miss the Joiners and the George and Dragon. The way I socialise was directly impacted by those closures. I haven't got over it. I feel cheated as a young Londoner that the places I love increasingly find London untenable."

It's a strange feeling, that physically mirrors society's treatment towards already marginalised communities, when the spaces you -- as an LGBTQIA+ person -- need in order to socialise safely and happily are removed without warning. When so much of our lives as marginalised people is met with painful and violent disapproval, the loss of collective space solidifies the feelings of rejection, shame, and disfavour we have been made to feel on a personal and community level for the entirety of our lives. This is more than just drinks and dancing, queer and gay spaces are about health, survival, community.

AJ Pittman, a regular at The Hoist until his recent move to Berlin, told i-D that he left London because he had had enough of feeling unwelcome. "The Hoist's closure is another nail in the coffin of London's gay fetish scene, which is now almost totally gone. It's also another statistic for the decline of London's LGBT scene as well as the night-time industry as a whole. The battles for the RVT and Fabric have been the only successful community responses: no one is going to march for the smaller venues, especially if there can be a stigma against them as with the Hoist. When venues reflect the diversity of a community, it is a sign of a happy and healthy community. When venues like the Hoist close down and nothing is there to replace them, it illustrates that there are problems and people will no longer be able to enjoy that side of the community anymore. People get frustrated going to the same old bar playing cheesy pop or tacky house music and the scene becomes homogenous."

The closure-community conundrum is a tricky hurdle to clear. The loss of collective space means a genuine loss of collectivity and community. While a unified LGBTQIA+ community is certainly what we need in order to create successful community responses to these closures, how are we supposed to commune to save space, if the very spaces in which we could do so safely are disappearing?

"One thing I'm concerned about is the effect the closure will have on LGBT people's mental and sexual health," Sam continues. "I believe that there should be ways people can congregate and have sex in public, not in private. Having sex, and risky sex in public, accessible to anyone (who can afford it) is a more democratic social sex culture, as well as a safer one. The staff at the Hoist have a level of implication and responsibility and there are ways we can support certain problems without judgement, and without being a guest in someone's house, which brings a certain asymmetric power relationship. We, the staff, keep an eye out,"

"I went to The Hoist for a lesbian night. If I'm honest, it wasn't a great night, but I felt like I was leaving my mark on a gay institution... and some alternative fluids," Dani Singer told i-D. "The Hoist is a beautiful building to start with! I'm not sure what it was in its past life, but its raw industrial feel gives it a really heavy atmospheric vibe which London is losing day by day (Electrowerkz is the only comparable place I've been to). It's a lifestyle for a lot of people, and whatever anyone's views on that lifestyle, it's there and it's a lifeline. This closure will just drive things online even more. I'm not sure how I feel about that. I've met the majority of my sexual partners online, and had a lot of fun, but there's nothing that can really replace a face-to-face chance encounter."

Gay sex has been driven into the virtual world, and although the closure of community spaces is not entirely to blame, it certainly plays a part in this seismic shift to life online. The virtual worlds of gay sex networking are integral for communities whose sex is something which, for safety reasons, has to be kept out of the mainstream public eye. But the extremity to which the LGBTQIA+ community depend on hookup apps is removing the opportunity of chance encounter from the sex and dating game. Moreover, these sites, apps, and forums are incredibly isolating for many: for those who are profiled and rejected—or even abused—because of their race, their body type, their femme nature. Not to mention the fact that these forums drive out an entire demographic of people who are intimidated by technology, which mostly portents to older users. Of course places like the Hoist are male prioritising, and don't necessarily engender feelings of comfort for everybody in the LGBTQIA+ community; however the loss of the multiplicity in ways to meet, and the option of a singular, virtual means by which to do so, is isolating to members of our community, and leads to its fracture in the same way the loss of space does.

"I believe that for some of the regular visitors, this closure will be an end to a part of their life that makes them happy: that I find disheartening," Sam adds. "I have no proof but I believe there are older men who are intimidated by Grindr and new sex networking technology. There are men who organise their week around coming to the Hoist, being naked, socialising. I worry about London being such a lonely, alienating place, especially for older people with such harsh cuts to community organisations and support systems, people who were brought up in intense homophobia, older men and queer people, disowned by their family, people who lived through all their friends dying of AIDS: they will lose another part of their life, which I find heartbreaking. What support system is there for these people? How do they get to feel part of a community and unashamedly sexual? For me it seems like certain people need that: as a way to refuse the compulsory shame they've grown up with."

"I have a lot of problems with The Hoist," Sam continues, "and I don't want it to be idolised or petrified as a utopia or a queer paradise. It certainly privileged certain people: for example in the documentary about The Hoist called Age of Consent trans men talk about how they've felt uncomfortable visiting the men only nights (which it predominantly is) which is of course a huge problem. I don't want to pretend all the visitors were angels: tonnes of the men were total idiots, of course, as most men are. But the closure of kink/queer spaces as part of homogenous regeneration and control is making all of our lives more depressing. There's no plans for a nightclub to replace, so you can expect something pretty basic."

"But I think The Hoist should be remembered as a place where people could meet, and meet differently, have a different type of encounter or feeling from the mundane everyday ways we meet people in the city. It should be remembered as a place that afforded pleasure, even when dominant systems of control tried to limit it. It should be remembered as a place that survived the AIDS epidemic, or in that it was opened in the 90s during the AIDS epidemic, and signalled a refusal by the visitors and owners of the club to denounce their commitment to their desires. It should be remembered as a place that was sleazy and sexy."


Text Tom Rasmussen
Film still from Age of Consent

Think Pieces
gay nightlife
The Hoist