​is london's gay scene dead?

i-D's Stuart Brumfitt, and QX magazine's Cliff Joannou debate whether gay London is dead, or simply evolving into something new.

by i-D Team
27 February 2015, 9:55am

Last weekend, the Nelsons Head joined The Joiners Arms as another of gay London's recent venue closures, leaving many to question where the scene is heading. Is it a blip that's only affected a tiny corner of increasingly expensive East London, or is there a wider crisis on the gay party scene? 

Whilst not "dead", it could be in far ruder health, says Stuart Brumfitt
I'll never be complacent about how good gay London is regards freedom, openness, legal rights; but gay party London could be better. Its current state is why gay guys are heading to Berlin for five wild weekends a year, why many save their pennies for the global "circuit parties", or why I miss living in NYC, where there were brilliant nightly parties, from hip hop nights in Harlem to raves in Bushwick (and a gay beach to boot).

I challenge you to have fun in London's Soho on a weekend. The capital's gay epicenter, Old Compton Street, has long been a grim parade of tired sex shops, chain cafes and that bleak temple to cheap drinks and twinks, G-A-Y. The cluster of gay bars around Rupert Street have barely changed since the 90s, with their out-of-shape gogos, irrelevant music and brushed steel banisters. And if Lisa Vanderpump still owns Shadow Lounge, she better come back from Beverly Hills and sort it out. All this means that the best places to go for any sense of real identity are the beary, leathery older men's pubs. But they're hardly going off. 

So if not Soho, where? Vauxhall had a heady decade in the noughties, with muscle men descending on it for entire weekends of debauchery (although often spending as much time in the in-house emergency rooms recovering from G overdoses as they did on the dancefloor). The Vauxhall Tavern and Horse Meat Disco still rep for an alternative to the archway megaclubs, but how long any of this will be around is up for grabs, with The American Embassy's plan to move to the area meaning a major clean-up of club life is expected. The diplomats and dignitaries won't want to be crossing paths with the Monday morning spill-out, after all.

Meanwhile, Hackney (gay London's newest borough, comprising Shoreditch, Haggerston and Dalston) is in crisis. Dalston never quite blossomed into the new gay mecca that it promised to be. The tiny sweatbox Vogue Fabrics has lost that early-day buzz and Dalston Superstore has been co-opted by straights on many nights (I've always loved it most when it feels gay-cafe by day anyway). Down by Hackney Road, The Joiners Arms and The Nelson's Head have both closed. Of course closure can bring death, or renewal, so let's see how things play out. 

Whilst some punters are sad that the Joiners is RIP, its true heyday - when the crowd was an original mix of drag queens, skinheads and fashionistas rather than second wave, similar hipsters - was long gone. Whatever my personal thoughts on it though, it was still supremely popular, and preferable to yet more tinny "luxury" flats to peer into from the top deck of the 55, thinking "please put your ironing board away." 

The closure of The Nelson's (due to inflated new rents) was a much sadder affair, because there was the sense that the cute pub (down by Colombia Road flower market) was still in its prime. There was still perfect harmony there - true soul -  and it felt like it had many years of good times left in it. What greater joy than pints, giant pretzels and music from the best jukebox in town? The Nelson's owners plan to find a new space, so there is still hope, along with Johnny Woo's new space The Glory, neighboring club Shelter (creating "Faggertson"), Old Street's raging East Bloc and nights like Hard Cock Life, Anal House Meltdown and newcomer Brut. 

Online apps are being blamed for taking people - and the sex - out of the gay scene, but as well as this, the scene suffers because a younger generation is increasingly happy partying at mixed nights. It's a good sign of greater integration and acceptance, but unless your gaydar is finely honed, it makes pulling a minefield. Plus, nothing really beats the communion of a truly great, preferably sweaty, gay club. This isn't meant to be a moan, but rather a call to arms to make more of London's gay scene cool and contemporary again; for local authorities to protect cherished venues, for commercial bar and club owners to play better music and for indie promoters to keep pushing. We need our Berghains for Britain, our present-day Paradise Garages, our glory days Heavens for the here and now.

The scene is always reinventing itself, says Cliff Joannou
There's been much in the press lately about the death knell sounding for our gay scene. The Vauxhall Tavern narrowly survived the cull after its new owners saw the vehement of the local community when they acquired it. Out in East London, The Joiner's Arms and Nelson's Head weren't so lucky. Last week, the Black Cap in Camden escaped the redevelopment axe after the latest attempt by its owners to turn its upper floors into luxury flats failed. Similarly in Soho, The Yard bar's fate is yet to be determined.

Are London's gay venues being chipped away at, piece-by-piece, for wealthy property investors? Well, yes, you could argue they are. But that's nothing new. You see the gay scene has reinvented itself more times than your average pop diva's latest stab at stardom. It's easy to think that the scene is under threat, but in truth it's nothing new, for it was founded in the face of adversity.

Decades ago, when the law said it was illegal to be queer, secret gatherings were common. The community even created its own language - Polari - to communicate in. This is how it was until the decriminalization of homosexuality 1967. Without fear of arrest, the 70s and 80s saw gay venues explode across London. Earl's Court was pretty much London's gay centre before Soho took off in the 80s and 90s. With gentrification, the gays moved out of Earl's Court and into more affordable, rough-round-the-edges Vauxhall, and eventually Shoreditch. Today as those areas become the new playgrounds for the rich, we're finding ourselves packing our bags and shifting again. With each change the scene has evolved: new venues open, old venues close.

Even gay identity is evolving. We're more accepted now by law, yet we're all the more queer for it. Sliding scales of sexuality emerge as people are happy to mix it up. But the notion of gay identity remains, and that's one routed in sexual liberation and freedom to dress/exist/love/be according to our own rules. You don't even need to be gay to enjoy a gay lifestyle today, just live against the grain and stick two fingers up to heteronormativity.

A few years ago, everyone said online dating/cruising sites would kill off the gay scene. It had an effect, but didn't kill it by any means. We lost swathes of gay venues across London when the recession hit in 2008 and hook-up apps took off, keeping gay boys indoors and away from clubs and bars. Yes, the scene's not as plentiful as it was 15 years ago, but then fifteen years ago there was a lot more of everything in the world. The recession was a huge filter for lots of things, from retail to restaurants via gay bars, yet still a healthy gay scene survives.

Much of the lesbian scene has integrated itself into the more contemporary East London identity, but the girl nights are probably more creative and credible than anything that was around twenty years ago. As for the trans scene, that has never been more proudly lipstick-smackingly prominent.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. That desire to shake our tushy from night 'til day beneath a sweat-dripping ceiling with a dodgy laser beaming shooting out over our heads, crammed into a room with our own isn't about to disappear. There's nothing quite like it. We're simple people: we like to celebrate life. See you on the dancefloor this Saturday. 

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gay culture
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