how queer spaces have the power to shape society

Building on the experiences that the first episode of our Summer of Love video series explores, Stephen Isaac-Wilson discusses how LGBT nightlife spaces offer a sweaty sanctuary from prejudice and discrimination, and why we should do everything in our...

by Stephen Isaac-Wilson and i-D Staff
30 June 2016, 2:35pm

Growing up queer was tough. I'm naturally shy, so sticking out always felt less than ideal. The constant internal policing was exhausting, cumbersome, and unsuccessful. I was born and raised in south east London, in a West Indian family. Nobody in my school or my family was openly gay, anyone thought to be were called out as "a batty" and "chi chi man." Environments like that make you become hyper-sensitive to the way you walk, talk, act and all other ways so-called queer behavior can be detected. I remember walking through groups of guys hanging out on street corners on the way home and feeling unsafe. Even to this day, it is a nervousness that is hard to shake.

My experience in high school was better, but still not great. Although my circle of friends was liberal, I still felt too afraid to rock the heteronormative boat. We spent our days playing cards and living out of each other's pockets; our nights trying our fake IDs at east London clubs and navigating night buses home. We spent so much time together and shared so many experiences, but still this wasn't enough me to coax me out the closet. I remember my friend Tallulah trying to broach the subject with me at party she threw while her parents were away, a verbal exchange I quickly and regrettably dismantled. Largely speaking, our conversations around crushes, dating, and relationships never seemed to accommodate my feelings or experiences. Chats about queerness often seemed awkward, random, and embarrassing.

I craved, although I didn't yet know it, the time and space to work things out. Somewhere to begin to understand and accept my difference surrounded by people that embraced them. I first went to a queer club with my friend Sandra. On a whim, we hopped on the last train and headed to Vogue Fabrics. It felt both foreign and familiar. Although the experience is vivid in my memory, the night had a dream-like quality. I was taken under the wing, a new dawn had risen. Queer clubs have operated for centuries — the first gay bar in Europe, possibly the world, was the Zanzibar in Cannes and it opened its doors in 1885 — but for me, they offered a temporary release from the sometimes exhausting nature of heteronormative life. They were a chance for me to encounter others who shared a profound sensibility and platonic intimacy. My 'otherness' suddenly added, rather than deducted from my character. It felt like my anxiety was melting away.

These spaces were a sanctuary for me, a place to meet people I would eventually artistically collaborate with, or become friends for life. I was far from alone. "They are places of inherent acceptance where you don't have to explain yourself," Justin Bontha, who appears in i-D's first Summer of Love episode, explains. Zoe Marden, who also features in the episode, feels "queer spaces are a porthole into the unknown, where you can create a world that doesn't exist yet. For me they are feminist spaces where, as a women, you don't have to conform to any sort of ideal and you can be as experimental as you want free from judgement."

Society is culturally indebted to queer people and the small pockets of space they carved out for themselves. Especially, oppressed queers of color who came together in NYC and Chicago and forged various sounds and art forms to give the mainstream vogueing, house music, disco, and an extensive vocabulary. From Madonna to Lady Gaga, pop culture has pulled inspiration from impoverished queers and that needs to be remembered. In addition to providing young queer people with ample sartorial guidance, queer icons such as Willi Ninja, Larry Levan, and Boy George have greatly contributed to club culture. We have a lot to be proud of.

However, rising rents and gentrification mean these spaces are under threat. In NYC, trans friendly Spectrum and Escuelita (Vogue Knights) closed earlier this year to the detriment of many. In London, something of an epidemic has seen venues such as the Joiners Arms, The Black Cap, Candy Bar, and The George and Dragon close in recent years, while others hanging in the balance.

It has been argued that the necessity of these spaces isn't as strong as it once was. The internet, to a degree, has heightened the visibility of LGBT people from all over the globe. Between Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube, interacting and subscribing to a particular queer aesthetic has become easier. However, the tangibility of IRL connections and the support they provide is what needs protection — as queer friends are absolutely essential for personal growth.

A survey in 2016 conducted by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) of 96,000 people in 53 UN member states provided less than progressive results. It revealed that two-thirds of adults would be upset if their child expressed same-sex love and only 28% felt it would be acceptable if their son expressed themselves as female. It's clear that queer people need more places to begin to accept themselves, away from the pressures of their parents and peers — a space to enhance and shape their identity before it's molded by the scrutiny and judgement of the rest of society.

We all benefit when safe spaces allow for us to exercise freedom of expression and subcultures are allowed to artistically flourish. When we allow people to find their voice, we create a more inclusive and progressive society — one everyone has a stake in. We have a responsibility to ensure that these spaces remain open and are here for future generations. Put bluntly, these spaces have done so much for me. It's in our interest to protect them.

From London to Paris, New York to Barcelona, Summer of Love is a reminder that no matter where you are in the world, love and unity conquer all. Catch up on the series here and add your voice to the discussion.


Text Stephen Isaac-Wilson

Summer of Love
LGBT nightlife
queer spaces