By Ben Walters
This is a speech I gave in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday June 28 2016. It was planned as part of a scheduled ACT UP London demonstration in memory of Stonewall and Orlando – an event that was subsumed into an impromptu anti-Brexit demo that attracted thousands of people. For logistical reasons, I gave a shorter version of my planned speech, which appears in full below.
I want to talk to you about why queer spaces matter.
We’re here to remember Stonewall in New York. The Stonewall Inn is a bar. When the police raided it, they weren’t just shaking down a place of business. They were invading one of the few places where queer people could feel safe and express themselves.
We’re here to remember Pulse in Orlando. Pulse is a nightclub. When the shooter attacked it, he wasn’t just targeting a place of leisure. He was violating one of the few places where queer people can build community and have fun – our kind of fun.
Spaces like this matter for queer people.
The past few years have seen dozens of our queer spaces here in London close their doors. For some, that’s no big deal. They’re comfortable in Wetherspoons and they’re happy on Grindr. Good for them. But for others – especially queer people who can’t feel safe at home, or at school, or at work, or on the street – it’s a disaster.
In the year since the Black Cap closed, Camden LGBT Forum saw demand for help with acute isolation and mental health issues treble. Queer people are hurting.
But it’s still possible to make a difference. That’s why a group of us formed the Queer Spaces Network – to defend and promote LGBTQ spaces in London and beyond, bringing groups together who know that when you bring people together you can make a change.
Let me tell you about some of the groups within the Queers Spaces Network.
There’s the Raze Collective, a new charity promoting queer performance. Raze Collective is already strengthening the bonds between artists, promoters, venues and funders, and working with City Hall, to make sure queer voices continue to be heard.
There’s the #WeAreTheBlackCap campaign and the Black Cap Foundation. We are on Camden High Street every single week, keeping the name and the flame of the Black Cap alive even though its doors are closed.
We’ve already sent one corporate redevelopment scheme packing, and we’ve got another one on the ropes. And we’ll keep seeing them off until the Black Cap is open once again as it should be serving the LGBTQ community.
And then there’s RVT Future, standing up for the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. When the RVT was bought by property developers called Immovate, we didn’t wait around to see what they would do.
We got together, we got informed, and we got busy.
We made sure the RVT community were educated, so that when Immovate tried to peddle nonsense about the pub not being commercially viable, it didn’t fly.
We pushed Historic England to make the RVT the UK’s first queer listed building, so that when Immovate planned to knock it down, they had to think again.
Right now, we’re pushing Lambeth Council to give the Tavern special status as a designated queer performance space so Immovate can’t just flog it to a chain pub. If you want to help with that, go to our website, rvt.community.
Once we’ve done that, we want to bring the Royal Vauxhall Tavern into community ownership, so it can continue as a beacon of safety, self-expression and solidarity long into the future.
The bigger point here is that our spaces matter. They matter because we still need and deserve places where we can feel safe, explore our identities and have our kind of fun. But it’s about more than that.
You don’t need me to tell you these are divisive and turbulent times. We look around today and it’s easy to see oversimplification, scapegoating, and fear of difference – dark forces that are most dangerous to those who are already marginalised and vulnerable.
Queer spaces aren’t just important because they’re safe spaces. They’re important because they’re a glimpse of a better future for everyone.
At their best – and we know that in practice they aren’t always perfect – but at their best, they’re a model of how every space should be.
Not closed and suspicious but open and welcoming.
Not clinging to stereotype and conformity but embracing complexity and difference.
Not built around othering and violence but around empathy and love.
So when we remember Stonewall, and when we remember Orlando, we should remember the oppression, the violence and the hatred that our community still faces, and we should remember the defiance, the resilience and the pride with which we respond.
But we should also remember that the Stonewall Inn is still there. Pulse is still there. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is still there.
They endure. Because they matter. Because they work.
Because we know there are better ways to live. We know that we are the future. And we know that’s worth fighting for.
Update: Attitude magazine published a version of this in their August 2016 issue dedicated to the Orlando atrocity.