What are queer spaces for anyway?

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Detail from an illustrated map of Vauxhall by Robin Whitmore

Detail from an illustrated map of Vauxhall by Robin Whitmore

Speak Out London is a Heritage Lottery-funded LGBTQ+ oral history project based at London Metropolitan Archives. A Speak Out exhibition at LMA, running from today (May 4) until August 24 2016, showcases seven centuries of LGBTQ+ oral-history material. I was asked to write about vanishing queer spaces for the exhibition programme and this is what I wrote.

The past few years have seen a precipitous decline in the number of queer spaces available to Londoners. Around a quarter, perhaps more, have been lost in just three or four years, from venerable icons like the Black Cap and First Out to modern classics like Candy Bar and the Joiners Arms; neighbourhood locals like the Nelson’s Head and Little Apple to clubs like Ghetto and Area. Charity spaces (Pace LGBT), saunas (Chariots), gyms (Paris Gym) and other bespoke businesses have also bitten the dust.

The main villain of the piece is the sky-high London property market. These days, any freeholder with an eye on the bottom line is almost guaranteed to make more money by pimping a site out as luxury flats and chain retail than by retaining an LGBTQ space, however commercially viable. But while that’s a critical factor, it’s not the only one. The volume of queer nightlife venues has been on the wane since the turn of the millennium, before the property market went into complete overdrive, so something else is going on as well.

Rather than asking why queer spaces are closing, then, let’s think about what queer spaces are for. As with all things queer, there’s no fixed answer, not least because there’s no fixed definition of a queer space. A private home, a public house, a woodland grove, a subscription service, an online app… Each can be queer. Each has its own practical and theoretical assets and drawbacks, relative to preferences and conditions that change over time.

Some needs remain fairly constant though, and I think queer spaces have generally addressed four such needs: safety; sex; community; and culture.

For 30 or 40 years following the decriminalisation of sex between men in 1967, nightlife venues were arguably the dominant suppliers of all four of these things; the spaces in which LGBTQ people were able, with relative security, to find themselves, each other and a sense of their place in the world. But since the gay scene’s commercial heyday around the turn of the century, things have changed. As our society has moved towards legal equality, the perception has grown that people who aren’t straight are now safer to express themselves in a whole range of public spaces. And in the digital age, online access to sex has proliferated.

It would be simplistic and wrong to say that mainstream society is now safe for queers, or that everyone now uses apps to get laid. But it might not be unfair to suggest that by, say, 2010, the post-1967 model was no longer necessarily the best suited to modern queer life. In many cases, venues whose appeal rested first and foremost on their provision of a safe space in which to hook up had had their day. Safety and sex had simply become easier to find. Not for everyone: such venues’ closure has been to the detriment of many individuals, often including older, poorer and socially excluded queer people. But their relevance to overall twenty-first -century LGBTQ life was genuinely shrinking.

The same could not be said, however, for venues that did more to supply the other two basic needs: culture and community. According to an assimilationist argument out there (one that has plenty of adherents within the LGBTQ community itself), legal equality magically erases the need for community identity or support. Now that we can get married and (supposedly) hold hands and have a snog in a Slug and Lettuce, this argument goes, sticking up for queer spaces is backward-looking, unrealistic, even reactionary.

This is nonsense. For a start, few LGBTQ people who aren’t well-off cis white men will tell you that anti-queer prejudice is a thing of the past. Safety is still an issue. Even if it weren’t, we can and should take pride in the unique heritage written into the spaces we have used over the decades and centuries. And we still need places to feel at ease to be ourselves, to explore our identities and to express how queer lives relate to society at large, even as those lives and that society continue to evolve.

There’s no sign that demand for such sites of community and culture is on the wane. What is on the wane is their ability to compete on commercial terms in an urban environment utterly in thrall to profit.

In the UK, we have little to no publicly funded sources of queer community and culture. Historically, public queer spaces have tended to be commercial venues, often owned by people who aren’t themselves involved or invested in LGBTQ life. Such venues, like any spaces dedicated to grassroots culture, community or charity activities, are acutely vulnerable to property-market inflation. When a thriving space like the Black Cap or the Joiners Arms closes, it’s not because it’s underused or a thing of the past. It’s because it’s housed on land that is suddenly worth a mint, and owned by people who simply want to make a buck.

Rent hikes, tighter licensing and planning conditions and harsher policing techniques are also taking their toll. As public spaces close, private partying has taken off, including the chemsex scene, where the imperatives of safety and sex sometimes lead to dark places. Violent hate crime, STI transmission rates, homelessness, isolation and mental ill health are at crisis levels among the queer population. And austerity economics, which itself disproportionately disadvantages queer people, is contributing to the closure of some of the capital’s few LGBTQ charities.

There’s a need to defend dynamic and irreplaceable spaces of community pleasure and support. Groups like RVT Future, #WeAreTheBlackCap, Friends of the Joiners Arms and Raze Collective have stepped up to do this, with a good deal of success. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has become the UK’s first building listed partly for its LGBTQ heritage, and, thanks to campaign action, the Black Cap remains dormant a year after its sudden closure rather than erased by mainstream commercial space, as its owners planned.

But, as a certain type of venue reaches the end of its shelf-life after half a century, there’s also a need for innovation and experimentation in queer space-making. Some of this is indeed happening. Some new queer venues have successfully opened, including The Glory, Bloc Bar and She Soho, thanks to the efforts of established LGBTQ entrepreneurs. There are also increasing opportunities for pop-up and meantime spaces, as well as queer events hosted by mainstream venues – welcome but inherently precarious developments since they exist at the sufferance of market forces and mainstream interests.

The biggest challenge is for young queers without powerful contacts or resources to open new spaces on new terms. This has never been easy, of course, but it’s harder than ever, just at the moment when we need it most.

Perhaps it’s the best of times and the worst of times. In many ways, this is a thrilling time to be queer, with tremendous strides towards equality and influence, and a London scene that remains fantastic if you know where to look. On the other hand, many LGBTQ lives are still blighted and London space itself is transforming from neighbourhoods where we live, work and play to a form of global capital that happens to be inconveniently cluttered with people, a realm where market logic trumps human value every time.

The challenges then are formidable. But, even as we square up to them, we can take heart in the persistence of queer desire, queer imagination and queer will. The need to have our kind of space where we can have our kind of fun with our kind of friends is as vital as ever. And, whatever the odds, I don’t believe it will be denied.

© Ben Walters. The Speak Out exhibition at LMA runs until August 24 2016. For more information, click here.