Essay

A more fluid attitude to gay culture might yield more adventurous and experimental approaches to city-shaping and citizenship.

Queer Freedom

On the surface ‘coming out’ need not be the existential convulsion it once was. These days children are introduced to the modern notion of a ‘family’ from an early age. Two mummies or two daddies will soon be as commonplace as mummy and daddy. Normalised too are the gay or lesbian couples who, despite not having kids, spend their downtime doing just what straight couples do – going to Heal’s on a Saturday and Columbia Road Flower Market the next day. Their leisure time may be more Gogglebox than rave.

Normalisation of gender variance has allowed non-heteronormative households to emerge into the civic domain, winning professional respect and fully participating in society across the board. But hasn’t something of the cutting edge of gay life been lost along the way? Gay was never meant to be average, or end up in the stasis of marriage, however hard it has been 
to achieve this privilege. Indeed, the whole thrust of gay culture has been to exploit its outsider status. In London we take the multicultural outlook as a given.
We are inclusive, and find it hard to fathom why, thanks to Brexit, the rest of England lurches to the right. If you are a young, confused and possibly gay man, where will you be heading? To the big city, of course, where your dreams can be shaped, made real, no matter what the risk. Peeling away skin after skin, the adolescent metamorphosis has no limits. Freedom and respect are the promises.

As for parents, who often believe their offspring to be more privileged than them, an undercurrent of resentment for gay and lesbian rights may colour their approach. The gays are out in the open; their rights match ours; what more do they want?

Associated throughout history and by every major religion as sinners, gay people have been regarded as a menace. ‘Why do homosexual people, historically marked as sinful, inverted or mentally ill, ask to be able to adopt that very family order that has contributed so much to their misfortune?’ asks Vittorio Lingiardi. In social terms, should we celebrate the new norms of citizenship to a lesbian/gay/bisexual/trans member of society, or is it fair to say that our essential identity, our ‘otherness’, has been lost? Peter Ackroyd believes so.2 ‘With the right to marry and adopt, gay people seem less involved with the rush and roll of cruising and carousing than they were thirty years ago and more concerned with settling down within a domestic environment … With the opportunities for marriage beckoning, the need for an aggressive counter-culture has dwindled.’ Perhaps this counterculture has not so much dwindled as changed.

This essay explores this conundrum in terms of the normalisation of gay citizenship and its contribution to society. While the often closed nature of gay culture may be on the wane, 
a more fluid outlook might yield a blueprint for a more adventurous and experimental way of being citizens and shaping our cities. Which is where the term ‘queer’ comes in: both distinct and highly specific it requires a certain awareness of gender fluidity, or as Nikki Sullivan put it so aptly, ‘Queer means to fuck with gender’.3 Would it be possible to be both an upstanding member of society and to indulge in the hedonistic activities that cast gayness as a seditious force?

The letter Q has recently been added to the acronymic string, LGBTQ. An insult reclaimed, the term queer has been adopted as a political signifier that can act as a broader catch-all. Arguably Q embraces all the other letters in the list. I won’t include the I (inquisitive) in the banner, but imagine it’s there too, LGBTIQ+ etc). When I write LGBT I mean it in its historical sense, and it implies a ring-fence around same-sex interests that has largely become obsolete. Now LGBTQ signals an approach to the city with an access-all-areas confidence. People want to embrace broader social values and not hide away; they want to be and be seen as fully paid-up members of society. It follows that citizenship among the LGBTQ community rests on passing on tolerance to others and enacting mentorship to those who need it. Young men emerging on the scene are often ill-equipped to handle relationships of any kind, despite having been taught to have a tolerant outlook towards LGBTQ people.

In Ancient Greece, where gay relationships had a central sociocultural role, the training of the adolescent male was one of the duties of the older man; the older man would mentor the minor on adulthood as well as sexual practice. Now, not every young gay man wants to learn from an older man, but many do. As an occasional ‘daddy’ I know, and mentorship is part of the role.

Queer Freedom

In turn the potential for LGBTQ people to contribute to society at large is in its infancy. In terms of sexual identity, gay people are as different as other social minorities, but perhaps we have a head start in terms of freedom of outlook, and that frames a new kind of power.

The mutation of homophobia

Like a stubborn stain, homophobia mars our society. It’s just that it’s retreated underground. Ackroyd once more: ‘Coming out is still a right of passage, frequently characterised 
by trauma. Where sixty years ago homosexuality itself was a crime, homophobia has taken its place, and the very expression “coming out” testifies to lingering social prejudice.’ LGBTQ people may feel confident that their rights and freedoms are safe enough, but as every gay person knows, knocks can come from the most unexpected places, the workplace, the family or just walking along the road. Much as homophobia cannot be spoken, it is often couched in institutional decorum; there is always an opaque excuse for a rejection – lack of experience, being overqualified, insufficient diversity.

In her experience, Princess Julia,4 DJ, commentator and mentor for young fashion designers and drag queens, sees inadequate mentoring in the family. ‘I meet young people with parents younger than us and you’d think they would be enlightened. But alas no. Often they’ve abandoned their children. It’s tragic that there are generations of ignorant parents out there who continue with outdated ideas and notions without ever questioning them.’ No wonder ‘coming out’ is traumatic.This hate of the other manifested most recently when parents protesting at LGBTQ issues being part of sex education, claimed contravention of their religious beliefs, with placards reading, ‘We’re not Homophobic’ and ‘Let Kids Be Kids’. The church has a get-out from the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and cannot be forced to marry same sex couples. Society treads a tightrope between the right of inclusivity and protecting religious beliefs even if they are discriminatory.

Hatred can accumulate in silence, and turn on the gay or lesbian as readily as on the apocryphal immigrant. But the most numbing responses are reserved for the trans woman, who is frequently met with a mix of pity and ostracisation. Hampstead’s bathing ponds have been the latest arena for a gladiatorial clash between trans women and feminists. Stonewall said the Equality Act 2010 protects trans people who identify as female from being discriminated against when accessing services such as Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. But feminist campaigner Amy Desir, who uses the Ladies’ Pond, calls the policy ‘absolutely disgusting’.
‘In recent years I’ve seen first-hand aggression towards LGBTQ people in the more diverse communities in east and south London,’ says Wayne Shires, the club impresario who has helped shape gay life in the capital. ‘It’s a gentrification thing as well, so not only homophobic, but “gentriphobic”.’5 Illegality has also tended to push homophobia out of sight, yet it pervades society covertly. No one admits as much, but all gay people know it’s there.

In praise of shadows

In the old days you had to act straight to avoid attention. Gay and lesbian venues would deliberately be invisible to anyone other than their customers. You had to be in the know. The clientele liked it that way, even if you sometimes got mugged on the way out. Before legalisation in 1967, the gay scene operated in the shadows. Like hermit crabs, gay venues would nestle into cheap, offbeat property that wouldn’t attract attention – in abandoned warehouses, railway arches and failed pubs. The last thing anyone wanted was to be on display – except on the dance floor.
Famously Francis Bacon and his mates would hang out in the legendary Colony Room Club on Dean Street in Soho. They would go to Wheelers on Old Compton Street for lunch and then transfer to the Colony where, under the imperious gaze and sharp tongue of the owner Muriel, they could drink on uninterrupted behind closed doors through the afternoon until chucking out time at 11pm. Alcoholic behaviour was encouraged and behind a highly protected membership policy, ‘decent’ codes of behaviour could be disregarded relatively risk-free.

So it was for many of the gay basements across Soho and in a 
small neck of Earl’s Court where misbehaviour would begin with a warm up in the Coleherne pub and move on into the surrounding streets and Holland Walk. Shady corners were at a premium. Nocturnal cruising persists on Hampstead Heath and 
the Rose Garden in Hyde Park, but it’s on the retreat. My own formative gay experiences unfolded in El Sombrero in Kensington High Street and the Catacombs where I first met Derek Jarman. Derek was a born mentor, gregarious matchmaker for friends 
and collaborators alike, and a fervent advocate of cruising on Hampstead Heath.

Ranging from the hardcore sex and cruising clubs through to theatricalised arenas like the Blitz, there were a host of other clubs too numerous to mention here. They would operate mostly on a single night of the week, transforming what were normally tawdry commercial failures into rocking successes as long as attendees kept coming. The wildest was Taboo every Thursday, started by Leigh Bowery and Tony Gordon in the cheesy basement of the Maximus 
club in Leicester Square. Bowery encouraged the crowd to push their looks and their behaviour to legendary heights of invention and camp. Bowery himself would appear each week in a new outfit more outrageous than the last, and turned nightclubbing into an art form.

Queer Freedom

Early on I learned that the sacred space of the dance floor worked well alongside the dimly lit corridors 
of men-only clubs such as Heaven. 
With no performers as such, clubbers would build on the general atmosphere of delirium induced chemically or musically in the performance of the pickup; essentially there were two roles, the one of the statue or the one of the stroller. 
Like fishing, you’d wait for your catch.

As Ackroyd observes, the vital excitement of living in the shadows would not last forever. ‘The substantial lesson of the past decade 
is that queerness, with all its panache and ferocity, is in elegant retreat … Bars no longer have back rooms that remain open after the public rooms have closed … A dichotomy has emerged between those venues that bellow and those that whisper, those that are openly gay and those that are merely “gay-friendly”.’2 In fact many gay bars and clubs have become de rigueur for straight people, singularly or in coupledom. People say they have the best time; the music is better and the crowd more inclined to let go.

London’s LGBT world has been evolving over so many years, there have been campaigns to historicise 
it, with the aim of enshrining some 
of its key ‘monuments’ and traditions, whether in the form of gay institutions like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) or the erstwhile behaviours of men on the prowl in the shadows of the city’s parks and squares. A successful campaign was raised to protect the RVT from development. Both the building and its use as a gay venue 
are now listed, a unique achievement.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s left the gay world in tatters, which makes charting gay histories all the more important. Architectural academics Ben Campkin and Laura Marshall are documenting how much has changed, from the lost iconic venues to the way gay men used the city’s parks and squares. Their essay ‘London’s Nocturnal Queer Geographies’ analyses the changing landscape 
of the queer community. In 2017 
they masterminded an outdoor performance intended to draw attention to lost landmarks including the Black Cap, the Joiners Arms, the Glass Bar and the Lesbian and Gay Centre. Referencing the 1931 New York Beaux Arts Ball, performers wore headgear based on these buildings. They chose the resonant setting of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, just behind the RVT and the village green for a host of gay venues in the nearby railway arches. In 2019 they made a repeat performance at the Whitechapel Gallery’s show Queer Spaces: London, 1980s –Today.

In 2018 London artist Prem Sahib erected 500 sq ft on Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a steel labyrinth not unlike the inside of a gay sauna. Typically he takes what is normally hidden and puts it in full view, using gay places and behaviours to draw out meanings. ‘I identify with the disco movement because I feel that its politics were its pleasure principle … Disco had a social efficacy despite its superficial veneer and that’s how I like to think about my own art making.’6 His photo series of the Chariots gay sauna in Shoreditch, which closed in 2016, dwells on the absence of the action. His Helix IV isolates one of the kitsch Classical reliefs that originally hung around the pool and jacuzzi, and pierces it with metal studs and rings, as though it was the body of one of 
the patrons.

Gay histories are being charted on Instagram by @_molly_house_ who archives ‘The UK’s LGBTIQA+ Subculture. We have always been here, and we have always been Queer’. This squares with the tardy deification of Alan Turing and other gay martyrs such as Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp and Derek Jarman. Of interest too in this regard is the Instagram account @theaidsmemorial, a contributor-driven inventory of those lost during the AIDS crisis, and the Queerseum (Twitter handle @queerseum), which aims to ‘create positive links to our history to shape better futures’.

A new kind of interior

It seemed that unlike most performance spaces, gay men were finding new ways of using interior space. By the mid-’80s NATØ manifestos would visualise city life and its architecture in a continuous state 
of flux. Derelict buildings would be corralled as hosts for a liberalised form of citizenship based on freedom and role play. Instead of an occupant you could be an activist, and shape your own life. One line of attack for the architect would be large-scale interventionist furniture that could upset the use of existing buildings.
‘Think of an intermediary architecture on that edge between people’s lives and the given city, city furniture poised to refurbish rather than rebuild.’7
In the mid ’80s, a new stream of creativity emerged, based on making furniture out of scrap, part artwork and part design, and very much on 
the protagonist’s terms. The loose collective Creative Salvage acted as 
a kindergarten for Tom Dixon, André Dubreuil and the NATØ architecture group. We were making experiences, things and places on our own terms, and for me, this captured the invincibility I’d discovered in gay clubs. For the first time I felt that my own sexual identity and what I wanted to be professionally were coming together. I could see a parallel between the behaviour of my peers in club environments, from what we wore to how we danced and picked each other up in a meteoric swirl of bodies, glances and poses. I wanted to inject this energy into design; the mood was artefacts in motion, things with character and attitude.

There was a lifestyle subscript to behaving as a designer and as a teacher, with a bunch of talented students. We wanted to reshape the world locally, immediately, and were energised enough to take to the streets, armed with newfangled video cameras and the determination to make the environmental version of our tastes in music. In a 1988 essay entitled ‘Street Signs’,8 I advocated a fusion of punk expressionism with nascent digital technology, or what at the time we called ‘software’: ‘Space now synthesises form, information and perception … It relies on hidden information at every level.’ The street, I argued, was the space that was bringing contemporary phenomena together as never before.

Our friends and wider circle could feel the energy. In some ways my assertions seem naïve, and yet they anticipate equivocal switching between the virtual and the physical, the fixed and the dynamic. At the time I thought the plethora of messages bouncing in the street, from window displays to the people using the street as catwalk, was more significant than the architecture itself, which at that time was predominantly Victorian. 
In ‘Street Signs’, I flagged how technological communication was about to radically reshape

Queer Freedom

Early on I learned that the sacred space of the dance floor worked well alongside the dimly lit corridors 
of men-only clubs such as Heaven. 
With no performers as such, clubbers would build on the general atmosphere of delirium induced chemically or musically in the performance of the pickup; essentially there were two roles, the one of the statue or the one of the stroller. 
Like fishing, you’d wait for your catch.

As Ackroyd observes, the vital excitement of living in the shadows would not last forever. ‘The substantial lesson of the past decade 
is that queerness, with all its panache and ferocity, is in elegant retreat … Bars no longer have back rooms that remain open after the public rooms have closed … A dichotomy has emerged between those venues that bellow and those that whisper, those that are openly gay and those that are merely “gay-friendly”.’2 In fact many gay bars and clubs have become de rigueur for straight people, singularly or in coupledom. People say they have the best time; the music is better and the crowd more inclined to let go.

London’s LGBT world has been evolving over so many years, there have been campaigns to historicise 
it, with the aim of enshrining some 
of its key ‘monuments’ and traditions, whether in the form of gay institutions like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT) or the erstwhile behaviours of men on the prowl in the shadows of the city’s parks and squares. A successful campaign was raised to protect the RVT from development. Both the building and its use as a gay venue 
are now listed, a unique achievement.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s left the gay world in tatters, which makes charting gay histories all the more important. Architectural academics Ben Campkin and Laura Marshall are documenting how much has changed, from the lost iconic venues to the way gay men used the city’s parks and squares. Their essay ‘London’s Nocturnal Queer Geographies’ analyses the changing landscape 
of the queer community. In 2017 
they masterminded an outdoor performance intended to draw attention to lost landmarks including the Black Cap, the Joiners Arms, the Glass Bar and the Lesbian and Gay Centre. Referencing the 1931 New York Beaux Arts Ball, performers wore headgear based on these buildings. They chose the resonant setting of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, just behind the RVT and the village green for a host of gay venues in the nearby railway arches. In 2019 they made a repeat performance at the Whitechapel Gallery’s show Queer Spaces: London, 1980s –Today.

In 2018 London artist Prem Sahib erected 500 sq ft on Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a steel labyrinth not unlike the inside of a gay sauna. Typically he takes what is normally hidden and puts it in full view, using gay places and behaviours to draw out meanings. ‘I identify with the disco movement because I feel that its politics were its pleasure principle … Disco had a social efficacy despite its superficial veneer and that’s how I like to think about my own art making.’6 His photo series of the Chariots gay sauna in Shoreditch, which closed in 2016, dwells on the absence of the action. His Helix IV isolates one of the kitsch Classical reliefs that originally hung around the pool and jacuzzi, and pierces it with metal studs and rings, as though it was the body of one of 
the patrons.
Gay histories are being charted on Instagram by @_molly_house_ who archives ‘The UK’s LGBTIQA+ Subculture.

We have always been here, and we have always been Queer’. This squares with the tardy deification of Alan Turing and other gay martyrs such as Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp and Derek Jarman. Of interest too in this regard is the Instagram account @theaidsmemorial, a contributor-driven inventory of those lost during the AIDS crisis, and the Queerseum (Twitter handle @queerseum), which aims to ‘create positive links to our history to shape better futures’.

A new kind of interior

It seemed that unlike most performance spaces, gay men were finding new ways of using interior space. By the mid-’80s NATØ manifestos would visualise city life and its architecture in a continuous state 
of flux. Derelict buildings would be corralled as hosts for a liberalised form of citizenship based on freedom and role play. Instead of an occupant you could be an activist, and shape your own life. One line of attack for the architect would be large-scale interventionist furniture that could upset the use of existing buildings.
‘Think of an intermediary architecture on that edge between people’s lives and the given city, city furniture poised to refurbish rather than rebuild.’7
In the mid ’80s, a new stream of creativity emerged, based on making furniture out of scrap, part artwork and part design, and very much on 
the protagonist’s terms. The loose collective Creative Salvage acted as 
a kindergarten for Tom Dixon, André Dubreuil and the NATØ architecture group. We were making experiences, things and places on our own terms, and for me, this captured the invincibility I’d discovered in gay clubs. For the first time I felt that my own sexual identity and what I wanted to be professionally were coming together. I could see a parallel between the behaviour of my peers in club environments, from what we wore to how we danced and picked each other up in a meteoric swirl of bodies, glances and poses. I wanted to inject this energy into design; the mood was artefacts in motion, things with character and attitude.

There was a lifestyle subscript to behaving as a designer and as a teacher, with a bunch of talented students. We wanted to reshape the world locally, immediately, and were energised enough to take to the streets, armed with newfangled video cameras and the determination to make the environmental version of our tastes in music. In a 1988 essay entitled ‘Street Signs’,8 I advocated a fusion of punk expressionism with nascent digital technology, or what at the time we called ‘software’: ‘Space now synthesises form, information and perception … It relies on hidden information at every level.’ The street, I argued, was the space that was bringing contemporary phenomena together as never before.

Our friends and wider circle could feel the energy. In some ways my assertions seem naïve, and yet they anticipate equivocal switching between the virtual and the physical, the fixed and the dynamic. At the time I thought the plethora of messages bouncing in the street, from window displays to the people using the street as catwalk, was more significant than the architecture itself, which at that time was predominantly Victorian. 
In ‘Street Signs’, I flagged how technological communication was about to radically reshape