How London’s Queer Spaces Have Gained Value for the Community Through Layered Aspects of Performance, Class Identity, and Activism Under Threat
As 2022 marked the 50th anniversary of Pride in London, the focus of this dissertation felt incredibly relevant, especially as the rights and existence of queer folks are repeatedly debated topics, from issues such as conversion therapy, bathroom use, and the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes. To be queer in London is to be queer in a city of multiples and hybridities. Queerness exists in different forms across the metropolis, with each borough having its own culture. The central point of this is Soho, the so-called ’gay village’ of London, but outside of this area, many dynamic queer communities and spaces exist. These spaces make up significant portions of London’s queer histories, yet many are consistently at risk of closing, and many already have. In a study by Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall for UCL Urban Laboratory, they discovered that between 2006 and 2017, over 106 nightlife venues were closed, a number that is far too high for a city of this size with such a rich queer history. Therefore, it was important to understand what aspects keep a venue space under threats of closure, and how these aspects come together to create queer venue that is able to survive through a pandemic, redevelopers, rent increases, and whatever else might pose a risk to the continued success and durability of a queer venue.
This dissertation looked at the venues which are still open, taking three in particular as case studies: the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (RVT), Gay’s the Word bookshop, and the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. Each has its own particular chronology, telling a story of how queer identity has developed and evolved in each area, but then also across London. Queer studies have intersected with architectural histories for many years, but there is an absence of work which takes the physicalities of a building and links it to queer studies and identity. This research is necessary as although there are extensive works on London’s past and present queerness, there is little to account for how architecture and built spaces have become recognised spaces for the queer community. The literature used for this dissertation ranged from reading about transgender theory, histories of working men’s clubs, geographies of London; as well as many hours spent in the wonderful Bishopsgate Institute Archives, pouring over extensive witness statements from raids on Gay’s the Word, the listing application documents for the RVT, and the numerous images of drag and cabaret performances at the Working Men’s Club.
A key part of this research was defining queer, a historically contentious word. It was used instead of the LGBTQ+ acronym throughout rest of the dissertation. The acronym, while it has been expanded to include more sexual and gender identities, still ends up excluding many members of the community. Queer, therefore, has been used in its stead, offering more umbrella term that encompasses the multiple identities. This definition applies to both the people who inhabit these spaces, and the spaces themselves. My research essentially aimed to understand what needs to happen in a space’s existence to allow it to be defined as queer, whether this is through use, heritage, customer base, or location.
Each of the spaces offers something different to the queer community, including a bar to get drunk in, and watch a drag show; a place to be engaged in queer stories and literature, to be ’surrounded by so many queers, real and fictional’; and a space that is a queer nightlife venue upstairs as well as a “traditional” working men’s pub downstairs. What each of them offer is explored in the three main chapters of this dissertation, where the venues are paired thematically under categories that fit them best. The RVT and Working Men’s Club are brought together through performance, offering a look into how performance acts are a part of queer entertainment but also how queer people perform their identities too. Class identity is explored between the Working Men’s Club and Gay’s the Word, in how they are accessible and inaccessible for queers on lower incomes, but also how their histories as spaces make them intrinsically entangled with class debates, such as the use of the bookshop as the headquarters for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). Thirdly, the threats and raids on Gay’s the Word and the RVT are a physical representation of threats to the queer community, with both being raided by the police in the 1980s. When all these themes were brought together, a common thread of hybridity was highlighted, one that applied to how the spaces operate, their customers, and what they represent for the queer community in London.
The longevity of these buildings is a strong testament to how they have been rallied around by the communities that use them because they are valuable and safe spaces in which queer people can exist. Their importance is seen through their continued popularity, with all three still open and hosting events, even after the pandemic. Queerness is spread throughout the city, with multitudes of pride flags hung up across various locations, even outside of Pride Month, and the physical locations where queer people can exist acting as more tangible representations of how London has queerness built into its fabric.
 Johan Andersson, ‘East End Localism and Urban Decay: Shoreditch's Re-Emerging Gay Scene’, The London Journal 34 (January 2009): 55.
 Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQ+ cultural infrastructure in London: Night venues, 2006-present (UCL Urban Laboratory London, 2017).
 Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City (2017) and Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London: Perils and Pleasures of the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (2005) offer detailed chronologies of queer identity in London, from its ancient roman origins to the present day. These are much more social histories, which is why this research is focussed the built environment in order to create a more comprehensive picture.
 Entry for ‘Gay’s the Word’, Queering the Map, accessed 26 June 2022, https://www.queeringthemap.com/.