LONDON — Gay London faces total annihilation. The shock closure of legendary London queer bar the Black Cap last week has stunned the city’s queer community. Another jewel has fallen from a once glittering tiara.
In the last five years more than a dozen of London’s most iconic LGBT venues have closed. Many more are under threat, threatening the city’s place among the world’s great gay communities. Dan Glass, 31, was one of the regulars who fought desperately to save another gay bar, the Joiners Arms. “It was one of the very rare places where I could feel, totally and utterly liberated,” he told The Daily Beast.
Some argue that legislative equality and growing acceptance of gay culture in Britain mean there’s no longer any need for dedicated LGBT spaces. They say the closures are simply a result of supply and demand, changing tastes, and a move away from ghettoization. Tell that to Glass, a mainstay of the London gay scene. “To be able to expose my vulnerabilities, my desires and passions within four walls as a queer man, was absolutely necessary, essential in fact, to breathe,” he said.
Even the most commercially viable bars, some open since the sixties, have succumbed to the ominous knell of gentrification. As it stands, anything independent and alternative in the heart of the capital is just keeping the lot warm for an upmarket chain of bars or the next batch designer flats.
Candy Bar, Escape, The Nelsons Head, Manbar, Green Carnation, Madame Jojo’s—the list of doomed venues goes on. This year alone there has been at least seven. London’s queer community now faces total erasure. The closure of the Joiners shows just how serious an issue this has become; if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.
Glass helped found the Friends of the Joiners Arms campaign. Its vision: to restore the iconic symbol of gay counter-culture to its former rebellious glory, but also to create London’s only cooperative, LGBT community centre.
“The value that venues like the Joiners contribute to the wider community cannot be monetised or measured,” says Glass. “The biggest challenge lies in the reality of where power lies… the communities who use and value spaces socially do not have control over them, nor any significant say in decision-making processes that affect them.”
The campaign is part of a wider, budding movement to protect queer venues from the pressures of London’s overheated property market. It is rare for London’s LGBT spaces to be owned by the communities that use them so they’re particularly vulnerable to the effects of the market.
The city’s soaring rent costs have choked many venues into submission, while speculative property developers have bought the spaces from under their feet. Any chance of escaping the implacable spread of gentrification will involve a level of cooperation and dedication not seen in the LGBT community since the early Pride marches.
The groundswell began outside Camden’s Black Cap pub earlier this month. The prominent drag venue is one of Britain’s oldest LGBT pubs, it was closed down suddenly. Its new owners, property developers, are keen to convert the first floor bar into luxury flats and the ground level into a retail space. Incensed patrons have declared #WeAreTheBlackCap and are continuing to fight the plans.
Drag queens, a choir and a rainbow emblazoned routemaster bus were joined by hundreds during a protest outside the pub while an online petition has attracted over 6,000 signatures. There are plans to hold a vigil outside the venue every Saturday afternoon until the decision is reversed. A demonstration will also be held outside the headquarters of Faucet Inn, the Cap’s corporate owner. While Camden Council seeks legal advice, activists are determined to ensure the ‘Palladium of Drag’ doesn’t fade from memory without a fight.
Where the closure of the Joiners shocked and dismayed, the Cap’s demise enraged and mobilised. LGBT activists and patrons are no longer prepared to fight the cause after the fact. For many the uphill battle for lost venues is no longer enough; protecting those that still stand has to be part of the strategy. At the forefront of this is Ben Walters, who helps head up the RVT Future campaign, created to prevent the treasured Royal Vauxhall Tavern from suffering the same fate as its sister pubs.
“There’s a growing awareness that this is a problem that goes beyond consumer choices of how and where we prefer to socialise,” he says. “More people are waking up to the fact that, even if we now have far more legal equality when it comes our sexuality, as a community we’re not immune to the effects of the huge and growing socioeconomic inequality that affects our whole society—indeed in some ways we’re more vulnerable than most.”
Believed to be the oldest LGBT venue in Britain, the Tavern was recently purchased by property developers. After refusing to reveal their long term intentions, there are growing fears that the pub remains vulnerable to a swift and sudden closure similar to the Cap’s. Pre-empting this, campaigners have already secured from the local council “Asset of Community Value” status for the Tavern, which effectively locks in its LGBT venue status. They have also applied to make it a “listed building,” which would protect it from radical redevelopment. If the property developers elect not to see beyond the building’s commercial value, Walters hopes the authorities will.
“I think it’s dangerous to think of gay pubs and bars only as commercial operations and consumer choices,” said Walters. “They’re also pretty much all we have when it comes to safe spaces, dedicated performance venues and repositories of our community history, culture and collective knowledge. Those are things that have enormous value in themselves and their loss shouldn’t be shrugged off as inconsequential or merely a sign of changing times.
“These aspects of LGBTQ venues actually do a lot of work in keeping members of our communities safe and sane, and losing them has serious implications in terms of the human cost and indeed the economic cost: the more of them we lose, the greater the costs will be to health, law enforcement and social services. Our spaces matter.”
With every queer venue that closes, a new campaign rises; with every new threat, the resistance grows. Though each movement is as diverse as the bars they’re fighting for, the ultimate goal is the same. London’s queer community may enjoy some of the world’s most progressive legislative equality, but their struggle is far from over. While he’s still mourning the loss of the Joiners, Dan Glass is among those looking to protect the next set of victims. “None of our struggles are best understood in isolation,” he said. “We are strongest if we fight together.”