Long renowned as one of the most gay-friendly cities on earth, London is a colourful tapestry of LGBT+ stories, iconic landmarks and forgotten haunts. Throughout the city, in pubs and clubs, bookshops and theatres, churches and parks, dark basements and grand homes, whispers of bygone struggles can be heard among the thriving voices of hope and optimism of today. Unlike many other European capitals, London’s queer spaces aren’t cramped into a single area, but instead, they crop up unexpectedly, in unlikely locations all over the city.
As we celebrate London Pride this month, it’s worth remembering that a mere five decades ago, homosexual acts were still considered criminal by law. For centuries, members of the LGBT+ community lived in the shadows, fearful for their safety and unable to live full, authentic lives. They met in secret locales, many of which were the subject of hushed whispers among the outraged citizens. One of the most notorious addresses of Victorian London was 19 Cleveland Street in Fitzrovia, a gay brothel frequented by members of London’s high society. Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor, was among those rumoured to have visited the establishment, before the police raided the place in 1889.
The first official London Pride march took place on the 1st of July 1972, five years after the decriminalisation act of 1967, with several hundred people gathering in Hyde Park. As they proceeded to march through the streets of central London, the scene could not have been more different from the flamboyant, jubilant parade of today. Deemed radical and outrageous, the participants were met with hostility and resentment. Even before the first Pride, one particular area of London had been known to offer refuge to the LGBT+ community.
Walking through the streets of modern day Soho, adorned with rainbow flags and permeated with the spirit of community, one doesn’t have to look too hard to find traces of the area’s rich past. Although fashion boutiques and chain coffee shops are gradually working their way in, taking away some of the unique seediness the area is famed for, the sense of expressive freedom is still very much present. In the narrow streets, sprawled out between Regent Street and Charing Cross Road, lie some of the oldest and most celebrated LGBT+ locales.
Opened in 1832, The Admiral Duncan pub in Old Compton Street bears the distinction of being one of the first of Soho’s gay venues. Its patrons are a diverse bunch, representing all shades of queer: from drag queens to city professionals, and everything in-between. Here, the atmosphere of carefree enjoyment is always diluted by a sense of awareness, and of remembrance. On the warm April evening in 1999, a nail bomb exploded inside the pub, killing three people, and leaving over seventy others injured. A plaque, commemorating the victims of what has been called the worst homophobic hate attack in Britain’s history, is a visible scar on the beating heart of Soho – Admiral Duncan symbolises both the suffering and the resilience of this community.
But while Soho remains the centrepiece of the city’s gay scene, it is only one of the many stops on the vast map of LGBT+ London. A couple of miles east for instance, tucked away among trendy cafes and restaurants of Marchmont Street, lies a true gem. Gay’s the Word is the only speciality gay and lesbian bookshop in the country, and over the years it has gained an iconic status, becoming a place of pilgrimage for many people from around the world. The friendly, laid-back vibe is complemented by knowledgeable staff and an outstanding range of books, from fiction to self-help, as well as a second-hand section. Long before being gay or transgender became socially acceptable, Gay’s the Word offered a safe space to members of the LGBT+ community. This intoxicating atmosphere remains intact, and to enter this magical bookshop means being offered a chance to savour a little slice of queer heaven.
For a larger, and infinitely more indulgent slice, it’s hard to beat Heaven, the aptly named Charing Cross nightclub, which opened its doors in 1979, the very same year in which Gay’s the Word was born. This legendary venue continues to symbolise the essence of London’s gay nightlife, with regular club nights and live shows, featuring some of the most renowned singers in the world, from Madonna and Grace Jones to Lady Gaga and Adele. With many of the original gay clubs long since closed, Heaven is the place to experience a night out in all its old-fashioned, disco-fabulous, gay glory. While in recent years, many new and exciting venues have opened in East and South London, there is nothing to compare with the razzle dazzle of West End.
Long before dating apps altered the landscape of romance, cruising was one of the only ways gay men were able to meet. Of all the many legendary cruising areas in the capital, Hampstead Heath is probably the most famous, and while its reputation used to be notorious, in recent years the Heath’s image among the gay community has been reinvented as a place for more wholesome socialising. On any given warm day, the vast lawns surrounding the men’s swimming pond fill with groups of gay men, escaping the hustle and bustle of city life. While the pond is open to men of all sexual persuasions, it has become wildly recognised as an iconic place on the map of gay London. This status has also been reinforced by the fact that many famous members of the LGBT+ community, from the late George Michael, to Boy George, and more recently Sam Smith, chose to live in the quiet, leafy streets surrounding the Heath.
With its wealth of queer history and its open celebration of diversity and otherness, it is little surprise that London is known as the unofficial gay capital of Europe. As the city puts on its glorious Pride colours this month, we can all march together, past the monuments of the past, openly ourselves, at last.