The Glass Bar, Euston. Image: Stephen McKay, CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.
Queer spaces – shorthand for places where people who identify as LGBTQ+ gather, and where normative understandings of gender and sexuality are reconfigured – have long been vital, and their purpose is renewed with each generation.
But over the past 15 years, a number of cities with prominent clusters of LGBTQ+ venues have seen a decline. Indicatively, our research at UCL Urban Laboratory has shown that 58% of licensed venues operated by and for LGBTQ+ people closed across London between 2006 and 2018, with consequent impacts on wellbeing, anxiety and isolation within the LGBTQ+ community.
Against a backdrop of recent public debate about these nightlife venues, my colleague Lo Marshall and I undertook a close study of Camden, where the number of venues fell by approximately 40% in the same 12-year period, and where the council has been working to address challenges around social isolation in the borough.
LGBTQ+ spaces are more than just somewhere to meet. For individuals, and especially those moving to London, they offer a place to find a community, a support network – what I call a queer infrastructure – through which resources are channelled. Often people haven’t been out about their sexuality before, so these spaces are part of that journey, too. Their function adapts over time. In the 1980s they supported people through the AIDS epidemic, and they continue to play an important role in HIV prevention today: carrying out daytime testing, and as places of mutual support and education.
The current spatial politics about queer venues places emphasis on the need to think intersectionally. Historically, women, people of colour and trans groups have had less access to space.
The Black Cap, Camden Town, NW1 and Big Chill House - formerly The Bell – King's Cross, NI. (Images: Ewan-M licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
Camden has historically been an important queer borough, hosting many venues in the 1980s and 1990s. The King’s Cross and Islington scenes inhabited big ex-industrial warehouses and railway sheds that have since been redeveloped as the area has gentrified. Those spaces weren’t just noisy nightclubs, able to exist in this locale without bothering residents – they also hosted fashion shows, art exhibitions, and a spectrum of cultural activities key to the queer community, and stimulating broader cultural activity and innovation.
Camden cabaret space, The Black Cap, famous for drag performance since at least the mid-1960s, is the site of an ongoing battle – it’s also one of the closest venues to The Bartlett and UCL. It has been empty since it was sold in 2015, with various proposals put forward by investors for a more generic venue and to convert the upper storeys into flats. A community group managed to obtain an 'asset of community value' listing, recognising the fact that they want the venue’s important queer heritage reflected in its programming and identity.
Land prices in central London mean community or local authority purchase of such assets is rarely an option, however. And even the notion of a ‘resident community’, written into planning protections, is complicated, given that LGBTQ+ spaces generally draw and serve people from across the city. All these tricky issues about how value is assigned have had to be navigated carefully. Camden council has been receptive to these conversations and, with them, Lo and I set up a roundtable, drawing in diverse community groups and local businesses to talk about the issues.
LGBTQ+ spaces also fulfil many broader cultural functions. They foster queer art production and practice, such as drag and cabaret and music cultures, shaping wider scenes internationally. They are also heritage spaces that embody the history of social struggles for the benefit of present populations and their future sustenance. They remain important because those struggles for acceptance and legal rights are ongoing – such as over the safety, healthcare and human rights of trans people; non-binary-identifying people’s push for the recognition of gender diversity beyond binary gender; the visibility and housing and healthcare needs of older LGBTQ+ people; and same-sex couples’ security in showing affection in public without fear of harassment or violence.
Beyond the value of any single space, venues become visible collectively, as a network. These networks play a role in tourism and attracting people to London. They also enable different groups in the UK to connect with each other and with activists and organisations in other parts of the world. So, each venue closure is more than one specific loss; it diminishes that collective visibility and the capacity of the overall infrastructure.
The current spatial politics about queer venues places emphasis on the need to think intersectionally. Historically, women, people of colour and trans groups have had less access to space. One of Camden’s most bespoke venues, The Glass Bar, near Euston, and right next to The Bartlett, was set up in 1995 by a queer woman of colour, Elaine McKenzie, who felt existing commercial scenes to be too homogeneous. McKenzie adapted the neo-classical Grade II listed 19th-century railway building into a members-only club for women. Although successful, the venue closed in 2008 after two rent spikes.
Queer spaces have historically been flexible and under the radar because, for example, they moved around rather than occupying a fixed space, or hosted events for different communities on alternate nights of the week. Other important historical venues such as The Bell, the epicentre of alternative queer life in King’s Cross in the 1980s and early 90s, has a very active Facebook group, extending its community into a new domain.
Flexibility and resilience will hopefully play their part in helping LGBTQ+ spaces survive and reconfigure in the current pandemic. Covid-19 has had a massive effect on all cultural, entertainment and nightlife spaces. Venues have been overlooked by government support, stigmatised as virus conduits and subjected to arbitrary regulations, such as the 10pm curfew, that aren’t backed up by evidence. It’s vital we think about how they can recover.
It’s been good to hear the London Mayor announce that City Hall is supporting around 10 LGBTQ+ venues with grants, including one in Camden. Although this is just a small proportion, it acknowledges the important role of queer spaces in the social and cultural life of London. We now need to look at how bars, cabaret spaces and nightclubs can re-open safely because, as our research shows, they’re not just places to party – they have many functions and active heritage value, and, above all, create and support their communities. It’s vital we think collaboratively across academia, industry and local government about how they can recover.
Professor of History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism, The Bartlett School of Architecture. Author of