From the Royal Vauxhall Tavern to Dalston Superstore, London is littered with iconic LGBTQ+ nightlife. In the twentieth century, the capital was the emerald city at the end of the Yellow Brick Road for many young LGBTQ+ teens struggling to find acceptance in their hometowns. Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy blared on queer dancefloors across the UK, lamenting the lost love of leaving a toxic home for better prospects. It was both a coming-of-age classic and a call to arms.
Opening in 1979, Heaven was a revolution. The first LGBTQ+ superclub, it became a must-visit for queer celebrities, birthing musical genres from acid house to Hi-NRG. Built in 1865, Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been operating as an LGBTQ+ cabaret venue since the 1980s, with one infamous story depicting Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett dragging Princess Diana up and sneaking her into the venue unidentified. Its essential club night, Duckie, has been operating for the best part of twenty-five years, and the venue has served as a crucial alternative to mainstream LGBTQ+ culture since it first opened its doors.
Palladium of drag
Before both Heaven and Royal Vauxhall Tavern came North London’s The Black Cap, a Camden-based drag pub and club that operated from 1965 to 2015. Initially named The Mother Black Cap after a local legend involving a witch, licensing records indicate that the venue operated under this name as early as 1751. In the mid-1960s, The Black Cap became infamous for its LGBTQ+ clientele, later affirming itself as a drag and cabaret bar as the self-described “Palladium of Drag.” Sadly, The Black Cap did not survive gentrification, closing its doors for the final time in 2015.
Nowadays, London has just one LGBTQ+ women-specific bar in the form of She in Soho, but the original haunt for queer women was undoubtedly The Gateways Club. Located at 239 King’s Road in Chelsea, it opened in 1931, becoming a members’ club in 1936. An important puzzle piece in LGBTQ+ history, The Gateways became one of few places during the mid-twentieth century that queer women could meet without fear. With its iconic green door and a steep staircase, the club was popular with camp characters from all walks of life, LGBTQ+ or otherwise, from Diana Dors to Dusty Springfield. The Gateways was particularly famous as a haven for butch/femme queer couples, though lesbian politics were notably banned by the owner, Gina Cerrato.
By the 1970s, The Gateways was unable to hide from its political linkages. Lesbian social club, Sappho often distributed its magazines amongst the clientele, with the first Kenric group, a nationwide organisation for queer women, meeting regularly at The Gateways. As early as 1963, members of The Gateways were recruited for the Minorities Research Group, the first Nationwide Lesbian Group in Britain, with the accompanying magazine, Arena Three, sold behind the bar. Moreover, The Gay Liberation Front frequently took to the front steps to protest, encouraging women entering the club to “come out.” On one occasion, the owners called the police for fear that their apolitical policy was being ignored, and members were arrested and charged with obstruction.
Notably, The Gateways, albeit an iconic LGBTQ+ venue, was controversial amongst feminists: the anti-political stance manifested under the ownership of Gina Cerrato wasn’t popular among those who felt LGBTQ+ people should be protesting for their political rights. The politics of the butch/femme power-couple dynamic encouraged conversations about LGBTQ+ liberation, though mainstream feminism, at this time, was not overtly inclusive of queer women. After over fifty years of trading, the club closed in 1985. London’s remaining bars for LGBTQ+ women followed suit: Stokey Stop, The Blush Bar, Candy Bar, and The Duke of Clarence had all closed by 2015. Many are now apartment blocks, attesting to the realities of the development of the capital, and notably, haven’t been replaced as quickly as they fell post-economic crash.
Now, the capital’s LGBTQ+ scene looks very different. Old venues have been replaced with new, and urban legends Dalston Superstore emerging out of the dust. In the 2010s, the capital’s LGBTQ+ scene began to experience the wave of irreversible change. Faced with increased gentrification, queer venues across the city began to face closure: one report commissioned by the Mayor of London reported that 58% of London’s LGBTQ+ venues had closed between 2006 and 2017, reflecting a decrease from 125 to 53, including bars, clubs and venues regularly hosting LGBTQ+-specific events. Interestingly, the report concludes that the worst-affected boroughs were Tower Hamlets, Islington and Lambeth, all three of which had historically been hubs for LGBTQ+ culture.
So, how has the scene changed over the years in terms of its culture and politics? Emma (26) identifies as bisexual, and came of age post-economic crash, as the wave of gentrification enforced closure upon so many LGBTQ+ venues. Venues like The Black Cap and The Gateways are history to her, and many LGBTQ+ spaces do not feel as inclusive of LGBTQ+ women as they could be. “Because I’m bisexual, I feel that judgement. And I don’t know whether that’s tangible or whether that’s me projecting my insecurities, but I don’t necessarily feel at home anywhere in London. I love classic venues like Compton’s and Two Brewers, but I am conscious that contemporary LGBTQ+ venues feel very tailored to the experiences of LGBTQ+ men, gay men in particular. It’s all glitter and drag and boots the house down and whatnot – which I absolutely love, but I just don’t know how I fit into that”, she states.
Tolerance and acceptance
Similarly, Richard is a veteran of LGBTQ+ nightlife. A north Londoner through and through, he used to frequent The Black Cap during its glory days, but has now taken to the local, inclusive venues closer to home that don’t label themselves as LGBTQ+. Though assimilation means that LGBTQ+ people are now, for the most part, welcome in “straight” venues, Richard mourns the loss of so many of London’s iconic queer hubs. “I started out in the 1980s, and the LGBTQ+ scene has experienced an “almost-demise”. So many venues have closed over the last twenty years. My friends and I used to go to gay bars like The Black Cap, and that’s not to say that we never went to “straight” bars, but you could never be sure in places like that”, he says. “Something has been lost, but in a way, it’s been lost because society has progressed to the point where LGBTQ+ people don’t feel that they need to go into their ghetto for a safe space. These venues have closed and it’s so sad, but it’s also a sign of more tolerance and acceptance in society, I think.”
All in all, it’s clear that the London scene has mourned the loss of so many LGBTQ+ greats over the past twenty years. While venues are becoming more of a cultural melting pot for people of all sexualities and genders, there will always be a need for LGBTQ+-specific pubs, clubs and bars. Long live the essence of The Gateways, The Black Cap and countless others, and long may we continue to frequent the dancefloors of those important, historic giants that survived waves of economic crash and gentrification, from Royal Vauxhall Tavern to Heaven.