Toffs nightclub in York on a Sunday night; a coffee shop in Western Massachusetts called The Thirsty Mind (and nicknamed The Dirty Mind, obviously); the sweaty corners of London’s Royal Vauxhall Tavern, G-A-Y and Heaven; the house-share I moved into after a bad break-up; virtually all of Brighton and Hebden Bridge; and countless bookshops, be they dedicatedly LGBTQIA+ or featuring just one hidden shelf that, I’ve spent a while circling to find, too shy to ask for direction.
These have been my queer sanctuaries over the years.
I grew up in a small Somerset town under Section 28, which meant my teachers and educators weren’t allowed to “promote” homosexuality in any way. In place from 1988-2003, Section 28 created a culture of silence, shame and confusion not just in classrooms but the rest of life, too. I deduced, later, that there were queer people around while I was growing up (the women who lived together because it was ‘convenient’, the English teacher we ridiculed for sounding like Dale Winton), but at the time I felt entirely alone. My experience is neither unusual nor extreme: with LGBTQIA+ hate crime on the rise across the UK and government bodies withdrawing from Stonewall’s workplace equality scheme, for many it’s now much worse.
Which is one of the reasons queer spaces are important. Whether transient sites or permanently dedicated ones, they offer community, safety and affirmation of our identities. Artist Lucy Hayhoe, whose 2019 installation One In, One Out explored a solo gay bar experience, says queer spaces provide more than just a place for LGBTQIA+ people to meet and hook up: “They’re sites for the unlearning of shame and the learning of pride.” In his memoir Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin writes: “Many of us have believed finding a home in such a place meant finding oneself.”
So what did it mean when, like so much else, most queer spaces had to close during lockdown? For many LGBTQIA+ people, being told to “stay home” meant being stuck with family, housemates or neighbours who don’t accept them, away from the communities that have come to represent the concept of home.
Last March, Carla Ecola (director of The Outside Project, a queer community shelter and domestic abuse refuge that has continued services throughout the pandemic) quickly co-founded the London LGBTQIA+ Mutual Aid group. Within days, the group was facilitating help with shopping, dog walking, picking up medication and more. It also featured a Virtual Community Centre – an open Zoom room for people to host events, arrange to meet, or just drop in when they wanted company.
Not knowing quite what to expect, I suggested a writing group – a relaxed hour for exercises, sharing and discussion. This soon came to be my most eagerly awaited hour of the week.
The community centre’s inclusive policy meant cameras and microphones were optional, and one of my favourite sessions was spent being told a beautiful, poetic story line-by-line by a silent, faceless stranger via the chat box. Other days, we logged in and simply sat with each other, sad, overwhelmed, and unsure what was going on in the world. It meant something to be together when we were told we couldn’t be together.
Others were figuring this out on much larger scales. DJ housemates Harry Gay, Wacha and Passer quickly launched the joyful, anarchic phenomenon that is Queer House Party: every Friday night, they streamed sets and performances via Zoom, allowing people in living rooms and bedrooms around the world to dance and hang out as one.
Booksellers at the UK’s oldest LGBT bookshop, Gay’s the Word, took to Instagram to offer daily poetry readings and live book recommendations, while those at Leeds’ The Bookish Type launched a zine and ran events celebrating the city’s queer activist history. Listings sites exploded with adverts for digital workout sessions, open-mic nights, readings, quizzes, film clubs, meditation sessions, speed-dating, bingo and more.
Physical spaces are now opening up again – but have these digital connections changed our approaches to queer space?
Erica at Gay’s the Word says, “Each time we’ve re-opened it’s felt different, but each time we’ve been blown away by the love, excitement, and support.”
The bookshop’s size means they haven’t been able to host in-person events again yet, but she says they’d like to continue making them accessible to the wider audiences they’ve connected to online. “The pandemic has really allowed us to reach community members outside of London or in rural spaces in whole new ways, rather than just when or if they are able to visit the bookshop. It’d be wonderful to continue a sense of that when in-person events return.”
Paul Burston, founder and host of Polari Literary Salon, says both the events and publishing industries have “learnt a lot of lessons during this period” – especially about the reach afforded by online events. In March 2020, Arts Council England awarded Polari a grant to fund a 22-date tour, much of which had to move online. Paul was unsure how this would go, but said things have “taken off in ways I didn’t anticipate”, and he too sees opportunities for better access and wider diversity in digital formats.
Asked about the future for Polari, Paul said he pictures a combination of online and in-person events, but that “nothing beats being on-stage; something happens between an audience and a performer that you can’t replicate in other mediums.” That’s especially true when performing in places as steeped in history as Heaven, where Polari returned in May. “Heaven is not just a nightclub,” Paul told me, “it’s a community haven. And it’s survived two pandemics. To be in a space with all those ghosts in the walls, it adds something – you know that it’s a space that we’ve carved out for ourselves.”
Queer rights activist Harry Britt once said, “When gays are spatially scattered, they are not gay, because they are invisible.” If we’ve learnt anything this past year, it’s that this isn’t true. Scattered or not, the queer community found new, connective and innovative ways to carve out space and come together. Queer spaces make us, but only because we make them.
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Illustration: Fredde Lanka for Penguin