(Updated February 2007)
Old City–New Life
On an unusually sunny February morning in London I declare victory in the war to win homosexuals a place in that sun–and we are not the losers. This giant cosmopolitan ‘capitol of Europe’ brims with a renewed vigor not seen since the sixties. It seethes energy: a prosperous economy, widespread innovative architecture, the Notting Hill Carnival that outdoes mardi gras, an intense mix of races and cultures from all over the world, and a powerful community that is clearly ‘out, proud and gay’. “Everybody comes here to live”, said a young Jamaican gay man standing in front of Prowler, a brightly lit gay shop on Brewer Street in London’s Soho, the gay Mecca in the heart of the artistic West End.
On Old Compton Street, one of Soho’s main drags, a veritable circus of fashion and lifestyle hustles by–leather, punk, preppy, dungeon drag, coat-and-tie–on their way to a restaurant, fetish bar, West End show, party or Mr. Fu’s popular Chinese eatery.
So forcefully has the gay community made it presence felt that the June 2000 National Geographic Magazine, a bastion of conservative journalism, felt it important to report: “London’s broad-mindedness has made the city a magnet for homosexuals. ‘I feel like I’m part of the driving force of London,’ said Carl Gobey, 23, who is gay. A sociology student from Britain’s second city, Birmingham, he is one of the 30,000 young people from other parts of Britain who pack a suitcase and, with a bit of money and a lot of hope, head for London each year to reinvent themselves. ‘Everything is here–different nationalities, different people, different styles and fashions. Anything you want to be any life you want to lead: You can find it.'”
New Presence–Old Themes
From Bangkok to Berlin, Wellington to Tel Aviv the press of gay consciousness is visible and vibrant. And perhaps, as in few places elsewhere, this ancient city on the Thames River is a model of gay willpower and political strategy. The stern-willed Stonewall activists have lobbyied against the archaic House of Lords, forcing them to break free into modern reality, away from their medieval ideas about sexual freedom.
Twenty years ago the Conservative government (thank you, Maggie Thatcher) shoved through Parliament a law known as Clause 28 which forbade any public school teacher from mentioning homosexuality in the classroom. But now the present Labour pro-gay government has removed that vile clause much to the dismay of the doddering elders in the House of Lords. Modern attitudes in London about human diversity have come a long way in twenty years. The age of consent for gays has been lowered to equal that of non-gays–16.
I met my long-time friend Duncan, a bouncy cheerful 38 year-old gay Brit, at First Out Cafe, a gay owned cafe patronized by mostly gay customers looking for tea or a good nosh. Located at the bustling intersection of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street (very public, very visible), First Out is full of customers, some in couples some singles, sitting at little cafe tables reading the ‘Times of London’ or one of the numerous gay periodicals available weekly: the news-magazine Boyz, ‘The Pink Paper’ newspaper, the glossy ‘Attitude Magazine’ full of lifestyle articles and of course (for $4) the leading monthly ‘Gay Times’ which has been pushing the gay life for over twenty years.
Before I got to the food counter, I passed a large display of postcard ads for concerts, art shows, massages, cafes, dance clubs, or bisexual mags. Brochures for artistic, social, political, spiritual or silly happenings are here for gay, straight or in-between folks. I counted more than forty different ads, each designed printed and distributed in an open manner by graphic designers, print shops, distributors, drivers–all part of the terrifically integrated hive of commerce that keeps London humming.
After a late lunch of quiche and smoothies, Duncan and I walked to the Soho area along Old Compton Street now buzzing with after-work pedestrians. There were tourists and local chaps filling the restaurants, cafes, bars, clothing stores, hotels and theatres along the narrow streets in the neighborhood. Duncan pointed out the gay venues as we passed.
The former Astoria cinema has been a popular dance club for years. On the marquee in large red letters: “Gay Night–Saturday and Sunday–Open 11PM to 4AM”. It costs only a pound or two weeknights but weekends the cover charge shoots up to about 15 pounds. Then the young dance divas plunge into the drowning music, the flashing psychosis of laser lights and the choking air in the huge cavern of the dance floor. The trend now includes young straight couples who come for the music and fun and, for better or worse, to get high.
“That’s a new gay club there…this other place is famous, been around for years…and over here is the Zone,” Duncan says as we pass the Clone Zone, a long-established sex shop with a large assortment of latex, toys, leather, erotic magazines from around the world such as the American XY and OG from Singapore.
Further along the same street is the very sexy Prowler on a corner with large glass windows blazing away with bright lights, pop music and abuzz with dozens of shoppers sorting through magazines, books, videos, sex toys, body jewelry, clothing, underwear by 2xist and Calvin Klein (competing for attention with distinctive erotic packaging). There are also kitschy household items like a Kermit-the-frog clock with plastic frogs opening and closing their mouths on each tick.
There are post cards of Marilyn or Bette or raunchy birthday cards. There are hundreds of customers every day, mostly men, shopping and laughing with friends at the silly and sexy stuff for sale. Copies of the popular British version of ‘Queer as Folk’ are on display.
High on the shelves are anatomically correct Billy dolls and Carlos dolls along with their optional wardrobes. Below are lubricants, condoms, skin lotions and T-shirts (“I’m the Queen. That’s why!”). On the floor are stacks of ‘Gay Times’ along with ‘Blue’ from Australia and ‘AXM’ a British glossy with its subtitle of ‘Living Gay Life to the Fullest’. Club music plays on the speakers keeping a lively beat for the shoppers.
A Feast of Choices
This neighborhood of ‘sound and light’ is the colorful tip of the much wider and deeper subculture in London and indeed, all of England. Presently there are about 40 gay clubs (discos) in London, over 100 bars and pubs, a dozen saunas, a dozen or more merchandise shops, nearly 40 social groups, 12 political activist organizations, nearly 20 ethnic and cultural groups (Gaelic, Irish, Jewish, Black, Arab, Welsh, Asian…). Thered are almost 70 special interest groups: music, bridge, digital, chubbies, erotic writers, ale drinkers, London Gay Symphony Orchestra, choir, dance, nudists, disabled, big and tall, boots, leather/rubber, corduroy lovers, gardeners, birders, skinheads, pagans, kilt wearers and foot fetish.
And where else but in England would there be a “stately homes appreciation” group led by none other than Sir Elton John. There also are four ‘older’ groups, nearly 50 sports and swimming associations (cricket, windsurfing, badminton, jujitsu, the Leftfooters “for those with no sports talent”, lycra cyclists, squash. You name it. (Check out the http://www.outforsport.org/ site for all the sports clubs.)
Then add over 70 youth groups, over 60 HIV and AIDS resources, well over 100 advice and support contacts, almost 30 religious and spiritual groups, 25 professional associations–lawyers, librarians, teachers, accountants, doctors, veterinarians, fire service. Such a broad spectrum of resources can hardly be found anywhere else in the world.
Calm in the Storm
An hour later Duncan and I were sitting in a Buddhist chanting group, half of whom were gay or lesbian. The sounds of dozen or so chanters filled the room with soothing cradling tones that felt harmonious, grounding and relaxed. Duncan comes here once a week for the chanting because “it centers me; in London things can be very intense and I need to remind myself of my base, my center.” The appeal of Buddhism among the lesbigay community is very evident here as well as in the USA.
I reflected on the milieu of homosexual energy and the ease of social life that has emerged in this city in the past generation. I recall dimly going to a dance club, as a student here thirty years ago, and entering through a back door on a Thursday night–gay night–being warned to be careful when leaving. This is a wholly different life now–out, visible, calm, integrated into the public daylight culture of modern London and displaying truth and good consequences.
But truth is arrived at with experience and understanding. Duncan recalled, “I used to go clubbing a lot when I first came out; I went to the discos, bars, saunas getting all the sex I felt I ever missed in my twenties.” Living within fifteen minutes of the tunes and tinsel of gaytown he cruised the gym, the underground, the streets of Soho. That was in his ‘salad days’ five years ago when the flush of freedom and hormones combined into a rush of being freshly out, indulgent and in London.
More recently, his attitude, priorities and venues have changed as the initial edge of sensuality calmed and he spent more time reflecting–more soul, more depth. “I still go, but now it’s only about once every three weeks. I don’t look for a particular person now, you know Mr. Right. Living in this immense city where I can indulge every appetite becomes rather jading; it hardens one.”
This worries him a little because he’s not really like that. He is warm and sincere so he goes to his chanting group to be with people who play at that level. “Still I hope someone may enter my life but meanwhile I’m taking care of myself. I go the gym, travel when I can, read, be with my friends and family and carry on with important things. Life can be nice here but you have to practice it. You have to choose carefully and not let the choices run your life.”
New Heros for a New Time
While I was there, a ‘Times of London’ story appeared about a new gay comic book featuring superheroes Apollo and Midnighter, “a loving couple who cohabit in a giant spaceship” It’s published by DC Comics, the same inventors who supplied my youth with slinky-clad Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman.
This new pair of heroes belong to a group of superguys who roam over the world dousing human misery, from East Timor to Chechnya. The authors of the comic have decided it’s time for gay superheroes, so the June 2000 issue (still available in 2005) inaugurated ‘The Adventurers’ that showed our noble couple kissing and going home to bed together after a hard day of rescuing mankind from dictators, ethnic cleansing and bigotry.
What a lovely vision–and London’s not a bad place to launch it.
(As an aside, gay comic books have been very popular among straight young Japanese girls for years!)