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The gay scene

A brief history of the gay scene

Barely 60 years ago one of the few places you could meet other gay men was in a public toilet. Not only was it frightening and dangerous, but police arrest and the subsequent court appearance would almost certainly cost you your job, family and home. Any friends you had would vanish, if only to protect themselves. Coming out to your family was unheard of, health advice and support for gay men were virtually non-existent and access to the small homosexual scene was only for those in the know.

If you’re in your 80s you’ll remember this all too well. If you’re in your 70s you’ll have witnessed the fight for recognition and the law that legalised sex between men. If you’re in your 60s you’ll have visited the new pubs and clubs. If you’re in your 40-50s you’ll have experienced first-hand the AIDS epidemic. And, if you’re in your 20s or 30s under the illusion that you invented gay life: please think again.


In the 60s, when the SK (Gay Social) Group was formed, gay men and women looking for a little bit more than a backstreet bar or cottage, have set to and baked, knitted and organised their own communities, and today we enjoy their legacy. If you were around in the early 70s, you had little option but to make your own ‘amusement’, hence the existence of the Gay Liberation Front, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality or a local befriending group. Thirty years ago they were playgrounds in the same way that Mardi Gras is today.

The pioneers

We would do well to spare a thought for the small group of flamboyant people prepared to give us all a bad name by taking to the streets and laying the foundations of the major festivals and events which exist today. Gay men and lesbians also laid the foundations for the effective responses that our community had in spreading the message about AIDS when it came along. Gay men became – and often still are – the backbone of many AIDS organisations and self-help groups who took that ethos of self-help and went on to apply it to all people with HIV.


Some volunteer or give money, or provide other support, to our communities and groups. Volunteers get involved for as many reasons as there are people, giving a few hours a week to a lifetime of commitment. And forget the woolly socks goody-two-shoes image, along the way we find lovers, get skills we never dreamed of and meet people we would never normally talk to in a million years. It’s a great way to find out more about yourself and what you can do.

One thing that’s true is that not only do you get back what you put in, but you can end up with a whole lot more beside – community, friends, respect and a more rounded understanding of who we are, pride in the fact that you didn’t wait for the plague wagon to carry your friends off, pride that you got accepted because of who you are not in spite of it, pride in the fact that when someone is in the same difficult spot as you once were, you can be there for them.

The rise of the scene...

While the gay scene grew steadily from the early 70s, in the last decade it has changed dramatically. The boarded-up windows and alleyway entrances of the ‘twilight world of the homosexual’ have evolved into a thriving industry of trendy bars, restaurants, cafés and shops filled with the latest fashion, lifestyle accessories and sexual accoutrements. A new generation of gyms and saunas have exploded on to the scene while myriad pubs and clubs continue to serve up a wide range of music, theme nights and sex venues. Pride, Mardi Gras, and other festivals and exhibitions have helped to revolutionise our image.

Even the smallest town can usually boast a gay pub, and new venues spring up every year. Nevertheless, access to the ‘playground’ is often dependent on living near a town or city with a scene of some kind, and having sufficient cash and the confidence to go out and play. Many gay men still live in desperate isolation, survive on nominal wages and have yet to find the confidence and opportunity to travel the yellow brick road.

Going to the gay bar | BBC Radio 4 | 14 Sep 2019 | 57m
Performance artist and writer Travis Alabanza asks if the venues have served the purpose they were originally built for or if now, more than ever, LGBTQ+ people need these spaces. Speaking to Professor Ben Campkin from UCL, Travis finds out why individual venues are closing and the impact of their loss.

Summer of love: Exploring London's LGBT clubbing scene | i-D | 30 Jun 2016 | 3m 5s

The fall of the scene

While successive generations have reinvented the gay scene, there’s no denying the 70s, 80s and 90s were awesome adventures while also devastating for many. As today’s generation disappears into cyberspace … it may want to take a peek at what we once built and what ... some argue ... we are letting slip away.

Rent hikes and gentrification also have their part to play but since the recession in 2008, LGBT venues have been shutting at a faster rate than ever before.

While some say we don't need a scene anymore there are buds of a new more inclusive scene and maybe it will be this generation that reimagines the scene(s) our LGBT+ communities need tomorrow today.

There will also an appraisal as to how the COVD-19 pandemic has decimated the scene further or if it will survive!

News and articles

The memoir unearthing the vibrant history of the gay bar: Why we went out | Huck | 17 Feb 2021
Somewhere to go: the fight for London’s queer spaces | Huck Mag | 21 Apr 2020
London gay nightclub XXL could close to make room for luxury flats | Pink News | 28 Jun 2019
Queer today, gone tomorrow: the fight to save LGBT nightlife | The Guardian | 3 Apr 2019
Turbulent times for London's gay scene | HuffPost | 7 Nov 2017
A short history of the British gay bar | Vice | 17 May 2017
Gay nightlife Is dying and Grindr and gentrification are to blame | Vice 27 Jul 2017
A short history of the British gay bar | Vice | 17 May 2017
LGBT London: what venue closures mean for the capital's future | The Guardian | 21 Apr 2017
24 photos that show London's disappearing lesbian and gay scene | BuzzFeed News | 28 Aug 2015
Why are London's gay bars disappearing? | BBC | 28 Aug 2015
 The dA-Zed guide to UK gay club history | Dazed | 12 Aug 2015
The Black Cap closed a week after being awarded 'asset of community value' status | The Independent | 14 Apr 2015
Closing time: the loss of iconic gay venues is a nasty side-effect of London's sanitisation | New Statesman | 11 Mar 2015

 Introducing Memories From The Dance Floor | Damian Kerlin | Podcast | 31 Jan 2023

Bar and club archive

Timeline of London Bars and Clubs | LGBT History Archive
 Timeline of London Bars and Clubs | Wikipedia
Gay in the 80s | Gay in the 80s

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