Queer, New Urban Agendas

Can governments be forces for good when it comes to the design, planning, and management of protected queer spaces at the scale of the city? Unchecked development poses an existential challenge to the often precarious spaces where marginalized communities have historically gathered. On the other hand, some officials are leveraging formal power to shield and encourage informal institutions. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has recently repealed the Cabaret Law, which imposed onerous regulation on venues for dancing, and opened an Office of Nightlife to promote the sector’s growth and diversification — though the results of these efforts have yet to become clear.

These initiatives, and the histories of neglect and outright discrimination to which they are responding, find a parallel in London, where Mayor Sadiq Kahn has made LGBTQ+ advocacy a priority since his election in 2016. In this essay, Ben Campkin outlines some of the most pressing threats to queer spaces across his city. Gentrification and displacement pressure local nightlife institutions in particular, but reverberate to spaces well beyond London’s bars and clubs, including large-scale infrastructure networks and local community centers. Here Campkin describes some of the designs, programs, and campaigns seeking to address these challenges, organized by planners, practitioners, activists, and government officials. In a global political climate with growing movements of socially conservative populism where it’s clearer than ever that LGBTQ+ rights are under threat, London provides one case study of attempts to push back.   – JM

What roles do urban policies and practitioners play in supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ+) communities? This question arose in the finalization of the United Nations New Urban Agenda — a key international policy framework, adopted in December 2016, designed to promote “a new model of urban development that is able to integrate all facets of sustainable development to promote equity, welfare, and shared prosperity.” This influential document, which promotes inclusive, participatory cities as a cornerstone of sustainable urban development, identifies specific groups vulnerable to multiple forms of discrimination and violence. Controversy arose when LGBTQ+ people, who had been named in a draft version, were erased from the final list. The deletion resulted from lobbying by a group of 17 countries with some of the worst records of violence and intimidation towards those communities. The move is perhaps unsurprising, given that legal recognitions and social acceptance vary so greatly, and that there are still 73 countries with laws criminalizing homosexuality.

Campaigners marshalling arguments for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ people pointed to the particular forms of violence and overt and covert discrimination these individuals face, and evidence of increasing levels of risk: “Cities are where LGBT people go to find community but in many nations they don’t just face silencing but extreme violence,” commented Ellen Woodsworth, chair of Women Transforming Cities International Society, Vancouver. The inclusion of LGBTQ+ minorities as a vulnerable group would have widened the New Urban Agenda’s attention to the rights of girls and women to more broadly consider vulnerabilities through the spectrum of sexual and gender diversity. But this was not to be.

Many cities are at a point where policy-makers, practitioners, artists, activists, and others are paying increasing attention to the spaces that LGBTQ+ minorities inhabit, or have historically inhabited. The London-based campaign group Queer Spaces Network recently published a Vision for Queer Cultural Spaces in London. London, like New York, has a long history of accommodating “queer space” — shorthand for the spaces where those with non-conforming gender and sexual identities have dwelled, whether or not they were welcomed or supported, long preceding the invention of the terms and acronyms which have become dominant in the human rights movement.

Last year marked 50 years since homosexual acts between men — over the age of 21 years and in private — were decriminalized in England and Wales through the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Research by leading human rights activist Peter Tatchell has revealed that this moment of progress in revoking medieval and Victorian laws was accompanied, in practice, by a heavier hand in the enforcement of remaining ones, meaning an increase in arrests and charges. The act, we should note, only referred to men: Same-sex sexuality for women has never been illegal in the UK, even if it has been policed in myriad ways.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan shakes hands and takes photos with organizers before London Pride march on July 8, 2017. Photo by Ashley Van Haeften via Flickr

Next year will also mark 50 years since the Stonewall Riots in New York. This important moment of resistance was shaped by and went on to shape long-running activist movements that played out in multiple cities. From 1972 onwards, the riots were commemorated in London through annual Pride marches — they still are, faintly, though these have lately been criticized for being commercialized. Detached from their origins as a radical expression of protest and visibility, Pride parades actively contribute to forms of place-promotion and corporate branding, leveraging consumerism in the city’s West End. In this shift, radical protest is substituted by a politics of assimilation into the mainstream, reinforcing the normative heterosexist and patriarchal social institutions that earlier activists vehemently rejected. Stonewall, the UK’s biggest LGBT charity, named after the New York riots, recently announced it has withdrawn its involvement from Pride in London, citing inaction following criticisms by Pride’s own Community Advisory Board of a lack of inclusion of people of color. Instead, like many community members, Stonewall will become more involved in the alternative UK Black Pride, which happens the day afterwards.

Half centenary anniversaries and Pride marches continue to be important hooks from which rainbow flags are flown by all kinds of urban interest groups, from activists to corporations to mayors. Last year, incumbent Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, headed the Pride march, capitalising on its potential to promote a message of inclusion and diversity as an “antidote” to recent events, including the attack on Pulse LGBTQ+ nightclub in Orlando, as well as recent terrorism at London Bridge and Finsbury Park. He also held an LGBTQ+ reception at City Hall: an important gesture, reinstating an event instituted by former Mayor Ken Livingstone but cancelled by his Tory successor, Boris Johnson.

In November 2016, Mayor Khan appointed Amy Lamé as the capital’s first “night czar,” echoing other global city leaders who have their sights set on developing the nighttime economy. In attending to the management — and economic potential — of the urban night, he is not alone. In September 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio instituted an Office of Nightlife, with comparable objectives of both regulating and protecting night-spaces and activities. London’s Night Czar, Lamé, originally from New Jersey, recently authored the first children’s book on LGBTQ+ rights, From Prejudice to Pride. She combines grassroots knowledge with the savvy to engage in mainstream city politics, having served as Mayoress of Camden, one of the London local boroughs, between 2010 and 2011. Lamé understands first-hand the radical social and cultural potential of night-space. She has worked in London’s LGBTQ+ night-spaces since 1992, and co-founded and runs the award-winning artistic and activist club night, “Duckie.” She also chaired the campaign group set up to fight the sale, closure, and redevelopment of the iconic long-standing queer performance venue that hosts Duckie, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, under the banner RVT Future. The campaign has been highly successful to date, thanks to a skilled and dedicated group of core members, successfully listing the building and its social value using the architectural heritage listing process, and now working towards a community buyout.

Night Czar Amy Lamé and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan outside City Hall. Photo courtesy of Greater London Authority

An important question for New York’s Office of the Night, as for Khan and Lamé, is: What do we actually know about the city’s nocturnal life and the spaces, licensed or otherwise, in which it takes place? How can they be quantified? In both cities there is a desire to gather intelligence, to capitalise on the nighttime economy, but the rhythms of the night are elusive, and this is why it affords opportunities to marginalized groups. New York administrators are learning from the Berlin-based Creative Footprint, a not-for-profit project aiming to “protect creative space and artistic freedom through civic engagement.” City Hall in London has invested in research to develop a new Cultural Infrastructure strategy and Supplementary Planning Guidance on the nighttime economy, currently undergoing public consultation. Civil servants have worked with specialist organisations to gather existing data including evidence showing that since the early 2000s there has been a drop of 25 percent in London pubs, 35 percent of grassroots music venues and 44 percent of nightclubs in the UK as a whole. Acknowledging a lack of evidence about the profile of LGBTQ+ nightlife and the challenges venues face, the Mayor has also supported us at University College London’s Urban Laboratory, enabling us to conduct new research.

Our data emphasizes that queer spaces serve a variety of important functions, and face a range of challenges that connect with, but also diverge from, other types of night venues and community spaces. The research has highlighted the diversity of the capital’s LGBTQ+ nightlife as an important contributor to the nighttime economy and cultural production. It has also shown the importance of nightlife venues and events to community life, welfare and wellbeing, in places where other services have been lacking. The loss of venues perceived as “safe spaces” and the consequences for LGBTQ+ communities and individuals are strong concerns for the many community members and organizations who responded to our survey. “Safe” might here refer to safety for self-expression or affirmative of non-normative gender and sexual identities; or to be protected from homophobia, harassment, or other forms of discrimination, including threats or physical violence. To be experienced as safer spaces, primary designation as an LGBTQ+ space has been shown to be important. As one respondent put it: “Loss of community and the sense of shared ownership, shared experience, are devastating to marginalised individuals and groups.”

In London, the number of LGBTQ+ licensed premises rose steadily from 1986 to 2001, before dropping slightly, peaking in 2006, and then — with the exception of 2008 — dropping every year until 2017, with some years featuring notably sharp falls. Maps, based on UCL Urban Laboratory’s data, and focused on the past decade, emphasize both larger and smaller clusters, as well as individual venues in many neighborhoods. They also reveal the net loss of venues on a borough-by-borough basis. Venues have been concentrated in some areas, with significant falls of provision over the past decade in certain central boroughs that historically hosted important clusters. Twice as many boroughs have no recorded venues at all in 2016 compared to 2006, which is a significant drop when one considers the community welfare and wellbeing functions of venues alongside their commercial aspects. Many argue these changes come as the venues themselves are no longer needed due to either increased social acceptance, greater assimilation of these groups, or increased use of mobile dating apps, but these claims are typically made without evidence and too categorically. It is clear that the impacts of such changes have not been evenly experienced across all LGBTQ+ groups, with the main beneficiaries being cis-gendered, white, gay-identifying men. What the research does show is that many LGBTQ+ people do still strongly identify with specific venues and clusters.

Approximate locations of venues closed in the vicinity of Tottenham Court Road Crossrail station development. Graphic by UCL Urban Laboratory and Urban Omnibus

Bars, nightclubs, pubs, cafes, performance spaces, and saunas have occupied a diversity of spaces in the everyday urban fabric, both in purpose-built leisure spaces and making use of cheap and available land in former transport infrastructure — railwaylands, Victorian railway arches and everyday buildings such as Victorian stables and coaching inns. In their interiors, music and performance cultures, the design of many of these took a lead from New York’s scenes, transmitted to London via the preferences and practices of individuals like the nightclub entrepreneur Wayne Shires, who set up The Ghetto nightclub in 2001 — a popular and long-standing central London venue, and frequently cited in Urban Lab’s survey of spaces most valued by the community.

The closure of The Ghetto, which had had a number of other names as an LGBTQ+ venue prior to 2001, like many other London bars and clubs and associated businesses and services, was impacted by large-scale infrastructure development: in this case Crossrail 1, a major new train line running from Heathrow into central London, slated to open in December 2019. This development had comparable impacts to that of the Channel Tunnel Rail-link and large-scale regeneration of King’s Cross, home in the 1980s to many LGBTQ+ organizations as well as a diverse night scene. Why has the planning system not helped to protect such clusters through policies on equality and diversity? In the present system, without any specific use class attributed to such premises, and with only a recent recognition of their architectural and social value within historic preservation processes, they have fallen through the gaps.

The Ghetto, Falconberg Court, formerly known as Substation Soho, and prior to that, Stallions, demolished as part of the works associated with the Crossrail Tottenham Court Road station redevelopment. Graphic courtesy of UCL Urban Laboratory

In London and New York, the most radical and nuanced approaches to LGBTQ+ heritage have come from within those communities themselves, driven by activists’ attempts to contest and re-imagine the dominant modes of urban development and heritage designation. Often, the starting point of activist campaigns is a threat to a building or venue, subject to demolition or closure. Left unfettered, the market logics of advanced capitalist cities do not respect or nurture the forms of “social and cultural infrastructure” that minorities rely upon. The latter phrase has entered policy terminology during Mayor Khan’s tenure, helpfully underscoring those everyday spaces and organizations which are essential to the capital’s vitality and the wellbeing of its inhabitants, but increasingly overlooked and untenable in a city of rapid development, where land and building stock are primarily hot commodities.

Our data suggests that 58 percent of London’s licensed LGBTQ+ nightlife premises closed in the past decade. It is not always straightforward to match trends in the provision and closure of venues to specific phenomena, and closures must be understood through attention to particular circumstances. However, venue closures may follow from the changing landscape of government, the impact on permitted development and the property market by different mayoral and local government agendas, and the prioritization of luxury housing and large-scale infrastructure. Looking at the profile of venues and closures back to the mid-1980s, there is overall a clear shift away from policies and practices that were more favorable to the provision and operation of community-focused venues. In recent years, even long-established and highly successful commercial venues are finding it difficult to operate, or succumbing to development aimed at maximization of profit from a plot or building.

Map showing overall loss of venues across London since 2006. Map via Greater London Authority, based on UCL Urban Laboratory data

The 58 percent figure only refers to licensed premises, excluding saunas, and, more importantly excludes events that occupy multiple venues which may or may not be primarily designated for LGBTQ+ use. Although evidence points to all of those categories of space also being in decline, looking only at licensed premises creates a bias towards spaces owned and operated by and for white, cis-gendered, gay-identifying men. Women, Queer, Trans and Intersex People of Color (QTIPOC) and non-binary communities, who otherwise lack (and face barriers to opening) dedicated venues, have traditionally been better served by events, whether long-standing or ephemeral. Longstanding events have important social outreach functions and value to LGBTQ+ communities.

The significant drop in LGBTQ+ venues is more alarming when seen alongside other recent data. For instance, according to the Metropolitan Police, homophobic hate crime in London rose by 12 percent over the year to March 2017, with over 2,000 recorded incidents. Research by the National Institute for Mental Health in England indicates that LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of mental illness than the rest of the population; and this is supported by research from Public Health England and the Project for Advocacy, Counselling, and Education (PACE), an LGBTQ+ service established in the 1980s which itself recently closed due to cuts to central and local government funding streams. LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall has also identified barriers to LGBTQ+ people accessing healthcare a context of exclusion in which communal spaces deemed “safe” by LGBTQ+ communities play a fundamental role.

Radical queer activists may reject the mainstream urban agenda of global city competition as part of the problem — including the promotion of the nighttime economy and its associated cultural capital. Yet, in London, we have recently seen productive cooperation across the political spectrum. The responses of members of the LGBTQ+ community to recent threats of venue closure have systematically incorporated legal and policy frameworks for protecting architectural and community heritage, as well as powerful media interventions, in conjunction with performance and activism. This has been paralleled by — and, at certain points, linked into — activities in City Hall.

Mayor Khan has positioned himself as an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and the value of LGBTQ+ venues. He has done so in a number of ways, hosting the LGBTQ+ reception at City Hall to coincide with London Pride; commissioning research into the extent of licensed venue closures and the reasons for closure; and using the research findings to inform an update of the city’s main strategic plan, and to create a new LGBT Venues Charter as well as a Cultural Infrastructure Strategy to “identify what we need in order to sustain London’s future as a cultural capital.” The latter document was a manifesto commitment framed around property-related threats, including high rents, to the city’s cultural competitiveness. LGBTQ+ friendly policies have their equivalents in other cities internationally, but the Mayor’s strong positioning on the issue of closures, and on the value of LGBTQ+ night-spaces for the capital in terms of culture and diversity, as well as economy, is notable. So too is the attempt to engage organizations representing communities more intensively affected by closures — or the longer-term lack of provision of designated spaces — including queer, trans and intersex people of color, represented by organizations such as UK Black Pride.

Newsletter from London Lesbian & Gay Centre. Image courtesy of the Hall-Carpenter Archives at the London School of Economics

These moves recall an earlier period, when Mayor Ken Livingstone and the Greater London Council (GLC) funded the establishment of a multi-purpose but short-lived Lesbian and Gay Community Centre in 1982. As recorded in a concept note, the ambition of London’s Centre, designed by McLean Ditlef-Nielsen Quinlan Architects, was “a central community-based centre run by lesbians and gay men for lesbians and gay men, providing a relaxed alternative to the commercial ‘scene,’ which often excludes women, older and younger people, and those without much money.” Yet it was linked to a wider vision, expressed in the GLC’s charter, Changing the World: the London Charter for Lesbian and Gay Rights (1985). Occupying five stories of a former meat-packing facility, the building included a disco, bars, café, bookshop, a women-only floor and a coffee bar (The Orchid), nursery, meeting rooms and workshop spaces, a shop, printing and typesetting workshop, and a photographic darkroom. It hosted LGBTQ+ community organizations both on a long-term and temporary basis. That the plan was so ambitious might account for the complex and conflictual internal dynamics between the different groups using and occupying the Centre. Under financial pressures, and subjected to Margaret Thatcher’s attacks on the GLC’s social initiatives for marginalized groups such as sex workers, lesbians, and teens (“a disgraceful waste of money and a disgraceful imposition of increases on the tax burden”), the Centre quickly collapsed.

At present, there are green shoots: energetic and successful campaigns, and even new venues opening and events proliferating, with night-space operators seemingly encouraged by the new supportive policy context. There are vigorous campaigns to establish new LGBTQ+ community spaces in London. For those involved, the pioneering and experimental vision of 1980s community centers can provide much inspiration; as should the many important existing spaces and initiatives that, against the odds, have survived the tides of gentrification and funding cuts — including some of those the London Lesbian and Gay Centre originally accommodated. New multi-functional spaces could provide opportunities to share and build resources and create new coalitions. They could also be the place to take forward discussions about how planning, policy, or architecture can help shape better outcomes for marginalized minorities within processes of urbanization, internationally. We need such venues for intergenerational exchange, to talk about and learn from the contributions that LGBTQ+ communities and individuals have made, and could make, to urban change. If the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda fails to recognize the specific vulnerabilities LGBTQ+ people face, there is still much city authorities, mayors, and night czars can do.

Ben Campkin is Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Co-Director of the Urban Laboratory, University College London. He is author of Remaking London: Decline and Regeneration in Urban Culture and co-editor of Sexuality and Gender at Home: Experience, Politics, Transgression and Urban Pamphleteer. His next book, Queer Premises, will be published by Zed Books.

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