February was LGBTQ+ history month, so let’s take a look at the history behind some of London’s most named and famed gay bars.
BY THE ROAM TEAM 6 MIN READ
The acronym LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (sometimes questioning). The "plus" represents other sexual identities including pansexual and Two-Spirit.
Glitz, glamour, drag, disco; gay bars are known for producing some wild nights out. But this hedonism isn’t just an expression of fun or pleasure-seeking, it’s an effort to build and define the LGBTQ+ identity and provide safe spaces for members of the community.
The need for confidentiality has meant that records of the very earliest gay bars are hard to find if they remain at all. But the first recorded instance of a gay bar in the modern sense is of the White Swan in London It made the records when it was raided for violation of laws against sodomy; 25 men were arrested and two were hanged, the youngest of which was just 16 years old. Tragic incidents like this exemplify the importance of gay bars as a free expression of identity, and show that these were not always safe spaces. But since then, it’s not been all doom and gloom…
Another one of the earliest recorded gay bars, The Cave of the Golden Calf started as a night club in London in 1912 and earned a reputation as a hang-out for the rich and beautiful. Just off Regent Street, it was a place of bohemian culture and aristocracy, dripping in decadence and glamour. It went bankrupt after just two years just before the First World War, but its legacy lives on.
We’ve all heard of this one. First set up between the arches of Charing Cross Station in 1979 and still thriving today, Heaven has gone from hosting ‘acid house nights’ in the 80s to taking its place as London’s Studio 54. At the time of its opening, homosexuality had only been decriminalised for 12 years. The city’s gay scene was relatively underground and was mostly rooted in cellar pubs and small discos. But Heaven thrived and continuously rebranded to keep up with the times. Now, it's not just a club venue for members of the LGBTQ+, but for anyone that wanted to take a step into the extravagant underworld.
The Shoreditch pub was taken over by new owners in 2002 and enjoyed legend status among the LGBTQ+ community. It embraced art, design, and creativity as well as fun. Drag queens, fashion designers, club rats: all flocked to the George and Dragon (among them Jean Paul Gaultier and Kate Moss). Friday nights were drag nights at the George, with icons such as Jonny Woo, Jeanette, and John Sizzle making frequent appearances.
Sadly, the pub announced that it was shutting down in 2015 as a result of soaring rent prices in East London, but its reputation for ‘total fun and mindless hedonism’ remains.
Well known as one of Soho’s oldest gay bars, the Admiral Duncan has been around since at least 1832. If you’re a Peaky Blinders fan, the real life British-Italian mob boss Charles Sabini frequented the Admiral alongside members of his gang. It was such a regular hang-out that in 1930, there was a gang fight between Sabini’s Gang and their rivals, the Hoxton Gang. Two Sabinis were badly injured, the Hoxton boys were arrested, and £200 worth of damage was caused. Fun times. Fast forward and by the 1980s, the Admiral had earned its reputation as a gay bar, although still attracting a variety of customers.
Glittering, glamouring, shining, thriving. Nowadays, we are lucky enough to enjoy the most illustrious of the LGBTQ+ community’s nightlife. It hasn’t been easy to get to this point, but for now, we can safely say that Heaven’s Popcorn Mondays are calling…
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