It could be argued that we currently live in a gay utopia of sorts; a society that is becoming less and less prejudiced against gay men and women. This is particularly true for those of us who live in the capital and are part of the relative cosiness of the ‘Soho bubble’ – a place where no one bats an eyelid if you walk down the street hand-in-hand with a same-sex lover. However, is this cushion of tolerance London-wide? Guest writer Edward Brody recounts an experience of expressing man-on-man affection outside of the confines of Old Compton Street.
A couple of years ago I was living with friends in South London and was developing familiarity with the local clique of gentlemen due to my relatively recent discovery of Gaydar and Grindr. Never one to use them for their more basic, primal intentions, I was more keen on using them to set up good-old-fashioned dates – and on one occasion went on a date with a chap to a local bar in South London.
The date was entirely three-stars: bland conversation, basic platitudes and a creeping realisation that he wasn’t the one from pretty much the moment I arrived. However, he was a very nice and attractive guy and bland conversations are the easiest to entertain, so ultimately it was a good evening.
At the end of the night – as we were leaving and walking back up to the underground station – we stopped momentarily by the road crossing, from where we were going to go our separate ways and call it a night. Either due to my ineptitude at awkward goodbyes, or – more likely – due to the beers I consumed on an empty stomach, we shared a little kiss while we were waiting for the green man to start flashing. What we hadn’t noticed at this stage, due to being in the throes of drunken snogging, was the bedraggled looking man walking along the road from the direction of the tube, clutching a half-swilled pint glass of beer. I’d guess he had been drinking in a nearby pub (one of those grim establishments with breeze-block-windows and an uninviting facade). Regardless, this man did not take kindly to the sight of two attractive, young professionals with enviably slim waists, ending a date in such a way in front of him. The first we were alerted to his basic grievance was the loud, ‘It’s a couple of fucking poofters!’ opening salvo, closely followed by a slurred, ‘fuck awff!’
Since I went to a private school, I’m ostensibly a good boy and useless in any situation that involves physical fighting. That said, it was a private school in Catford – so I’m not easily intimidated, and am, on occasion, confidently bolshy. Plus, during my University years I worked in a pub and was caught in the middle of drunk-and-disorderly scenes on more than one occasion. However, sensing my date – who I vaguely recall was a non-Londoner – would crumble like a digestive biscuit and cry at the first sign of threat, it was a logical decision to make a break for it and cross the road. As we were doing so, the glass that the gentleman had been carrying shattered on the road just behind us. Clearly he wasn’t making the London 2012 shot-putt team any time soon, but it came within about a foot of us. We dashed a few streets up, and, safe in the knowledge that our friend hadn’t followed us, resumed our brief bout of kissing before I jumped on the tube home.
Until I was asked to recount this incident, I never really thought about it as an act of homophobia. It was an old drunk doing what an old drunk does. I suppose we were kissing in broad sight in an area of London that isn’t festooned in rainbow flags, far from the relative ‘safety’ of Old Compton Street and Soho – pushing our luck? Maybe.
I’ve never really felt the need to graft myself on to the ‘gay community’ for comfort. Growing up in London, going out in the West End and Soho as well as local areas of south east London since my teenage years has left me with a relatively secure sense of self and safety. I can understand why people who come to London seek out solidarity in the gay enclaves of Soho or Shoreditch, and who therefore might not feel as comfortable in Brixton or Tottenham. I think from the outside there is a sense that Soho/Shoreditch is the London ‘gaybourhood’, and public affection or expression are less likely to be tolerated elsewhere.
A recent trip to New York happened to coincide with Gay Pride weekend. I was genuinely impressed that there, for that weekend, the rainbow flag was flying the length and breadth of Manhattan. Not just in the neighbourhoods of Greenwich Village or Hell’s Kitchen, but on diners, cafes, theatres, libraries, schools, department stores, even in a few taxi cabs; the whole city over. It didn’t feel like something that was the proviso of the gay community, but a decorative emblem that all New Yorkers flew, much the same as the Christmas or Thanksgiving celebrations.
I’d never actively seek out confrontation or play too obviously with fire, and I know London can be a dangerous city. But at the same time, even following this moment of divine intervention at the end of an average date from an old drunk with a beer glass, I would still never be intimidated out of hand-holding, hugging, or sharing a kiss with a guy just because I wasn’t in the right part of town.
As one of the threads in the tapestry of London, gays are remarkably territorial, habitual creatures. Regardless of where we live, we will generally journey to the same cluster of bars and clubs in Soho, Shoreditch or Vauxhall for a night out. And for what reason – fun? Safety? A love of dodgy Britney Spears remixes? Vodka? Strength-in-numbers? In such an ostensibly accepting and progressive Western city, where – although it exists – homophobia is now openly and politically tolerated far less than it once was, why are two men still much more likely to indulge in open public displays of affection in a luminous corner of Soho than they are to steal a kiss outside a tube station in South East London?
You can follow Edward Brody on Twitter: @ChiefBrody1984