Queer Infrastructures: LGBTQ+ Night-time Venues in Global London

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, London. Still image from a laser scan produced between Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns, 2020. UCL Urban Laboratory.
Ben Campkin considers the challenges of sustaining London’s LGBTQ+ venues, arguing for the importance of viewing premises, events, and networks through the theoretical lens of “queer infrastructure.”
[Ed. note: This article is part of a dossier on New Directions in Queer Nightlife.]

My book Queer Premises: LGBTQ+ Venues in London Since the 1980s 1Campkin, Ben. Queer Premises: LGBTQ+ Venues in London Since the 1980s (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023). focuses on the challenges of establishing and sustaining LGBTQ+ venues under the emergence of neoliberal governance, as the authorities have been increasingly driven to assert London’s status as a global, cosmopolitan city. It builds on earlier qualitative and quantitative work that I did with Lo Marshall, on both LGBTQ+ venues and events.2Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQI Nightlife in London, 1986 to the Present: Interim Findings (London: UCL Urban Laboratory, November 2016); Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQ+ Cultural Infrastructure in London: Night Venues 2006–Present (London: UCL Urban Laboratory, July 2017); Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, “London’s Nocturnal Queer Geographies,” Soundings 20 (Autumn 2018): 82–96. This research was co-designed with campaigners working to protect venues, and with policy-makers who were keen to better understand venues which, in planning terms, are designated in the London Plan – the spatial development strategy for the capital as “social and cultural infrastructure”. Developing over more than a decade, the research has taken many forms, including surveys, interviews, oral history, workshops, long-tables, charettes, policy roundtables, exhibition curation, performances, archival enquiries, media and policy analysis, mapping and counter-mapping.3Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, “Fabulous Façades,” in Queering Architecture, ed. Marko Jobst and Naomi Stead (London: Bloomsbury, 2023), 120–40.

Queer Premises looks at how bars, cafés, nightclubs, pubs, community centres, and events – and hybrids of these – have been imagined, created and sustained from the 1980s to the present, through different periods of crisis and austerity. It is partly a book about planning contestations in the mid-2000s and 2010s. It charts recent activism to protect or reopen venues; and it examines how queer heritage has surfaced (or been buried) along the way. Rather than a linear path of increasing homonormativity in urban governance, across the period that the book considers, we see surprisingly generative interactions between venues and planning, with collaborations between mainstream and radical LGBTQ+ campaigns, city hall, local political administrations and planners.

The diversity and dynamism of venues and events in London makes it helpful to think not of a singular enclave but of a “queer infrastructure”, with licensed premises being the most visible surface – an important network through which heterogeneous and changing LGBTQ+ populations connect into and mobilise resources. Empirically, this term signals the locations and types of building stock venues emerged in, around transport intersections, in the 1980s and 1990s. The book looks at how this shapes their specific formats and affordances, and how their location in designated “opportunity areas” makes them precarious within the internationally financed, transport-led redevelopment schemes of the 2000s. Queer infrastructure is also grounded in planning discourse, and the book maps changing policy conceptions of “social and cultural infrastructure” from New Left urban policy in the 1980s, through to shifting understandings of equality and diversity and LGBTQ+ rights and citizenship under different administrations in the 2000s.

As a theoretical and methodological tool, queer infrastructure connects accounts of relationality and futurity in queer studies of the 1990s and 2000s to the recent infrastructural turn in urban and postcolonial studies and the humanities. For Lauren Berlant, for example, queer infrastructures are “infrastructures of the social”: that is, improvised practices which support life where capital and the state have failed, under conditions of austerity.4Lauren Berlant, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 3 (2016): 393–419. Berlant is interested in modes of commoning, which point to new ways of being together across difference.

I extrapolate that queer infrastructure is what diverse inhabitants of the city make when they create venues, networks and events. Infrastructure bridges between the anti-social and utopian tendencies of queer theorising, and is a way of articulating the spatial and temporal negotiations involved in creating and sustaining venues across the city, and across generations and diverse populations, in complex, globally interconnected, postcolonial cities. The book contributes to an international, transdisciplinary field of queer urbanism. Here, scholarship across multiple disciplines and varied forms of cultural work, including activism and art, intersects with urban policy, planning and heritage practices, with the imagination, creation and sustenance of everyday spaces of community and culture, and the lifeworlds they support.

Through policy analyses and venue case studies, Queer Premises charts how the politics of LG (and to a lesser extent B and T) equality have been increasingly mainstreamed within the activities of City Hall, from the era of the Greater London Council (the metropolitan level government in the 1980s), to the establishment of a new city-wide mayoralty and the Greater London Authority in 2000. It looks at the tensions that surfaced between political rhetoric on global, cosmopolitan, London, the legacies of the city’s imperial past, and the lived experiences of a diverse and changing LGBTQ+ population, especially in recent contexts of redevelopment, and in terms of differential access to space.

 

Ben Campkin with Chi Nguyen, Queer ‘Asset of Community Value’ Diagram, based on Royal Vauxhall Tavern plan view, 2022.

In the 2010s, with venues acutely threatened, campaigners used listing tools such as heritage and Asset of Community Value (ACV) listing. Listing requirements directed them to narrate the value of long-standing venues in ways that emphasized not only local but national and international significance. These accounts gave new prominence to LGBTQ+ social history, unsettling what Stuart Hall calls “the heritage” story in Britain, at the local, national and international scale.5Stuart Hall, “Un‐settling ‘The Heritage’, Re‐imagining the Post‐nation. Whose heritage?” Third Text 13, no. 49 (1999): 3–13. There are plural political orientations evident within and across the campaigns for the protection of venues: from the radically queer, to more conservative approaches to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the national Heritage story.

Listing nominations have demonstrated venues’ long-term queer uses, present-day communal and cultural value, and interdependences. The crisis made visible a network connecting across generations, and functioning to support livelihoods across a variety of professional, artistic, health, fundraising and educational functions. Campaigners have not meant to conserve venues, or to replicate them. They have rather sought to protect them as resources through which queer culture – rooted in its histories of social struggle, creativity, alternative economies and protest – can continue to adapt to sustain present-day and future generations.

The inadequacy of planning tools to articulate heritage as multi-layered, conflicted, and experiential has become apparent along the way. In Queer Premises I discuss the use of ACVs by campaigners – a provision introduced under the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Coalition government, whereby local authorities, under the Localism Act (2011) are required to maintain a register of community venues in their jurisdiction; and where community groups are able to nominate buildings and land they deem to be important to their sustenance. Reviewing LGBTQ+ campaigners uses of this tool highlights that the onus to identify social and cultural assets and crudely match them to specified populations, the labour involved in making repeated applications, and the requirements for accountability fall disproportionately on community groups, while property owners and investors use their resources to find loopholes. The book also charts how well-intentioned equalities impact assessment processes align with capital, favouring larger internationally financed businesses while overlooking vital smaller scale enterprises with proven capacity to generate social value for diverse LGBTQ+ populations. Such clunky equalities tools rely on limited definitions of minority groups which overlook intersectional nuances.

Planning conflicts over redevelopment, which focus on technicalities and aesthetic considerations, reveal conflicting understandings of heritage, diversity, and citizenship. As well as licensed venues, it is important to consider the role and framing of events. Long-running club nights have served as important networks for specific LGBTQ+ groups.6Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQ+ Cultural Infrastructure in London: Night Venues 2006-Present, (London: UCL Urban Laboratory, July 2017); DJ Ritu and Lo Marshall, “Club Kali” in Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories, eds. Adam Nathaniel Furman and Joshua Mardell (London: RIBA Publishing, 2022), 92-93. These of course inhabit licensed premises, but are more mobile, and elusive. Whether long running, or transient, as the dynamic edge of today’s queer infrastructure, such events also reflect governance and tensions within a highly diverse city.

In East London, noted for its complex superdiversity, the late 2010s and early 2020s saw a proliferation of queer night-time events organised around constructs of national, ethnic and cultural identity.7Steven Vertovec, “Super-Diversity and its Implications,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 6 (2007): 1024–54. This is interesting in the context of the Olympic-led regeneration and gentrification processes, where the East has been the focus for projections of London’s global city status and constructions of the convivial, multicultural city. These processes are enacted in the name of public benefit but have been evidenced to put most pressure on minorities.8Including sexual minorities – see Phil Hubbard and Eleanor Wilkinson, “Welcoming the World? Hospitality, Homonationalism, and the London 2012 Olympics,” Antipode 47, no. 3 (2015): 598–615.

Research I have recently undertaken with Lo Marshall shows how queer event producers have used night-spaces to articulate migrant positionalities and performative practices of disidentification with national identities. This is part of a set of practices of storytelling and engagement which forged physical and digital connections locally, nationally and transnationally. Examples include Turkish Delight, a “bilingual [Turkish-English] queer night”; and the queer Bangla night, Odbhut.

The individuals and collectives hosting these nights use them to forge places of belonging, often for those newly acclimatizing to London and negotiating processes of citizenship, or who have transnational identities. They deploy careful and creative intersectional and decolonial approaches to engaging across contexts. They engaged deeply with London’s imperial legacies and the ongoing effects of homophobic and binary understandings of gender in laws created under the British Empire. The mobile events they produce demonstrate queer utopianism but also pragmatism, opportunistically creating temporary refuge, and working practically to attend to the structural inequalities built into property dynamics or night scenes. Such spaces are vital to the sustenance of marginalized LGBTQ+ people but are under-recognised within formal heritage protection processes and in the identification of at-risk cultural venues.

Queer night spaces are scenes of local and global politics. They materialise how “work on sexuality and space offers a far more complicated picture of globalisation and the relationships between the local and the global”.9Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005), 12. They demonstrate the power of grassroots and city-level initiatives to initiate positive change. Where international urban policy discussions around LGBTQ+ inclusion reach an impasse – as in the controversies over the drafting of the New Urban Agenda in 2016 – grassroots movements offer learning for how the plurality of gender and sexual diversity might be sensitively addressed. Learning from such phenomena, the “queerer global urbanism”, which urban scholars Gavin Brown and Dhiren Borisa seek, would be one that is aware of the histories, geographies and limits of identity categories, and their co-option within orthodox economies, formatted in specific locales.10Gavin Brown and Dhiren Borisa, “Making space for queer desire in global urbanism,” in Global Urbanism: Knowledge, Power and the City, ed. Michele Lancione and Colin MacFarlane (Oxon: Routledge, 2021), 49–55. It will be transdisciplinary, working with the embodied knowledge of queer subjects, and their efforts to amplify marginalised voices and experiences. It will think beyond established venues and the most visible populations, to a wider queer infrastructure, at once fragile and resistant.

Notes

Notes
1 Campkin, Ben. Queer Premises: LGBTQ+ Venues in London Since the 1980s (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023).
2 Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQI Nightlife in London, 1986 to the Present: Interim Findings (London: UCL Urban Laboratory, November 2016); Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQ+ Cultural Infrastructure in London: Night Venues 2006–Present (London: UCL Urban Laboratory, July 2017); Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, “London’s Nocturnal Queer Geographies,” Soundings 20 (Autumn 2018): 82–96.
3 Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, “Fabulous Façades,” in Queering Architecture, ed. Marko Jobst and Naomi Stead (London: Bloomsbury, 2023), 120–40.
4 Lauren Berlant, “The Commons: Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 3 (2016): 393–419.
5 Stuart Hall, “Un‐settling ‘The Heritage’, Re‐imagining the Post‐nation. Whose heritage?” Third Text 13, no. 49 (1999): 3–13.
6 Ben Campkin and Lo Marshall, LGBTQ+ Cultural Infrastructure in London: Night Venues 2006-Present, (London: UCL Urban Laboratory, July 2017); DJ Ritu and Lo Marshall, “Club Kali” in Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories, eds. Adam Nathaniel Furman and Joshua Mardell (London: RIBA Publishing, 2022), 92-93.
7 Steven Vertovec, “Super-Diversity and its Implications,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 30, no. 6 (2007): 1024–54.
8 Including sexual minorities – see Phil Hubbard and Eleanor Wilkinson, “Welcoming the World? Hospitality, Homonationalism, and the London 2012 Olympics,” Antipode 47, no. 3 (2015): 598–615.
9 Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York and London: New York University Press, 2005), 12.
10 Gavin Brown and Dhiren Borisa, “Making space for queer desire in global urbanism,” in Global Urbanism: Knowledge, Power and the City, ed. Michele Lancione and Colin MacFarlane (Oxon: Routledge, 2021), 49–55.
Campkin, Ben. "Queer Infrastructures: LGBTQ+ Night-time Venues in Global London." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 9, no. 2 (June 2024)
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