A city synonymous with pubs and knights might not seem like the most obvious hub for LGBTQ+ community, but London has long been regarded as a global pioneer — and cultural epicenter — for social progress of all kinds, including with its queer scene. Plus, any place that has an actual Queen is bound to have a few kweens too. While U.S. cities most associated with LGBTQ+ advocacy, like San Francisco and New York, have considerably younger histories, London’s queer roots run far deeper.
Centuries before Harvey Milk rallied in the Castro District, or before the history-making Stonewall riots in Manhattan, London’s LGBTQ+ landscape not only existed at all, but it was thriving, albeit in an unspoken way. During a time when the notion of same-sex spaces was unheard of — and aggressively criminalized in many cultures across the globe — London had enough queer pubs to merit a full-blown book on the topic: Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700–1830. Sure, they may not have been overtly out and proud with rainbow flags and drag queens (homosexual acts were still against the law in England overall until 1967, and in the 1500s they were punishable by death), but they were subtle sanctuaries for folks in the closet, yearning for unity and community without fear of losing their job or being publicly ostracized. It was these discreet pubs and cafes, nicknamed “Molly-houses,” that became havens before they hit the local mainstream.
Nowadays, things look a little different in London. Though the city has long been a beacon of LGBTQ+ culture, even before discriminatory laws were repealed in the ‘60s, modern London is almost as synonymous with queerness as it is with fish & chips, as evidenced by its androgynous fashion shops, rainbow-hued pubs in Soho, world-famous disco clubs, and a summertime Pride parade along historic Oxford Street (the only event that shuts down the iconic roadway) that sees more than 30,000 marchers and more than 1 million attendees. The 2022 parade, to be held July 2, marks 50 year since the first Pride event in the United Kingdom, and though queer pubs existed as far back as the 18th century, much has changed — and progressed — in those 50 years.
During a time when queer spaces were still taboo in America, they’ve long existed in London. The Gateways Club, for instance, was the longest running lesbian bar in the world, operating from 1936 until 1985. But going from under-the-radar spaces for closeted individuals to the prominent platform they have today took time. LGBTQ+ culture started to shift away from in-the-know pubs in the 1970s, when the city’s first Pride event, the U.K. Gay Pride Rally, was held in July, 1972. Just a few years later, Heaven nightclub debuted in 1979 as an out and proud gay disco club, still the largest of its kind in Europe and one that remains today. That same year, Gay’s the Word became the first LGBTQ+ bookshop in the U.K. Amidst periodic harassment and attacks from the National Front, like the raid on Royal Vauxhall Tavern in 1978, these events — and these spaces — provided opportunity for London’s LGBTQ+ community to come together, support one another, and grow.
And grow it has. In the ensuing years, London has filled with unique, pioneering spaces that are as much celebratory as they are sanctuary, like Above the Stag Theatre (the only LGBTQ-focused theater in the U.K.) and The WayOut Club, the first transgender nightclub in town when it opened in 1993. Nowadays, Soho is on par with the Castro as one of the world’s most famously queer neighborhoods, teeming with colorful boutiques, clubs, events, and bars (Village Soho and The Yard Bar being two prominent popular examples), while elsewhere in the inclusive city, The Glory is an LGBTQ+ pub known for drag shows and non-binary cabaret. A far cry from the “Molly-houses” of yore, queer Londoners have plenty of ways to display their pride.
This all culminates today, with a colossal Pride parade mere weeks away, complete with free festivities and entertainment in Trafalgar Square, a location that couldn’t be more front-and-center. But far more than a party in the streets, the Pride in London organization uses this pivotal platform as a way to urge the U.K. government to affect change by banning conversion therapy, provide increased protections against hate crimes, create a national AIDS memorial, and criminalizing homophobic assaults in the same way as racial and religious hate crimes. Just as it was during the first Gay Pride Rally 50 years ago, it’s an apt reminder that amidst all the fun and merriment, Pride is still a political event, and cities like London are at the forefront.