As you walk through Soho, an area famed for its flamboyant shops and fun-loving bars, it’s hard to believe that being gay was ever a crime in London. And yet, until 1967, like much of the world, you could be convicted in England for loving the wrong person. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country – and while the transition hasn’t always been smooth, today we boast one of the largest gay populations in Europe and a thriving, multicultural LGBT+ scene that can be enjoyed by all.
Take A Tour Of Soho And Beyond
Spanning a square mile near Oxford Street, Soho is one of the capital’s most famous districts and the historic epicentre of London’s LGBT+ scene. It’s here that people of all sexualities have sought refuge (including writer Oscar Wilde, who was eventually jailed for his indiscretion), drawn to the area by its liberal-minded theatres, shops and pubs, many of which still stand today.
You’ll also find ‘gay villages’ around town, including Vauxhall. Why not join a shopping, culture or history tour with London Gay Tours (londongaytours.com).
Alternatively, plot your own walking tour: see the first gay bar in the UK, The Cave of the Golden Calf, at 9 Heddon Street (now a Gordon Ramsay restaurant); the sculpture A Conversation with Oscar Wilde at 3 Adelaide Street; Gay’s the Word bookshop at 66 Marchmont Street near King’s Cross; and Enigma code-breaker Alan Turing’s birthplace at 2 Warrington Crescent in Little Venice (now The Colonnade Hotel).
This year, some of the country’s Historic Royal Palaces are exploring LGBT+ stories from the royal courts, including a Pride, Power and Politics tour at the Tower of London (26-27 May) – find out how the male friendships of Edward II and his treatment of his favourites resulted in the rebellion of the earls. Hampton Court Palace will also examine the hidden stories of some of its former inhabitants, including Queen Anne, thought to have been intimate with her Mistress of the Robes.
See A Star-Studded Show
Theatre has always played a leading role in London’s LGBT+ scene, and with more than 200 venues, it’s fair to say that all the world’s a stage in this city. In the West End, you’ll find the biggest concentration and the widest variety of shows, including Kinky Boots, with music and lyrics written by Cyndi Lauper. It tells the true story of a British shoe factory that branched out and made women’s shoes in men’s sizes for transgender people.
Head south of the river to the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern (372 Kennington Lane, SE11 5HY) with its regular drag-queen nights, and the National Theatre on the South Bank, which this month stages Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (from 11 Apr), a play made famous by the 2003 TV series with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Starring Andrew Garfield and Denise Gough, and directed by Olivier Award-winner Marianne Elliott, this new staging of Tony Kushner’s two-part play about 1980s America in the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration is the hottest ticket in town. It’s sold out online, but check for returns and day tickets.
Discover Queer British Art
This month, some of London’s leading museums and galleries are exploring themes of gender and sexual identity, including Queer British Art 1861-1967 at Tate Britain (from 5 Apr). The exhibition features works by Francis Bacon, Keith Vaughan, Evelyn de Morgan, Dora Carrington and Cecil Beaton, and a full-length portrait of Oscar Wilde (owned by the writer), which has never been exhibited in the UK.
‘It’s a unique opportunity to see objects that connect to a diverse range of identities with some great stories attached to them,’ says curator Clare Barlow. ‘Where else in London can you see a pink wig from a 1920s female impersonation act, racy magazines from the 1950s and the door of Oscar Wilde’s prison cell alongside Aubrey Beardsley drawings?’ While you’re at Tate Britain, see David Hockney (to 29 May), a retrospective of the British artist who helped normalise gay relationships through his work in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, at the Fashion Space Gallery, you can explore the many realities of modern trans life in a Museum of Transology (to 22 Apr; 20 John Prince’s St, W1G 0BJ). Inside you’ll find the largest collection of trans artefacts and photographic portraiture displayed in the UK.
‘The objects that people have chosen to donate are strikingly intimate, and make a unique contribution to broader social debates surrounding body politics, gender inequality and the continuing attachment of biological sex to gender despite three waves of feminism,’ says collector and curator EJ Scott. And next month, The British Museum will unveil Desire Love Identity (from 11 May), which will explore LGBT+ histories, drawing on material from ancient times to the present day, including medallions with Emperor Hadrian emblazoned on them.
Raise A Glass
From traditional British pubs to huge megaclubs, this city is known for its diverse and inclusive LGBT+ nightlife – so don’t feel that you can’t get in on the fun if you happen to be straight. Situated on Soho’s Old Compton Street, the Admiral Duncan is one of the capital’s oldest gay pubs, while The Yard Bar on Rupert Street has a beautiful plant-filled courtyard. Freedom Bar on Wardour Street attracts many of the West End’s performers to its dancefloor, and we challenge anyone not to have a good time at legendary Heaven close to Charing Cross station – since it opened in 1979, anyone who is anyone has performed here, including Cher, Kylie, One Direction, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna. As the Queen of Pop herself sang: ‘Only when you’re dancing will you feel this free…’