London is often seen as a haven for the LGBTQ+ community, with queer nightlife providing a chance for connection, community, and escapism.
Traditionally LGBTQ+ venues have been about finding ways to still be together and welcome those who may be shunned by "mainstream" venues. When clubs had to close their doors earlier this year due to Coronavirus, we saw this community support once again, with online events such as Queer House Party springing up, and we're looking forward to when doors can re-open.
Explore our gallery below of LGBTQ+ venues in London, including those both past and present. Did you ever have a night out at one of these clubs? Share your stories with us over on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
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A look back at London's LGBTQ+ nightlife
Eighteenth century Molly Houses were the first LGBTQ+ spaces that we'd recognise as a "modern" night venue. These were where gay men would meet one another, with there being mock marriages and births, singing, and sex. One of the most famous Molly Houses being Mother Clap’s in Holborn, which ran from 1724 until 1726, when it was raided.
Venues specifically for LGBTQ+ people started to open, with The Cave of the Golden Calf, which was considered the first gay bar, opening in 1912. The first recognised lesbian bar was the famous Gateways Club on King Road, which opened in 1931.
Though LGBTQ+ venues did exist while homosexuality was criminalised, they weren’t always advertised as so, but still became a home to the community. This includes events like The Chelsea Arts Ball, which was a costume ball that ran from 1908 – 1958 and celebrated gender and sexual experimentation and expression. These Balls continued even after homosexuality was de-criminalised, and were more explicit about being Drag Balls. We delved into Jean Fredericks' legendary Drag Balls in this piece here.
Police were a consistent presence at LGBTQ+ spaces, with homosexuality being illegal until 1967. Raids meant that queer culture was forced further and further underground. Following the decriminalisation of homosexuality, it was often only cis, white men that feel into this new category of "acceptability", therefore the spaces that started popping up in 1970s were often illicit bars, with “Shebeens” being illegal bars that were for Afro-Caribbean people, transgender people, and sex workers.
Soho has always been at the heart of queer night life in the capital, and the arrival of club culture in the 90s meant more venues began to open their doors. Gay venues such as Heaven and Trade soon sprung up, and became a fixture in the social calendar of LGBTQ+ people.
Trade was London’s first ever legal after-hours club, and the closure of the venue in 2008 was seen as a bleak prediction of what would happen to many LGBTQ+ venues.
Though many venues have sadly closed in the last decade, LGBTQ+ nightlife is just as vital as it ever was. These spaces don't just offer a night out, but a place for members of the LGBTQ+ community to meet one another, and be who they are, rather than who they’ve been told to be.
Want to discover more about our LGBTQ+ Archives?
We hold one of the most extensive collections on LGBTQ+ history, politics, and culture in the UK. It covers the late nineteenth century onward.
The collections encompass a range of LGBTQ+ stories, with archives from Stonewall, Switchboard, GMFA/The Gay Men's Health Charity, Outrage!, and material relating to the Terrence Higgins Trust, Achilles Heel and QX magazines. We also hold records of individuals including Paris Lees, Sue Sanders/Schools Out/LGBT History Month, and many others.
We also run a range of courses delving into our LGBTQ+ Collections and looking at key moments of LGBTQ+ history, which you can find out more about here.