The LGBT rainbow flag hangs over Soho’s Old Compton Street during London Pride. Credit: Demotix.
Recently, I was on a date. It was dinner with this guy I’d met at a party, and afterwards we strolled to the train station, stopping every couple of minutes to kiss. I was so concentrated on his lips that I hardly noticed a strange rattling sound nearby.
But when a few two pence pieces fell at my feet, I realised someone was throwing handfuls of coins at us. Three guys on the other side of the street began screaming insults. The weird bit is that we were in Soho: London’s gay village.
Soho is an ancient, bustling grid of streets, famous for its sex shops and strip clubs, and slightly less well known as the one-time home of Karl Marx and Percey Bysshe Shelley. Although its history is pocketed with violence, most infamously the 1999 London nail bombings, this is also a place where London’s marginals and working class have sometimes escaped its bourgeois law and ethics. Sex workers, in particular, were able to ignore the prohibition against their industry, which was levelled even as women’s bodies were sold legally through marriage and, later, porn.
The men who threw coins at us may not have been Soho’s marginals, but they were London’s. White, late teens, wearing tracksuits – they didn’t look like they had been hanging out in the nearby over-priced pubs. When my date and I realised what they were doing, we began to walk away quickly. The three guys started in the same direction, and I stared over at them in a way I hoped looked like a warning.
“Fuck off!” one of them screamed. “Stop looking at me, faggot. I don’t swing that way, yeah? Fuck off or I’ll…”
I obeyed. We kept walking. There was another crackling sound as someone threw more coins, but I just kept going; I did as I was told and I didn’t look up. Suddenly, the three of them turned away. They were going up the road we’d have taken. We were safe.
When I first walked down those streets, about twelve years ago, the area was already heavily gentrified, with pricey bars serving mostly straight employees from nearby media businesses. I imagine they took pleasure in Soho’s “edginess” precisely because it contradicted the hierarchical and homogenous character of the economic life spreading across the area.
In this way, conservative spaces are incubated by subversion – here represented by Soho’s east, which retained a gay sensibility.
Berwick Street delineates one border of that district. That was the road where, years later, those men would threaten me. As a young teenager, I’d peek into the windows of haberdasheries and see balding men mince around huge bolts of coloured satin, bellowing at each other about the cost of fabric. Across the road, I might observe a guy in baggy jeans and a beanie stepping out of the Sister Ray record shop, a bag of LPs on one arm, his boyfriend’s hand squeezed around the other. And yet, just around the corner from this queer oasis were the most deadeningly classy restaurants and members’ clubs.
I love Soho, because at that young age it freed me from what remains a very normal part of my life: denying my homosexuality. I don’t mean that I ever claim to be straight, but that, in most parts of London, I wouldn’t hold another man’s hand, and instead of kissing a guy goodbye, like I want to, I’ll hug him tightly and hope he gets the message. This is the constant lie that constitutes life for most queers, including those with the privilege of being comfortably off, white and living in a country where homosexuality isn’t outlawed.
In the UK, however, homophobia goes far beyond the implicit threats that prevent public kissing. One in eight lesbian, gay or bisexual people questioned by a YouGov survey said that they had experienced a homophobic or biphobic hate crime or incident in the last twelve months, and three in four trans people surveyed reported suffering transphobic abuse that year.
But in Soho I felt safe. For centuries guileful queers have run and patronised private establishments – mostly taverns, cafes and clubs – that sustained some autonomy from church and state. This was made possible by others who were fighting just to be left alone: sex workers, the socialists and anarchists of Rose Street (now Manette Street, down the side of Foyle’s bookshop), and the many migrant communities of Soho – first French Huguenots, later Italian and then Chinese migrants – attracted by cheap prices. Consequently, working people could maintain a degree of control over daily life unimaginable in industrial areas. Sometimes that meant working class entrepreneurs amassing significant wealth and, in an district filled with gambling gangs and toughs, business often meant crime.
After the date, the run-in with those lads, and the walk back to the station, I finally sat down on the train. My mind began to wander. How I might have attacked them and defended us. What I could have shouted. Told them to where to go. Told them that this is our place, and if they don’t like it, they can get out.
But where are they supposed to go?
Working-class Londoners are being priced out of Soho at an unbelievable rate. Since 2007, when the rest of the UK’s property market peaked, the areas’s average price per per residential square foot has soared by 76%. With Soho’s dangerous history now a branding exercise, Westminster council has welcomed in the big developers who dominate the UK’s virtually unregulated property market. There were 68 new homes in Soho’s development pipeline in 2012, but in 2013 there were 145, including several covered by an application from Barratt, the UK’s second largest housebuilder. These homes will not be cheap.
This disaster is distinct from the long-standing complaint that Soho has been “sanitised” since the days that Francis Bacon could be seen vomiting a afternoon’s worth of booze into the gutters of Dean Street. The problem is not that the area is no longer a fun place for self-defined alternative types to hang out. Rather, it is that London’s working class, who used to have some power in Soho, are now more often than not its exiles, and that for some of those who remain, gentrification of the gay village has made it more violent, rather than less so.
The prime targets for such violence are sex workers. With the support of Westminster council, London’s Metropolitan Police Service are forcibly evicting industry workers across the quarter. The English Collective of Prostitutes, which is the most visible form of resistance to such police action, have described how police violently kick workers out of their flats. “If this continues I fear more women will choose to work on their own or on the street, which will put them in much more danger,” spokesperson Niki Adams told the Guardian. This obliges many to work without an assistant who maintains security, as is common for sex workers operating out of rooms accessible from the street. The same article reported claims that the Metropolitan Police threatened migrant sex workers with deportation.
The phenomenon of mostly white professionals moving to working-class neighbourhoods with significant migrant populations is hardly news, but the role of the lesbian, gay and bisexual middle class in this process is less well known.
Like artists, who are often blamed for gentrification, LGBT professionals are bourgeois transgressors. Often, they’re willing to live and play outside of traditional middle class enclaves. Their cultural cache is then exploited by the developers, estate agents and landlords of these ‘new’ areas. One estate agent recently told London’s Evening Standard newspaper that City bankers are moving to Soho because they “like the contrast after a day at work.” ‘Gay gentrification’ gives the impression of rainbow-like diversity, but instead implements striking conformity and state-enabled violence.
This subject began to receive more popular attention after the broadcast of US television documentary Flag Wars (2003). Filmed in the mostly black district of Olde Towne East in Columbus, Ohio, Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’s moving film showed that it’s not just hipster neighbourhoods undergoing these kinds of changes. The directors documented how legal cunning and economic force were brought to bear by some white LGBT realtors and buyers, forcing working class African-Americans out of their homes and businesses, but they also show how residents’ responses were sometimes homophobic.
That kind of gentrification can only be enforced with violence or its threat, which takes the forms of bailiffs and ruinous fines. Sometimes the consequence is violent resistance, and sometimes it is directed specifically at gay people.
The three men who attacked my date and I on Berwick Street limited their violence to coin throwing and threats, and they weren’t protesting against changes to their neighbourhood. But I think gentrification was part of what prompted their resentment.
A few generations ago, in that area and many others, their gender, class and ethnicity would have afforded a kind of status and power that is unthinkable for them in contemporary London. Although our experiences are very different, they were angry on that street for a similar reason that I was angry when I travelled back on the train: our safe spaces had been attacked.
Many people today agree that my sexuality affects only me, and that I should have the right to be free from homophobes. It’s a great liberal success, but one that corrals my queerness within the walls of expensive bars. Inside, there’s little sense that we could be gender radicals who challenge the world outside.
This is how liberal transformation can take place, while social and ethnic intermingling, and the radical change that might enable, are made impossible.
It turns out that in Soho, in London and in so many cities around the world, you are only free as long as you can pay.