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Queer tours
Photography Giulia Fassone

Remembering London’s lost queers in a 1930s gay club

Activists of all ages and generations got together to commemorate those before them taken by Aids, prison and homophobia-charged attacks

The vibe at Soho’s recreated Caravan Club could easily have gone wrong. A 1930s theme tends to attract overpaid wankers on the hunt for overpriced gin in jam-jars, electro-swing, and the chance to delude themselves they’re having a good time. 

But at gay clubs then sex, drugs and swing have always mingled with grief. Event organiser Dan Glass tells me he sees Peaches’ Fuck the Pain Away as an anthem for queer youth. As generations of activists recall predecessors thrown in jail, beaten to death and consumed by Aids, waves of goosebumps pass through the room.

“Our entire culture is seen as about getting fucked, in one sense or another,” Queer Tours of London campaigner Nell Andrew tells me in the bar. “But there’s a higher spiritual level… about being together, being free.”

The bar’s exterior is covered in blown-up 30s police reports and scandalised letters of complaint. Amber Tallon, who organised the event with notorious radical queer subversives the National Trust, explains: “Undercover police reported seeing ‘sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites, dancing very close together and wriggling their posteriors’… it sounds like the place to be.” 

Cramped in the caravanserai-like interior, it is easy to imagine the fug of smoke and queer bodies which filled the tiny private members’ club. Storied queer activist Andrew Lumsden tells me about 1960s gay clubs where you were not allowed to touch while dancing, and I am reminded of this as whiskered waiters sashay through the packed crowd. Black-and-white photos of Oscar Wilde and George Michael hang on the walls. 

Andrew, 75, is the star attraction. He and the Gay Liberation Front were hounded by police for their “radical drag” stunts shutting down queerphobic religious festivals and so on in the 1970s. He quietly names those who “were with us and aren’t now”, particularly activists lost to HIV/AIDS or hepatitis.

The National Trust name has brought a scattering of slightly nervy City boys and curious pensioners, and the crowd is quiet at first. But when Andrew demands an apology from the Queen for gay persecution – “pardons? we’ll issue any pardons when we feel like it!” – a cheer rises. 

The original Caravan Club was rapidly torn apart by police disgusted by “rotten sissies”, and the owners received years of hard labour. Andrew describes the “liberated 1960s” as “a nightmare of a world”, full of secrecy and fear. Things have changed: this event is commemorating the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalisation in 1967.

But as the room relaxes and muted jazz plays, speakers open up about decades of trauma. “I grew up in an orthodox synagogue,” organiser Dan Glass says. “Four kids killed themselves before turning 14. Not only being gay is a sin, but suicide is a sin: so we never talked about it.”

“Our entire culture is seen as about getting fucked, in one sense or another, but there’s a higher spiritual level… about being together, being free” – Nell Andrew

“We become clichés, those happy gays: it’s a manifestation of internalised homophobia. But grief should be a collective emotion.” He invites queers of all ages and denominations to pick up a stone symbolising a lost LGBT* ancestor, and share their stories.

Some have happy endings: Nell’s aunt set up a leather-shop with her lesbian partner in Los Angeles. “My parents went expecting fashion,” she says. “They were shown dildo moulds.” Another woman describes her “very happy, very dysfunctional family”, and Christmases spent with her mum, her dad and her dad’s new boyfriend.

But these are the minority. Botswana-born trans* artist Kat Kai Kol-Kes performs a song from her musical and remembers Matthew Shephard, battered to death for being gay. “I spent years wondering if I should step in front of a bus,” she says. “It’s better than being tied to a post and beaten to death.”

Many dedicate their stones to queer relatives, never able to overcome internalised self-loathing. 57-year-old Julia speaks about her ‘uncle’ Maurice, a scandal-dogged “bachelor in a tiny Somerset town” who eventually committed suicide. “I didn’t know I was gay at the time,” she says. “No-one knows the truth, and we were never able to discuss it.”

One 30-something came out to his dad just last week, after years of terror. “But he said he was jealous of me, that I felt strong enough,” he says in awed tones. “He was savagely beaten at school. It’s ancestral brutality.”

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants activist Lyndsay speaks about queer women trapped in Yarl’s Wood detention centre, facing deportation back to face violence and persecution in Commonwealth countries. “I was trying to see their eyes but I couldn’t reach them, I couldn’t talk to them, I couldn’t hold them,” she says. 

Everyone is grateful to be able to touch one another, to hold hands in the street, and to talk. As they walk down to the Thames to cast their stones into its black waters, where so many sex workers and queers have drowned, they remember those who can speak no longer.