"Learning London's LGBTQ+ History Empowered Me To Walk The City's Streets"

By Rosen Pitman-Wallace Last edited 14 months ago
"Learning London's LGBTQ+ History Empowered Me To Walk The City's Streets"
The author walking through a lamplit park at dusk
"A man pushed me in the middle of the path, and called me a slur. Immediately, I felt my stomach drop."

This year, my New Year's resolution was to go for a walk every day, specifically around Highbury Fields in Islington, my local park. But after only three days, my plans were disrupted by an incident of homophobic harassment.

A man pushed me in the middle of the path, and called me a slur. Immediately, I felt my stomach drop. All of a sudden, I felt a lot less safe here, and I knew this would be a big barrier to keeping up my new habit.

On the way home, I considered how I might be able to reclaim the space, and what I could do to make sure I didn't give up my daily walks because of some random bigot.

Turning to Google, I found something that did help: information on the LGBTQ+ history of the park.

I learned that Highbury Fields was the location of the UK's very first gay rights protest, only about a year and a half after the Stonewall riots in the USA. On 27 November 1970, activists from the Gay Liberation Front gathered here to protest police harassment. This was a reaction to the arrest of a young man named Louis Eaks the night before. As it turns out, Louis probably lived about 20 minutes from my front door at the time.

There's even a plaque on Highbury Fields to commemorate these events, although despite living nearby for years, I'd never seen it before.

A triangular plaque marking the demo on Highbury Fields
"Living in London, we're lucky to be surrounded by well-documented LGBTQ+ heritage, so there's plenty to learn."

Armed with my new knowledge, I felt empowered to return to the park, and keep up my walking resolution.

Sadly this wasn't the first time I'd been harassed in the street, and had to conjure up the strength to get back out there. But this time felt different. I was able to reclaim the space, understanding how embedded it was in the history of my community.

The experience showed me the importance of learning the queer history of our local neighbourhoods. Getting to know the deep-rooted relationship of our streets, parks and roads to the queer community can help us feel more ownership of these public spaces, which, in the face of harassment, can be a powerful tool.

And living in London, we're lucky to be surrounded by well-documented LGBTQ+ heritage, so there's plenty to learn.

Many of us know something about the history of Soho, or landmarks like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. But in fact, there's queer history all over this city, including (probably) some on your own doorstep.

A blue plaque to Freddie Mercury
Queer icon Freddie Mercury has plaques and ever a road named in his honour. Image: M@/Londonist

Hounslow, for example, was home to bisexual icon and national treasure Freddie Mercury. Not only does his old house in Feltham have a blue plaque, a street in the area was recently renamed after him.

Chelsea was the location of the Gateways Club, an exceptionally long-lived lesbian venue and recently the subject of an iPlayer documentary by Sandi Toksvig.

On the other side of the river, Southwark Cathedral held the first Anglican cathedral service for gay people in the UK, organised by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in 1996.

These are just a handful of examples, but they illustrate the richness of LGBTQ+ history all around us.

So how to immerse yourself in all of this heritage?

An Islington Pride map
Image: Islington Pride

If you, like me, live in Islington, or are just curious about its LGBTQ+ history, I recommend checking out the Islington Pride Map, which is where I first heard about the GLF demonstration in Highbury Fields. But wherever you live, the internet is a great resource for discovering more about local queer heritage, and you can often find fascinating information on crowdsourced sites like LGBT Archive.

Another way to learn about the LGBTQ+ history of London neighbourhoods is through organised tours, run by groups like Queer Tours of London. Andrew Lumsden, one of their tour guides, told me that the 1967 Sexual Offences Act (which began the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK) was partly drafted by one of the men involved in organising the demonstration in Highbury Fields I had learned about earlier.

The Author in Highbury Fields

He also informed me about another way London has been pivotal to the development of queer culture and language: "The term 'gay' seems to have originated in London as a word used of themselves by female sex-workers, before it travelled to the US port cities, and then back again in the 1970s as a short word for homosexual men".

Whether it helps give you the confidence to overcome harassment, or just develop a fuller understanding of our city, I hope you can dedicate some time this LGBTQ+ history month to researching the queer stories of your local neighbourhood, taking a guided tour, and walking proudly through the streets on which so many LGBTQ+ pioneers have walked before us.

Last Updated 01 February 2023

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