Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis 1918-57 
by Matt Houlbrook.
Chicago, 384 pp., £20.50, September 2005, 0 226 35460 1
Show More
Show More

In December 1932, thirty officers from the Metropolitan Police burst into a ballroom on the ground floor of a house in Holland Park. The party they interrupted was packed with domestic servants and staff from nearby hotels. All the guests were male, half of them wearing lounge suits, the rest evening dresses and make-up. The organiser of the ball, Lady Austin (otherwise known as Austin S., a 24-year-old barman from Baron’s Court), was arrested along with 59 others. Lady Austin was not inclined to go quietly. Claiming to find a passing copper too dishy to be a real policeman, she told the inspector who was apprehending her: ‘I could love him and rub his Jimmy for him for hours.’ The inspector cautioned her. ‘There is nothing wrong in that,’ Lady Austin retorted. ‘You may think so, but it is what we call real love man for man. You call us Nancies and bum boys but . . . before long our cult will be allowed in this country.’

Lady Austin would have enjoyed Elton John’s ‘marriage’ to David Furnish last year – even the Daily Express managed to celebrate it as a ‘triumph for gay rights’ – in the Windsor Guildhall, where Charles had married Camilla only eight months before. Having arrived in the same year as the Civil Partnership Register, Matt Houlbrook’s impressive study of queer life in London between 1918 and 1957 does much to revise our understanding of homosexuality in that period. Coverage of recent changes in the law has tended to portray the 20th century as a time of darkness, in which gay men struggled to escape the shadow of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment; Queer London complicates that account. Houlbrook’s history is lucid, subtle and at times very funny. Queer London is a confident book. It is also a confident queer history. While London has always been a magnet for queer men, the last twenty years or so have seen a more and more open acceptance of their place in the city. Soho’s self-branding in the 1990s as an urban ‘gay village’ has become one of the capital’s major selling points. On www.visitBritain.co.uk, ‘Gay London’ is promoted, somewhat bizarrely, as ‘the city of King Edward II, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf and Sir Ian McKellen’.

Houlbrook expresses this confidence when he asserts that, contrary to historical and popular orthodoxy, the postwar witch hunt of homosexual men never really happened. For decades, scholars have argued that the early 1950s saw an official clampdown on homosexual activity in Britain, enforced by means of increased police activity and the massive deployment of agents provocateurs. The oppression of these years has been central to the gay account of the 20th century, and the memory of it focused the collective response to more recent government offensives such as Section 28. Houlbrook argues persuasively that the sudden increase in prosecutions after the war was caused by a shift in operations on the part of just three divisions of the Metropolitan Police, those covering the West End and the areas around Victoria, South Kensington and Hammersmith. Returning to full manpower after the war, these divisions decided to put more men on vice duty simply because they felt that there were more queers visible – or more visible queers – on the streets they policed. As a result, the number of cases brought before West London magistrates increased from six in 1942 to 168 in 1952. The ensuing press panic about increased homosexual activity in London, fuelled by the pronouncements of individual judges, in turn convinced the police of the importance of making arrests. But none of this was as a result of central government policy.

In the story Queer London tells, the pleasures of the metropolis, far from being furtively grabbed, were in many ways as secure and institutionalised as the municipal authorities. Arrest was always a possibility, but the contingencies of police procedure made it unlikely. However much anxiety they provoked, lurid newspaper reports of arrests in public urinals also served as a handy guide to which cottages to avoid. Many queer men managed to have lives, friendship networks and relationships that never came into conflict with the law.

It seems that London in the first half of the 20th century was much queerer than the city we know today. Painted poofs in lipstick and rouge were an everyday if not always welcome part of the cosmopolitan spectacle in Piccadilly and the Strand. Certain venues in Edgware Road, particularly in the 1920s, were host to a throng of queer gents, service staff from Paddington and Bayswater, and army lads from the barracks at Regent’s Park and Knightsbridge. Camp ‘queans’ were a familiar presence in the pubs of the East End and South London, and the area around Waterloo Road was known to be a place where tough working men could be approached with a reasonable chance of success. Compared to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, this was fairyland.

Yet this wasn’t a golden age for homosexuality: not because there wasn’t any sex, but because most of it wasn’t ‘homosexual’ at all. The use of this word to designate sexual orientation alone, rather than gender characteristics, is relatively recent. It entered popular consciousness mainly through the press reports and paperbacks of the postwar years, and through a subsequent Gay Lib agenda that sought to sever the connection between fancying men and effeminacy. Before the war, the idea of ‘homosexuality’ had been restricted to a much slimmer stratum of middle-class men who had access to works of medicine and sexology. In working-class culture, by contrast, men who liked men were seen as essentially womanish. These effeminate queans both sought and were sought by single young men, whose ‘normal’ masculinity allowed for encounters with such girlish creatures, provided their own dominance was never put in question. For these tough young bachelors, a lack of cash and private space, aggravated by taboos against pre-marital sex, produced a street culture in which playing an older queer for a few bob was an acceptable demonstration of virility and cunning.

Between the wars this vibrant working-class street life came under increasing attack. Moral guardians found the sight of painted boys mincing around London’s commercial centre increasingly scandalous, and the authorities responded with a long campaign of harassment, pushing the queans off Piccadilly and the Strand and into Soho’s backstreets. At the same time, the notion of the ‘homosexual’ gained ground, making it harder for working men to have sex with other men without questioning their own normality. The result, by the 1950s, was a steady privatisation of queer London, as clubs like the Rockingham became discreet refuges for a particular type of man-like-that.

Houlbrook dedicates a chapter to each of these three types – the flamboyant quean, the ‘normal’ working man and the respectable homosexual – and in so doing makes prewar queer London sound like a metropolitan Huis Clos, with its three protagonists caught in a web of desire and distaste. The West End poof, readily accepted in working-class neighbourhoods, remained a target of abuse from the working men he desired and an object of loathing for respectable queers. The working man, in turn, could enjoy his sexual freedom, but his self-image required him to derogate his queans and extort his gentleman friends. But it was the respectable homosexual who was really in a fix, often enthralled by the streets, urinals and public houses that his respectability insisted he repudiate, and lusting after a manly bit of trade who would never accept his bourgeois dreams of companionate domesticity. Queer London is not a portrait of men united by their experience of sexual persecution so much as an exploration of class conflict and how it was conducted against and between different groups of queer men. When the Wolfenden Committee – appointed by the home secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, in 1954, to assess the twin metropolitan evils of female prostitution and male homosexuality – recommended the decriminalisation of sex in private between two men over the age of 21, it effectively declared that there was little inherently troubling about two men sleeping together, so long as they could be pushed into a partnership that endorsed prevailing ideals of domestic respectability. The persistent struggle to regulate the city’s spaces, who could be seen there and what pleasures enjoyed, was as much about trying to impose middle-class notions of propriety as about the repression of homosexuality per se.

The tripartite tangle Houlbrook describes collapsed a long time ago. In certain pubs, especially in the south and east of the city, you can still hear men refer to one another with feminine pronouns, but camp gay men are quite different from prewar queans. And while recent years have seen a revived interest in working-class masculinity, the patrons of such ‘chav’-themed club nights as Rude Boyz in Vauxhall are just blokey gays in tracksuits, not ‘normal’ men looking for a bit of bum fun. The spaces, practices and identities of today’s queer London are overwhelmingly premised on a mutually reinforced difference between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Straight places and gay places, for the most part, exist side by side, as do straight and gay Londoners. For better or worse, things have become a lot simpler in the last fifty years.

Celebrated Soho bars such as Rupert Street now have huge plate-glass windows, which proudly display their gay clientele to passers-by. This is a far cry from the days when Quentin Crisp’s coterie drank tea in dingy cafes nearby; their ‘disorderly’ appearance and bitchy banter were a worry for the proprietors, who feared sporadic police raids. What hasn’t changed is that the spaces of the city are still demarcated according to an idea of which queer men are welcome where. Those windows in Rupert Street might be good for defiant self-advertising, but they also keep out all those who would be uncomfortable in such a showy milieu. It’s no coincidence that the success of Soho as an out gay Mecca has coincided with the relandscaping of Bloomsbury Square and Russell Square – late surviving bastions of queer public sex – in the name of heritage and public amenity. Queer London may be more visible now than it was at its post-Wolfenden low point, but the matter of who can be seen and where is still a struggle over whose version of queerness goes.

Reviewing Houlbrook’s book in the Independent, Mark Simpson wrote that ‘today’s out-and-proud gay world is a marginalised, airless, incestuous one compared to what went before in the “bad old days”’ before gay liberation. But such social critique often masks ressentiment. When Peter Wildeblood, a diplomatic correspondent for the Daily Mail until convicted for offences with two airmen in 1954, testified to the Wolfenden Committee the following year, he based his plea for tolerance on a distinction between his own discreet homosexuality and that of the Dilly Boys, whose make-up and fripperies seemed such a vulgar celebration of the West End’s commercialism. This is not so very far from Simpson’s snotty claim that Queer London is ‘a book that should be required reading for every punter at G.A.Y. disco (and not just because most of them will have difficulty reading it)’. For Simpson, it seems, there are still proper and improper ways to enjoy the capital. Meanwhile, as Gay London becomes more and more comfortably assimilated to the mainstream metropolitan economy, the familiar political investment in a unitary gay identity is giving way. For ten years now, the Vauxhall club-night Duckie has hosted a Gay Shame event on the same day as Gay Pride, to protest against the latter’s transformation into an apolitical corporate-friendly party, and many gays now avoid Soho in favour of Vauxhall or Tower Hamlets.

Charting the dynamics of gay London through the history of its pubs and clubs tells only half the story, however. Houlbrook also explores domestic space. In apartments on the edge of St James’s Park or rented rooms in squalid Pimlico terraces, safe from police surveillance and the hostility of strangers, groups of men could meet and relax. Today, the impact of online dating sites such as Gaydar is difficult to overestimate. Men can cruise strangers, talk to friends and have as much sex as they like without ever setting foot in a gay bar. The significance of this for closeted men or for those stuck out in the suburbs must be immense.

For all the freedoms it offers, however, the internet has also reproduced the insularity of earlier domestic spaces. Many online communities have come to define themselves through their social exclusivity and their distance from the gay scene as it is commonly understood. Ivan Massow runs a network called ‘Jake’, for successful gay professionals; its members do meet up, but their regular E-Wednesday events at places like Soho House or Attica are for members only. Gone, now, is the political need to be gay before all else, to subordinate social differences for the sake of the common cause. A few years ago, the online friendship network ‘OUT in the UK’ (now called ‘OUTeverywhere’) began to send members little enamel badges, a small orange dot to be worn on your lapel. These are meant to function as a sign to other members: an ‘it’s-me’ to virtual friends when meeting in the flesh, or a knowing wink to conspirators if encountered by chance. A decade ago, we wore little red ribbons, a declaration, visible to gays and straights alike, and a continual reminder of the need to unite in the fight against Aids. The orange dots don’t only mean nothing to straights; they also fail to register with gay men who aren’t members of the club.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences