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social sciences

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The latter years of the twentieth-century saw increased visibility and politicization of gay men and lesbians in London. The gay and lesbian rights groups formed in the 1960s flourished in the 1970s. New venues for gay men and lesbians were established as areas of the city became more welcoming. The nightclub Heaven opened its doors in 1979, and soon became the largest gay disco in Europe.

The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the introduction of her decidedly anti-gay measures only added to the political context that gay and lesbian Londoners would organize around in the 1980s. The infamous Clause 28, adopted by Thatcher's government in 1988, was a direct response to the success of gay and lesbian activism in the city. It prohibited the promotion of homosexuality or teaching in state schools the acceptability of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship."

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If Clause 28 was a conservative reaction to the gay-positive actions of the London city authorities, it in turn sparked an ever increasing activism on the part of gay and lesbian Londoners. The measure may be said to have made gay activists out of people who might never have come out, such as, for example, the actor Ian McKellen, who revealed his homosexuality in a BBC radio interview in response to the legislation, and then joined with other prominent gay men and lesbians to form the Stonewall Group, Britain's first major lesbian and gay rights lobbying organization. Other organizations, including the group OutRage!, agitated for the repeal of Clause 28, which was finally repealed in 2003.

Thatcher's radical free-market and individualist politics in many ways contributed to the rise of the Soho, London's gay ghetto. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a renewed and increased vigor in gay politics. Responding to the new voracious commercial consumerism, the AIDS crisis, and a conservative government's repressive and reactionary measures, London's gay men and lesbians sought to create a visible niche for themselves.

Soho, featuring London's former red-light district and Old Compton Street, became the place that reflected the new political agenda as well as restored self-confidence in urban, public space. During the 1990s, London's gay scene expanded immensely, as politically upfront visibility merged with free-market commercialism.

Soho and Old Compton Street occupy the ideal space for a new gay community. In the heart of London, the area is positioned between some of London's busiest areas, sitting only blocks from such popular destinations (and old, familiar cruising grounds) as Covent Garden, Chinatown, and Piccadilly.

The new queer visibility in the heart of England's capital did, however, make gay men and lesbians targets. Following similar racially motivated attacks in London, a crude nail bomb exploded in the Admiral Duncan bar in Old Compton Street on April 30, 1999, killing two and injuring more than eighty.

Money was poured into the Soho neighborhood as investors saw gay men and lesbians as a huge, untapped commercial resource, and gay men and lesbians continued to see a need for physical boundaries to define their community as an expression of new urban freedom.

However, the glbtq community in London is by no means limited to the Soho. Gay men and lesbians live throughout the city, including areas such as Earls Court, Islington, and central and inner-city London. With recent political successes on both the national and municipal levels, London's gay men and lesbians have become an increasingly visible and significant part of London life.

Brock Thompson

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social sciences >> Overview:  Aversion Therapy

A form of behavior modification that employs unpleasant and sometimes painful stimuli, aversion therapy was one of the more popular treatments for homosexuality and cross-dressing in the 1950s and 1960s.

literature >> Overview:  Bloomsbury

The Bloomsbury circle's open acceptance of erotic license and hostility toward social convention are important elements in the history of homosexuality among the English upper classes in the first half of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  Brighton

After a period of decline, Brighton, an English seaside resort with a reputation for attracting the artistic and the bohemian, is once again vibrant, thanks in no small part to a flourishing glbtq community.

social sciences >> Overview:  Manchester

Home to one of England's largest and liveliest glbtq communities, Manchester has hosted EuroPride and the Pride Games and established a popular Lesbian and Gay Heritage Trail.

social sciences >> Overview:  Molly Houses

In early eighteenth-century London, molly houses provided men who were interested in other men sexually a space in which to act on same-sex sexual desires and to develop a sense of community.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

social sciences >> Cashman, Michael

British politician Michael Cashman gained fame as an actor before becoming a Labour Party member of the European Parliament where he worked diligently on behalf of equal rights.

social sciences >> Clap, Margaret

Margaret Clap, also known as "Mother Clap," operated one of the more popular "molly houses" in London; after it was raided in 1726, she was pilloried and imprisoned.

social sciences >> Clause (or Section) 28

In British law, Section 28 of the Local Government Act, enforced from 1988 until 2003, prohibited the promotion of homosexuality and teaching the acceptability of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship".

social sciences >> Cleveland Street Scandal

The Cleveland Street scandal of 1889, involving members of the nobility and allegations of a government cover-up, fueled the perception of homosexuality as an aristocratic vice that corrupted working-class youths.

arts >> Gielgud, Sir John

Sir John Gielgud has long been acknowledged as one of the greatest British actors of the twentieth century.

literature >> James VI and I

Sponsor of the English translation of the Bible that bears his name and himself an accomplished author, James VI of Scotland (and later James I of England) was well known for his passionate attachments to handsome young men.

social sciences >> The Labouchère Amendment

The Labouchère Amendment criminalized all sexual contact between men in Great Britain in 1885 and remained on the books until 1967.

social sciences >> Mason, Angela

The former head of Britain's first gay rights lobbying organization, Angela Mason has worked toward achieving equality for women and glbtq individuals in the United Kingdom.

arts >> McKellen, Sir Ian

Arguably the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation, Ian McKellen was the first British subject to be knighted after publicly revealing his homosexuality, an event that proved more controversial within the gay community than in the mainstream.

social sciences >> Tatchell, Peter

British activist Peter Tatchell, a vocal proponent of glbtq rights since the early 1970s, is controversial figure even within the glbtq community.

social sciences >> Vere Street Coterie

The 1810 conviction of London's Vere Street Coterie led to the most brutal public punishment of homosexuals in British history.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

social sciences >> Wolfenden Report

The Wolfenden Report, a 1957 British government study, recommended that homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private no longer be criminalized in England.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Bray, Alan. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Cook, Matt. London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap's Molly House, The Gay Subculture in England: 1700-1830. London: GMP Publishers, 1992.

Turner, Mark. Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of London and New York. London: Reaktion, 2003.

Woods, Chris. State of the Queer Nation: A Critique of Gay and Lesbian Politics in 1990s Britain. London: Cassell, 1995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Thompson, Brock  
    Entry Title: London  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated November 14, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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