A topological examination of homosexuality in London’s West End

Introduction

The city and urbanism have always been two ideas associated with the conception of sexual liberation, especially during the 20th century onwards. The growing number of different kinds of people living in the city along with a loosening of moral structures due to the limited institutional control over people’s ethics, make the city the perfect space for the manifestation of varied modes of sexual expression (Laumann, 2004). The heterogeneity of the city is reflected by the diversity of experiences of sexuality in the city hence cities can be spaces of illicit sexualities and non-conformist gender practises but at the same time spaces that form and reinforce gendered and sexualised norms (Johnston and Longhurst, 2010). Cities are therefore a canvass of the socio-cultural construction of sexual identities and the politics, performances and paradoxes behind them (Johnston and Longhurst, 2010).

In 1934 a young man called Cyril left wife and children back in his hometown, to find work in London. In one of the letters he sent to a friend he says “I have only been queer since I came to London about two years ago, before then I knew nothing about it” (Houlbrook, 2005). Therefore Cyril maps his ‘new’ identity and equates this experiential rupture with urban life in London. Despite that period being characterised by social marginalisation and legal repression, London and the West End in particular, was nonetheless a cornerstone in the acceptance of homosexuality and the site of a growing queer metropolitan culture over the course of the late 19th and 20th century (Houlbrook, 2005).

In this essay I am going to explore the role of Piccadilly Circus in the proliferation of the appearance of homosexuality. I do recognise that for the purposes of this essay and the small scale at which I am investigating this issue, I will need to constrain homosexuality and its experience solely under one representative umbrella which will not reflect the inconstant variegated complexity and reality of this sexual identity.

Piccadilly Circus: A historical and topographical background.

Originally a dissected circle of elegant houses and a centre of high fashion, the area was known as Regent Circus South and was developed by John Nash in 1819. As the British Empire expanded during the 19th century one of the imperial impacts on urbanism in London was that of acute traffic congestion which beg for the creation of new roads (Greater London Council, 1980). After a lot of controversy over both urban design but also the conflicting interests of landowners, Shaftesbury Avenue was opened in 1886, to destroy the symmetry of what was by then known as Piccadilly Circus but to also add another stream of traffic to the hustle of the area (Greater London Council, 1980). The redevelopment was finalised by the unveiling of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in 1893 to commemorate Earl Anthony Ashley Cooper for his selfless dedication towards improving lives of people in need. The statue at the top of the mountain is that of Anteros who in Greek mythology is the god of unrequited love, thus the statue is a physical and symbolic representation of the Earl’s philanthropic work.

To cater for the still existing congestion, an Underground station was built in 1906, which improved traffic and increased accessibility of the area. In 1907 1.5 million passengers used the station, by 1922 it had grown to 18 million passengers (Royal Institute of British Architects, 2011). Concurrent to the Underground was the building of many theatres and restaurants especially along Shaftesbury Avenue, which made Piccadilly an epicentre of the arts, culture and entertainment during the early 20th century. The fact that three of the biggest streets – Piccadilly Street, Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue (Figure 1) – connected at the Piccadilly Circus junction, was a physical manifestation of the intersection between imperial ambitions and culture that rendered Piccadilly Circus as the ‘hub of the Empire’ (Greater London Council, 1980).

ancient_roam
Figure 1: Map of West End in 1910 (Source: Digimap Service)

As Piccadilly Circus trembled in size in late 19th century so did its reputation for cosmopolitanism. Lavish hotels such as the Ritz and the Savoy, fashionable cafes such as Lyons, Café Monaco and the Criterion but also theatres such as London Pavilion, drew more people in the area that promised new experiences and excitement (Cook, 2003). In the next section I will explore how the above link to the prominent appearance of homosexuality in the West End.

Piccadilly Circus: A topological examination of homosexuality.

As David Harvey has suggested, space plays an active role in the construction of society and the experience of cultural modernity in urban contexts (Houlbrook, 2005). Therefore male sexual identities and practises do not just take place in the city but are driven and sustained by the physical and cultural forms around them. The city is a perfect example of the wide range of opportunities that offer an escape from the institutional control of societal structures and norms, to a world of social and sexual liberation (Johnston and Longhurst, 2010). Along with the increased anonymity and male freedom in the city, the construction of spaces of entertainment and culture such as cafes and theatres, provide the perfect conditions for the flourishing of homosociality and homosexuality (Johnston and Longhurst, 2010).

The increasing cosmopolitanism and lavishness of Piccadilly Circus attracted with it ‘risqué entertainments and an increase in prostitution on the main shopping streets’ (Cook, 2003). The area was therefore one of burgeoning erotic activity that contrasted the idea of orderly domestic life. It gained during the late 19th century a notoriety for homosexual cruising and renters. It was there in 1889 that infamous cross dresser Jack Saul handed out cards to men referring them to the Cleveland Street brothel (Cook, 2003). The statue of the Shaftesbury Memorial was therefore nicknamed Eros to reflect or potentially symbolically excuse the abundance of erotic activity taking place in the area. Despite its infamy Piccadilly was still regarded as an area of wealth and privilege. Power within the homosexual world was therefore confined by wealthy men who generated the norms of homosexual behavior simply because of their money (Cook, 2003).

In the first few pages of the book Sins of the Cities of the Plains (1881), we witness two strangers gazing at each other as they walk through the West End (Turner, 2003). Quoting the protagonist of this encounter:

“I was walking through Leicester Square one sunny afternoon last November, when my attention was particularly taken by an effeminate but very good looking young fellow, who was walking in front of me, looking in shop-windows, and now and then looking ‘round as if to attract my attention.”

The above interaction initiated by this urban context was completed in the next pages of the book. The quote hence helps us to reconstruct the image of a cruising scene in late 19th century London and introduces us to the idea of the flâneur, a man who strolls around experiencing the city and all its accompanying associations (Turner, 2003).

Furthermore, another mean for sexual encounter and liberation in Piccadilly was the theatre, which was usually portrayed as a radically liberal arena where sexual and gender differences were affirmed (Deeney, 2008). The idea of performativity e.g. men dressing effeminately with feathers, challenged the sexual hypocrisies of society and offered an intellectual and aesthetic excitement to the audience which would many times try to be involved as well. Theatre was therefore a way of rewriting the pre-existing sexual scripts and visiting the West End’s theatre land had become a major way of entering the fantastical and sensual realm of homosexual experimentation and adventuring (Cook, 2003). The above complemented the tradition of homosociality experienced by many upper class men during public school and university and was further sustained by a wide range of homosocial and queer venues such as cafes and bars which were on the rise in the early 20th century. Some famous destinations included the Criterion (Figure 2) and Lyons, which reserved a particular section for its queer customers and later during the bohemian 1920s and 1930s Billie’s and Caravan Club were popular for organizing queer dances (Cook et al., 2007).

saloom2
Figure 2: The Criterion Bar in 1902 (Cook, 2003)

As the World War 2 arrived, 1940s was a period of instability and uncertainty about the future. Men were constantly on the move, away from their families and forming new relationships with other men who were in similar circumstances (Cook et al., 2007). A fear of imminent death alongside the influx of American troops of GIs who were very sexually loose, led to old inhibitions being broken down and the warfare atmosphere in London providing a cover for casual sex (Cook et al., 2007). The blackouts during that time helped men to find privacy for sex but also contributed in the so-called psychology of war, which alludes to a sense of living in the moment and which helped to maintain the lively and permissive atmosphere in the West End[1].

After the World War 2, a growing emphasis on domesticity and prosperity along with a rising number of prosecutions meant that many queer men felt more fearful especially after experiencing the liberalism of the war years. The gay scene thus became more closed and private member clubs became more prominent. However one could still find working class dilly boys (male prostitutes in Piccadilly) and the ‘normal’ lads resorting at one of the many cottages (public toilets) of Piccadilly for sex. With the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, homosexuality was partially decriminalised The Act introduced a dispensation from prosecution in the case of two same sex partners over the age of twenty-one engaging in a consensual sexual act in private. Outside this, technically speaking homosexuality in itself remained an unlawful offence. This Act even though criticised, it was a milestone that brought a lot of excitement in the queer community of London. This was expressed through the initiation of Pride parade in 1972 (Evans and Cook, 2014) and the establishment of the Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company in 1975 (Deeney, 2008). Both of the above were centred around the area of Piccadilly and drew manpower and exerted widespread influence from and within the West End.

In the 1980s despite the rise of HIV-AIDS incidents and homophobic hate attacks in London, visibility of queer people increased and a strong sense of community was succoured by the queer disco culture that was founded in the West End[2]. The queer body became much more political and expanded its presence in terms of public space by demanding services and rights from the British government. A great example of this is the OutRage! protest in September 1990 in Piccadilly Circus. Members of the activist groups organised a kiss-in to dissent from the police enactment of the 1986 Public Order Act to arrest gay men for kissing in public (Annets et al., 2009: 179).

 

Conclusion

The growth of London as a cosmopolitan centre during the late 19th and 20th century meant a disruption of the societal structures of authority and an increased opportunity for anonymity in the metropolis which are both prerequisites for the emergence of homosexuality (Houlbrook , 2005). A sense of community around this sexual identity started to being built in London at that time which pulled together people from all over the country on the basis of the common feelings experienced by homosexuals; loneliness, isolation, discrimination (Johnston and Longhurst, 2010). The modern city provided meeting places, e.g. in bars, baths and train stations, that were not found in rural areas, and which allowed for the materialisation and sustenance of this sexual identity (Bech, 1997). The West End and Piccadilly Circus in particular, have always been at the forefront of the gay scene because of the wide range of venues whose use and connotations aided the proliferation of homosexual and homosocial practises. The increased accessibility and bohemianism of Piccadilly resulted in the area being a prominent attraction of homosexual men and a keystone for the acceptance of homosexuality into mainstream culture over the course of the late 19th up to the 21st century.

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