When you think about the LGBTQ+ scene in London, you probably envision the massive annual events that flood the streets, squares, and sometimes entire neighborhoods with cheering crowds. There’s Pride in London, which draws more than a million people for a parade that completely closes down historic Oxford Street. Then there’s UK Black Pride, which bills itself as Europe’s largest annual celebrating people with African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Caribbean heritage. Rounding out the year is the Fringe! Queer Art & Film Fest, which for a week or so hosts fun events all over the city. (More on these below.)
London’s LGBTQ+ enclaves, Soho and Vauxhall, have a similar reputation for being boisterous. The East End is artsier. Which might be more of a scene? The truth is that it would be hard to find any neighborhood in the center of the capital city where there aren’t at least some traces of queer life. You just have to look around. Everywhere you go, rainbow flags hang in windows, and “trans pride” stickers decorate lamp posts.
Are you London-bound and LGBTQ+? Here’s everything you need to know about what the city is like, where to find like-minded people, and the year’s biggest and best LGBTQ cultural events.
What LGBTQ+ Life is Like
LGBTQ+ people are part of everyday life in the UK. More and more public figures are coming out every year, from politicians to sports stars to talk show hosts. It’s not unusual for same-sex couples to hold hands on the streets, especially in Central London.
Although London is considered one of the safest big cities, in recent years there’s been an uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ violence. Researchers at the University of Surrey and King’s College London crunched the numbers, and they found that trans people were the most frequent victims. It’s still pretty rare, so don’t let that stop you from exploring the city. Your Student Life Coordinators will help introduce you to the different neighborhoods, give you tools and information to make safe choices, and will always be available if you have questions or concerns.
In the UK, LGBTQ+ people have pretty much the same rights as everyone else. Trans people have had full legal recognition since 2004. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was banned in 2010, and same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014.
Activists say the country still has a long way to go in certain respects. They are pushing the government to ban “conversion therapy” for all LGBTQ+ people. Trans activists want to amend the 2004 Gender Recognition Act to make it easier to change their gender on legal documents.
The neighborhoods considered to be the most LGBTQ+ friendly have changed quite a bit over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, the center was Earl’s Court. Today the scene is centered around Soho in Central London and Vauxhall in South London.
Equally popular with locals and visitors, Soho is a destination for those looking for a fun night on the town. Old Compton Street is generally considered to be the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare. Soho is part of London’s West End, the city’s theater district. It’s full of trendy restaurants and chic boutiques.
Photo Credit: Robe Trotting
Less touristy than Soho, Vauxhall is across the River Thames in South London. Many of the establishments catering to the LGBTQ+ crowd are located in the arches below the railroad tracks. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern has been a local landmark since 1863.
London’s East End has always been popular with an eclectic crowd, and that’s drawn more and more LGBTQ+ people to the area.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Where to Go First
If you want to get to know the city, head to Bloomsbury’s Gay’s the Word. This cute little bookstore, around since 1979, is kind of like a community center. Ask about seeing the sights, and the person behind the counter will hand you a map of gay historical sights. This is a great place to pick up out-of-print books that you can’t find anywhere else.
Photo Credit: Londonist
Queer Britain, the country’s only museum dedicated to LGBTQ+ history, is set to open soon in a refurbished industrial building in London’s King’s Cross neighborhood. Until it does, you’ll find plenty of other galleries scattered around the city that will pique your interest.
The British Museum
Even a very buttoned-up institution like the British Museum can have an edgy side. Sign up for one of the 70-minute “Desire, Love, and Identity” tours to uncover the queer side of many of the world’s most famous artworks. (If that isn’t enough history for you, head to the museum gift shop and pick up a copy of “A Little Gay History,” which goes into more depth about some of the most intriguing items in the collection.)
Photo Credit: Visit London
Museum of London
Every February, the Museum of London celebrates LGBTQ+ History Month with a roster of tours, talks, and exhibits. Don’t miss the “Satan’s claws,” shoes that were so pointy they were often held up with silver chains. In the Middle Ages, these were one of the only ways queer residents could recognize each other.
Victoria and Albert Museum
With 2.27 million objects in its collection, the V&A is the world’s largest collection of art and design. Its team is continually unearthing items that shed new light on gender and sexuality. See what they’ve discovered on one of the hour-long tours given on the last Saturday of every month.
Photo Credit: Visit London
Where to Eat
There are plenty of LGBTQ+ friendly places to eat in Soho and the East End, so your best bet is just to wander around until you find somewhere with the right vibe. Vauxhall has lots of places to eat during the day, but the pickings are slim after dark. Here are a couple of can’t-miss spaces to get you started.
Open until the wee hours of the morning, Balans is the kind of spot where that late-night bite turns into an early breakfast. It’s on bustling Old Compton Street in Soho, so it’s always packed. If you have trouble getting in, it has a sister restaurant down the block.
A little bit of a splurge, Bistrotheque is the kind of place you could take your folks to for dinner upstairs and then put them in a cab and head downstairs to see a cabaret show at the Cockatoo. In the East End, this French bistro is inside a converted warehouse space that’s been painted white from top to bottom.
Photo Credit: Gayot
Although the name makes it sound like a big-box shopping center, Dalston Superstore is a one-stop shop for edgy cabaret shows, cutting-edge music performances, and one of the city’s most popular drag brunches. It’s in the East End, so the performances have a low-glamour, high-energy feel.
This storefront restaurant qualifies as a local institution, having opened its doors in 1988. It’s busy, buzzy, and sometimes impossible to get into, but it’s worth it when you finally get to sample the wide range of vegetarian dishes. It’s one of the few places in Soho where the women customers outnumber the men. If you’re in Kings Cross, there’s an outpost there as well.
Photo Credit: Veggiebuzz
If you’re in London for the fall semester, you’ll want to catch at least one of the events at the Fringe! Queer Art & Film Fest. Pride in London and UK Black Pride usually take place in the summer, but keep an eye out for events sponsored the rest of the year.
One of the most exciting events on the calendar, BFI Flare is almost two solid weeks of LGBTQ+ films from around the world. It’s run by the British Film Institute, so it gets some of the most talked-about films before they are released elsewhere.
Photo Credit: Time Out
Fringe! Queer Art & Film Fest
The organizers of this beloved weeklong celebration of art and culture seem to expand the definition of “queer” every year. There are workshops for trans writers, documentaries about nonbinary activists, and dance parties for the whole tribe. There are always plenty of young people involved, so check out movies like “Gay Teen Werewolf.” (Spoiler alert: she falls in love with a vampire.)
Pride in London
Unstoppable since 1972 — except for a couple of years for COVID-19 — this summertime extravaganza is one of the world’s largest pride events. Events change every year, but there’s always going to be a parade and a music festival.
UK Black Pride
Founded in 2005, Europe’s largest annual event for LGBTQ+ people with African, Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, and Caribbean heritage brings a party atmosphere to the capital city. The dates vary, so check it out.
London is a super LGBTQ+ friendly city, a place where you’re likely to feel at home whether you’re just coming out or are ready to join a vibrant community. It’s one of the best options for LGBTQ+ participants who want to experience an urban environment.
Photo Credit: Gay Star News
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