Geography and Environment students visited Soho (London) for a field trip investigating how sex, sexuality, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) communities influence urban space – and are influenced by urban space in turn.
Our students spent their time in the area making ethnographic observations of the streets and the built environment. They considered questions such as:
- Where are sex and sexuality present in space?
- How do space and place produce a sense of what ‘gay’ is?
- What does it mean to be an ‘LGBTQ space’?
In a workshop the following day, students were able to examine their observations and photo in more detail with support from lecturers. They found that Soho’s history as a site of ‘sleazy’ sex has become part of the area’s marketing and advertising, and that remaining sex shops and shows have been cleaned up and made to look more appealing and socially-acceptable – perhaps even gentrified. Some also noted how shops, social venues and adverts aimed at GBQ men in particular helped establish expectations of particular bodies and lifestyles.
In between their own activities, students also dropped into popular gay bar the Kings Arms for a specialist talk from guest speaker Alim Kheraj. Alim is an author and journalist who has been studying changes to LGBTQ nightlife across the past century right to the present day. Based on personal experience, interviews with key LGBTQ nightlife figures, and detailed archival research, his new book Queer London provides an incredible insight into why LGBTQ spaces have been so important in the past – and why they continue to be so today.
The meaning and significance of LGBTQ space
Rural areas have often been framed as sites of traditional heterosexuality, and cities been described as central to the formation of LGBTQ lives and identities. Supposed features of cities like anonymity, tolerance, and large numbers of potential sexual partners have been linked to the idea that LGBTQ communities are fundamentally an urban phenomenon.
In recent decades geographers have been at the forefront of critiquing this idea, highlighting the existence of rural LGBTQ lives but also the danger and alienation which LGBTQ people can experience in cities. They have also explored the meanings and significance of ‘LGBTQ space’. When it comes to London, and Soho, there is no doubt that many people have developed their sexual identities specifically in relation to the spaces around them.
Soho has for centuries been home to migrant populations, such as Greek and French refugees in the 17th and 18th centuries. Though surrounded by some of the wealthiest shopping streets of London like Oxford Street and Regent Street, it was always a more working-class area. Later it became popular amongst wealthy men of leisure, who treated it as a kind of exotic playground. The late 19th century was when Soho’s reputation as a site of sleazy sex began to emerge.
Gender and sexual minorities like LGBTQ people have always been present in Soho, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that they started to have their own spaces – bars, cafes, pubs and clubs. Fast forward to the year 2000, and Soho had an international reputation as Europe’s top ‘gay village’.