As you walk through Soho, an area famed for its flamboyant shops and fun-loving bars, it’s hard to believe that being gay was ever a crime in London. And yet until 1967, like much of the world, you could be convicted in England simply for loving the wrong person.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in England, and while the transition hasn’t always been smooth, today the capital boasts one of the largest gay populations in Europe and a thriving LGBT scene that can be enjoyed by all.
Soho and Beyond
Spanning one square mile near Oxford Street, Soho is the capital’s most famous district and the historic epicentre of London’s LGBT scene. It’s here that people of all sexualities have sought refuge over the centuries, including writer Oscar Wilde, who was eventually jailed for his indiscretion. They were drawn to the area by its streets lined with liberal-minded theatres, pubs and shops, many of which still stand today. Elsewhere in the city you’ll find more gay nightlife in the south in Vauxhall.
London Gay Tours offers sightseeing, shopping, culture and history tours. Alternatively, plot your own walking tour that takes in such sights as the first gay bar in the U.K., The Cave of the Golden Calf (9 Heddon Street; now a Gordon Ramsay restaurant); the sculpture “A Conversation with Oscar Wilde” (3 Adelaide Street); Gay’s The Word bookshop (66 Marchmont Street) and Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing’s birthplace (2 Warrington Crescent) in Little Venice.
This year, some of the country’s magnificent Historic Royal Palaces are exploring LGBT stories from the royal courts, including a "Pride, Power and Politics" tour at the Tower of London (26-27 May), where you can discover how the close male friendships of King Edward II and his treatment of his favourites resulted in the rebellion of the earls and many executions. Hampton Court Palace looks at the hidden stories of some of its most famous former inhabitants, including Queen Anne, who is believed to have enjoyed an intimate relationship with her Mistress of the Robes.
All the World’s a Stage
Theatre has played a leading role in London’s LGBT scene over the decades, and with more than 200 venues boasting a combined seating capacity of over 100,000, it’s fair to say that all the world’s a stage in London.
In the West End, you’ll find the biggest concentration and variety, including “Kinky Boots,” featuring music and lyrics written by Cyndi Lauper. The show tells the true story of a British shoe factory that branched out and made women’s shoes in men’s sizes for drag queens.
South of the river there’s the legendary Royal Vauxhall Tavern (372 Kennington Lane, SE11 5HY), with its regular drag queen nights. The National Theatre is staging “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” (11 April-19 Aug.). This new staging of Tony Kushner’s play is about 1980s America in the midst of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan years.
Queer British Art
Some of London’s leading museums and galleries are exploring themes of gender and sexual identity, including Tate Britain’s hotly anticipated “Queer British Art 1861-1967” (5 April-1 Oct.). Featuring works by Francis Bacon, Evelyn De Morgan and Cecil Beaton, this major exhibition spans the playful to the political, the explicit to the domestic. It includes a pink wig from a 1920s female impersonation act, racy magazines from the 1950s and the door of Oscar Wilde’s prison cell alongside Aubrey Beardsley drawings.
While you’re at Tate Britain, don't miss "David Hockney" (to 29 May), a major retrospective of the British artist who famously helped normalise gay relationships in the 1960s through his work.
Meanwhile, at the Fashion Space Gallery you can explore the many realities of modern transgender life in Museum of Transology (to 22 April; 20 John Prince’s St, W1G 0BJ). Inside the gallery you’ll find the largest collection of trans artefacts and photographic portraiture ever to be displayed in the UK.
The British Museum unveils “Desire Love Identity: Exploring LGBTQ Histories” (11 May-15 Oct.), which draws on material from ancient history to the present day, from around the globe.
Paint the Town Pink
From traditional British pubs to sprawling megaclubs, this city is famous for its diverse and inclusive LGBT nightlife. Situated on Old Compton Street in Soho, the Admiral Duncan is one of the oldest gay pubs in the city, while on nearby Rupert Street, The Yard Bar boasts a beautiful plant-filled courtyard.
Freedom Bar on Wardour Street attracts many of the West End’s performers to its dance floor, and we challenge anyone not to have a good time at legendary Heaven, under the arches close to Charing Cross station. Since the nightclub opened in 1979, anyone who is anyone has performed there, including Kylie Minogue, One Direction, Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.
As the Queen of Pop says: “Only when you’re dancing will you feel this free…”