It’s a story of determination rather than defeat, and after two years of lockdowns that could have prized this community apart, Camden has instead seen signs of a shift in the pattern of closures from previous decades. Back in November, new trans-owned gay bar, Zodiac, opened the doors to its first permanent venture. Founder Jade, AQA Lady Phoenix [pictured], described the feeling of getting her license application approved to open in Euston after banding together over ninety letters of support. “People said I was brave for doing this, but I can’t thank the queer community enough for all their support,” she says. “It’s been hard work but it’s worth it.” Much like the Black Cap campaigners, she highlighted the necessity of queer togetherness as an antidote to queer isolation: “I felt so lonely in London and now we have a family.”
The 250-capacity bar on Hampstead Road is a glimmer of hope after over a decade of challenges, its massive success since launch showing that the closures of so many gay bars have not been for lack of demand. “Our visitors, gay, trans, everything just keep telling me ‘thank you!’ They are so grateful for a new space to go,” says Jade.
In the case of The Black Cap, early whispers of a revival came in October when campaigners were allowed to go inside the venue for the first time since its closure to survey the building’s current state, after it changed hands to a new owner. “It was just this mad moment, being offered the opportunity to actually go in” says Alex Green. The building itself was found to be in much better condition than feared, marking the beginning of what Alex calls “promising progress” in the battle to get it restored. “I think it’s exciting if we combine where we are with what’s happening with Zodiac.”
The campaigning group are now in early talks with a successful LGBT operator and potential buyers of the freehold and are being supported by Camden Council. “We’re spearheading Camden’s resurgence and hoping to welcome new LGBT businesses and people in”, adds Alex.
Tessa Havers-Strong, director of forum+, an LGBTQ+ charity in the borough, also remains hopeful about the future of gay culture in Camden: “forum+ was very proud that our application for the nomination of The Black Cap as an Asset of Community Value (ACV) was successful in April 2020 – recognition of the special place this iconic venue holds in Camden culture and heritage,” she tells us. “Camden’s long history of LGBTQ+ activism, community and culture is still alive.”
Such steps forward are a deserved relief, but the long ordeal to get here has not been a means to an end. On the contrary, the community that has been built in the face of hardship is a heartening portrayal of queer solidarity in itself, and a demonstration of how LGBTQ+ spaces could look in the future. K Anderson, host of the podcast Lost Spaces, described how he thinks gay bars of the future might evolve: “I think that one of the big reasons [for closures] is that the scene hasn’t always adapted to the new needs and views of its customers. People aren’t drinking as much anymore, and if you want to go out without alcohol there are very few queer-friendly spaces you can go.”
Initiatives like The Black Cap community hub– with its focus as much on gathering for mundane daily activities as extravagant, lively nights– are perhaps a glimpse into a culture that could become widespread in more gay bars. “What I’m hoping we’ll start to see more of, once we’ve figured out how to live alongside Coronavirus, is the opening of more queer spaces that are multi-functional and community hubs,” K Anderson says.
Zack Polanski, Green Party London Assembly Member and one of the founders of the Black Cap Foundation, concurs: “I think it’s vitally important that we protect the spaces we do have – and whilst I absolutely welcome new ventures and ideas, I do still think there’s a massively important cultural history in The Black Cap that’s part of our LGBTQ+ London narrative.”
The arrival of Zodiac and a revival of The Black Cap mark the beginning of a resurgence of queer nightlife in the borough. Equally though, Camden’s queer population have harnessed a determination and enduring togetherness in the loss of their spaces that encapsulates the essence of what queer spaces are for in the first place. “People say that it’s been six years and that nothing is going to happen,” says Lazare, “but it is happening! We are still here, fighting the good fight.”