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Out and About: A Gay Day in the UK

4 Dec 2017

Since I first arrived in London, I felt a vibrant LGBTQ presence. After doing some research and getting suggestions from friends, I felt ready to set out and experience the best of LGBTQ London. However, in order to really experience it, I would need a photographer friend to help me document it. Fortunately, I knew the perfect person for the job. Levi, the first friend I made when I came to London, was not only ready to join me, he’s a gay photographer (win win, am I right?). We devoted our entire day to hitting the best gay spots in London so you don’t have to.

The day started off somewhat differently than we had anticipated. My alarm didn’t go off, so I quickly put on a flannel and beanie and rushed downstairs to meet Levi, who was waiting for me. We were both wearing plenty of layers considering it was one of the coldest days we’ve had this year. Our first stop was much-needed breakfast, which actually turned out to be brunch since we got there at 11:30 (oops). Our destination: the notorious SoHo gay-borhood. The area has had LGBTQ fame since the late 1800’s, with noted author Oscar Wilde calling it home, yet it didn’t truly become the gay sanctuary it now is until the 1970’s.

We stopped in for brunch at Balans SoHo Society, which prides itself on being a “haven for the convivial”. On each table was a small copy of their mission statement: that life should be luxurious and indulgent. It was with that in mind that Levi and I ordered the aptly named “High Society Eggs Benedict” which was an English muffin topped with bacon, avocado, poached eggs and lobster. That’s right, lobster. The pictures don’t do this magical dish justice. I already miss it. (Spoiler alert, 2 days after our Gay Day, we went back for more “research”. We had steak and eggs at 10:30 at night. Who knew this gem was open 24/7?)

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Balans Breakfast

After breakfast, we decided to have a miniature SoHo photoshoot, considering London has been decked out completely for Christmas (you’re going to see this theme a lot…) What’s a better way to be out and proud than to stop for photo ops? 

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Our next stop was the UK’s only gay and lesbian bookshop. Gay’s the Word (which is the best named place we visited) was founded in 1979, and has stood firm in the Bloomsbury neighborhood ever since. For fellow IES Abroad London students, this tiny gem is located only a few blocks from the centre. For a small store, Gay’s the Word packed in an enormous variety of books, with options ranging from Virginia Woolf to inclusive children’s books, to gay fiction, to history. Levi and I carefully scanned all the shelves to make sure we didn’t miss anything (especially the book of pocket wisdom from drag queen RuPaul). At the counter, we asked the bookseller, Uli Lenart, for some suggestions as we continued our gay day. He pulled out a map and pointed out the best LGBTQ spots for us. We left the shop with lots of good suggestions, some pins, and a copy of A Room of One's Own.

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The next stop wasn’t necessarily “gay”, but we felt that we needed to celebrate our success so far with afternoon tea. On our way to a tearoom, the sun began setting (at 3:45pm). We figured this was a prime opportunity for a photoshoot with the Christmas decorations along St. James’. By the time we had gotten sufficient Instagram-worthy shots, we were starving again. Levi and I enjoyed our romantic couples tea by splitting a pot of passionfruit orange tea (which was pink!) and a slice of black forest cake. Again, we made sure to take plenty of photos.

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We knew that we still had so much of our day left, but one of the most important decisions was still ahead. LGBTQ nightlife in London is some of the best in the world, and we had to make sure we took part in the best of the best. After getting more suggestions, we came up with three spots we had to visit. The first two spots didn’t work out, but don’t worry, you’ll get to hear about our misadventures to them anyway. Levi and I made the trek down to Vauxhall to visit the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is South London’s oldest surviving gay venue. The building was opened in the 1860s and the doors have been wide open ever since, with a gay history going back to World War II as a respite for gay servicemen. We got there only to realize there was a special event on that night, and we wouldn’t be able to go in. That didn’t stop us from taking more cute photos in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens next to the building though!

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We trekked back up to SoHo to visit the next spot on our list. Comptons of SoHo (conveniently located across the street from Balans) has been referred to by locals as “The Grand Dame of Queer Street”. Comptons is also one of the most well known gay pubs in the city, and it draws many tourists. Comptons of SoHo was our second miss. As per its reputation, Comptons was completely packed full! Levi and I looked at each other, seemingly defeated on our quest. We continued to walk down Old Compton Street, the main artery of the gay-borhood that is SoHo, until we came upon a seemingly shining beacon. Between all our journeying, us two weary travellers just wanted to dance and enjoy our last few hours of what had been the best day, and sure enough, we found solace at She SoHo. She SoHo is London’s only primarily-Lesbian bar, and they take this responsibility very seriously. As a gay man, Levi was allowed in. We made our way downstairs into the bunker-like basement, where we enjoyed an amazing drag-king show and danced the rest of the night away.

We made our way home, exhausted, but overjoyed. Our Gay Day in the UK had been an overwhelming success. Our haul included books, pins, decorations, and hundreds upon hundreds of pictures. As my time in London dwindles to an end, I can say with certainty that being Out and About with Levi will be one of my fondest memories of this trip. Next stop, Jamaica!

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