Taking another drag of my Marlboro light, I sighed, leant forward and rested my chin on my hand, looking across the table to my friends, Mel and Daniel, who affected the same pose with equal nonchalance. It was 1994 and the smoking ban was still 20 odd years away, making every uni cafeteria and bar about as smoggy as Hong Kong during Chinese New Year fireworks. Our apathy was suddenly interrupted by Ricky; the president of the Student Union, and Daniel’s boyfriend, who bounded into the cafeteria and up onto a table, gesticulating wildly and shouting to get the attention of the collected students. As silence eventually fell and Ricky’s excited words reverberated around the hall, everyone began to jump up from their seats to cheer and clap. People hugged, some cried, and everyone beamed with joy. Well, maybe not everyone, but I was only aware of the love, hope and positive energy that bounced around the room at that moment. Inside, I tingled; knowing that I had just witnessed something historic, and something that 23 years later, I now realise was a step towards a global shift in attitude, tolerance and acceptance: The UK House of Commons had passed a bill to reduce the legal age of consent for same sex relationships between men from 21 years to 18. The original move to lower it to 16 had been defeated, and ridiculously, it would be another 7 years before the legal age was lowered to 16 in-line with heterosexual relationships. However, as extraordinary as it seems today, this was still no small victory.
Old Compton Street at 5am. We’re sat at a smeared, metal table drinking coffee; Mel, Daniel, Ricky and I - waiting for the first tube stations to open and take us back to our student lairs. The night has been a heady and exhausting blur of dancing and drinking at Heaven; the iconic nightclub of the 90’s gay scene in London, and our club of choice for the past year since arriving from our sleepy, parochial towns. Once the aching in our feet can’t be denied anymore, here is where we head; Soho. We meander along narrow streets in the half-light; arm in arm, hand in hand, huddled close as the chilly dawn air permeates our flimsy clothes, laughing and chattering with the last of the night’s adrenaline still coursing through our veins. Negotiating cobbled alleyways in vertiginous wedges, our eyes wide open, pupils unnaturally large, our senses heightened to the noises and movement of the slumbering city starting to rouse around us. Shift workers shuffle past dressed in the generic dull browns and greys of their uniforms; a stark contrast to our bright sequinned dresses, blousy chiffon mini-skirts and tight crop-tops emblazoned with slogans of the arrogant defiance of youth, and humorous controversy:
‘I like the Pope/the Pope smokes dope.’
‘The cat in the hat smokes black.’
‘Slut/Tart/Whore/The names that you call me/Your labels bore me.’
Finally, the welcoming glow of an all-night brasserie: We tumble in, rustle through our pockets for enough money to buy coffee and give us the caffeine kick needed to keep us going for this last couple of hours until we are home and able to sleep. We sip our cappuccinos (for this was 1994 and the latte, macchiato, mocha et all were not yet part of our vocabulary), and reflect on the night. Mel and I are straight, but we choose to go to the gay clubs because the atmosphere is unparalleled. We love the music they play and the freedom we have to dress how we want and not spend the night fending off unwanted advances from horny, testosterone fuelled wide-boys. We can gyrate about on podiums and grind to the tunes without glares from dagger-eyed girls trying to keep their boyfriends on a short leash. The ambience is one of love, happiness and excitement. Everyone has the freedom to express themselves and who they really are without fear of ridicule, scorn or mockery. Here, in the gay clubs of London, we are complimented and praised for how we are dressed and how exuberantly we dance, not criticised and judged.
Twenty-three years later and things have moved on and yet nothing has changed at all. We have cultures and countries where homosexuality is still illegal, and now we have a western dictator wearing the mask of a president who is hell bent on taking away rights from the LGBT community which have been fought for over many years. Laws on the freedom of sexuality of adults?! All this seems so archaic and unenlightened I can’t even begin to fathom what is going on in this world. You can’t suppress people for who they really are. You can’t ban the essence of who or what someone truly is, and you can’t repress someone’s true spirit. Yes, those spirits may be momentarily dampened and souls may feel temporarily crushed over the coming years as these erroneous fools attempt to control groups of people because they do not conform to a particular idea of gender, sex, or sexuality, but, ignorance, bullying, and blind denial will never win, because at the end of the day;