Expanding queerness into 2023
What a new wave of queer space means
Queercircle’s Ashley Joiner, artist Michaela Yearwood-Dan, and Gay Liberation Front activist Stuart Feather discuss the recent boom of new LGBTQ+ spaces
We can offer examples to young people and hopefully educate them into the responsibilities of being LGBTQ+.Stuart Feather, artist and campaigner
Michael Armitage, mydressmychoice (2015)
Queer people have always found ways to exist and be together – and throughout 2022, there was a boom in the opening of new queer spaces, and writing around them.
Queer Spaces, an anthology of stories rooted in very specific – and very queer – places, from Christopher Street in New York to a cathedral in ruins in Nicaragua occupied by the underground LGBTQIA+ community, was published by RIBA in May; and Queer Britain, an LGBTQ+ museum at King’s Cross, opened in the spring. Among these spaces is also Queercircle, which opened in June in the labyrinthine Design District just beyond North Greenwich tube station.
This proliferation of space is something that’s important to Ashley Joiner; Queercircle’s director, who has been at the forefront of finding a physical space for the charity since 2019. It’s important not just because the spaces exist, but because of the relationship that they’re able to have with one another, something that Ashley stresses as being vital for their shared survival, highlighting the importance of making sure that they’re not competing in terms of space; that programmes are diverse and complementary to one another. “That’s the challenge we face now, that collaborative effort to keep these spaces sustained.”
It’s this ethos – of not needing to be in competition, of capturing the multitudes of queer experience – that seems to have informed the idea of what Queercircle can be as a physical space from the very beginning. Often, queer spaces are seen as those that exist purely through the prism of nightlife, and Queercircle is aiming to be an alternative to that. “Those nightlife spaces are vital and for a lot of us that’s how we meet our tribe. But there’s no getting around the fact that those spaces are exclusionary.”
There are lots of reasons why someone might not want to go to the club; but the vital intersection it’s often seen as having with queer social life can mean being losing a sense of community or belonging if you choose not to go.
These feelings are echoed by Michaela Yearwood-Dan, the artist who created Queercircle’s inaugural exhibition; the vast, inviting mural ‘Let Me Hold You‘. For Michaela, one of the problems with the narrow definitions of queer space is the idea that nightlife isn’t always a safe space, that, “if you’re a visibly gay man, or a trans person, then you’re already on high alert,” and that spaces that “feel queer and feel safe but don’t necessarily have a big social element like nightlife.” This change in focus seems to be informed by the continued impact of COVID; from the ways in which Michaela’s practice has shifted towards looking at ideas of queer domesticity, to the way the pandemic “compounded the need” for a space like Queercircle.
Both Michaela and Ashley said that the issue of space – what it is and how we use it – and the importance of taking care of mental health brought to the fore by the pandemic came as a moment of understanding, a clarity of purpose. This purpose comes from being able to have other people see the messaging of what this space hopes to be – both a cultural institution and a community centre – and how the work they programme plans to mirror that. Whether it’s the plan for ‘Let Me Hold You’ to “ground everything we do in a place of joy and a place of love,” to the piece itself, which curves around the wall, and was painted by Michaela in the space, something that she hopes adds to the feeling of the mural being able to hold viewers and visitors within it.
As well as being informed by COVID, Queercircle – and other new queer spaces, like Queer Britain – seem to be deeply driven by not only what contemporary queerness looks like, but also the relationship that queerness now has with the history that it came from. At Queercircle, ’The Queens’ Jubilee’ installation takes historical images of queer protest and liberation, and brings them together with text written by Stuart Feather – Gay Liberation Front (GLF) activist, and author of Blowing the Lid. For Stuart, a direct connection between the political history of queerness is vital for contemporary spaces, “because we can offer examples to young people and hopefully educate them into, if you like, the responsibilities of being LGBTQ+,” what Stuart calls a kind of political consciousness.
The politics of queerness – past and present – informs these spaces, and they’re often responding directly to them. Whether its Queer Britain putting an emphasis on both saving and making history, to the interrogation of queerness and history that Ashley wants to bring to Queercircle, asking, in the face of changing times and fluid terminology, “what do we claim as our history?”
While history is vital to these new spaces – and Ashley insists that contemporary queerness has avoided becoming ahistoric and ignoring that history – it’s the contemporary moment that queerness is in that most defines them. This question of contemporary queer politics, and how spaces ought to reflect it, is a difficult one to answer. While Michaela said that Queercircle is able to function as a safe space, Ashley argued that the space won’t be “for everyone,” and that we need to be careful with overly simple phrases like “safe space” in case it implies that all things are equal, and all views are welcome; he stresses that “this is not a space for racism, this is not a space for transphobia. Those things are not acceptable.”
He insists that Queercircle will be able to provide resources for those who want to learn – or unlearn – around these issues, but that one of the things that’s most important about any kind of queer space is that it allows for difficult conversations, not just with those from beyond the queer community, but those within it as well.
This is something that feels echoed in what Stuart sees as one of the problem of contemporary queer politics, that there’s “no common political base”. For Stuart, these are the politics of socialism – what he described as the only politics for changing society – which were the foundation of the GLF. Queer politics themselves are still changing. For Ashley, the rise of a more visible trans movement represents a shift back towards the idea of liberation – the idea that “we can imagine alternatives”.
It’s this imagination of alternative that seems to be at the heart of not only Queercircle, but spaces old and new that it exists in a conversation with. Queer Britain is offering a new way of exploring history – one that’s often been ignored by the mainstream – and people at Queercircle have also emphasised the importance of groups like The Outside Project, and cultural institutions like the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
But this doesn’t mean allowing only the institutions to define what queerness – whether its community, culture, or identity – can mean or look like. Ashley argued against a “top down” approach coming from these places, insisting that one of the advantages of a new wave of queer spaces is the ability to “expand that definition of what queerness is.” As they expand the definitions of queerness, the role of these spaces hopes to expand in order to fit the definitions. There’s something about them that has the potential to be quietly radical, with Stuart arguing that these spaces as an arena through which we can learn about and care for one another, something that he sees as being a path towards freedom; a term that, like queerness, or liberation, doesn’t have an easy definition.
This isn’t a space that strives to be utopian – Ashley insists that the term is too reductive – even though ‘Let Me Hold You’ is rooted in love, and Michaela describes it as “euphoric,” something at once vibrant and busy, but with the space for contemplation.
And it might be that utopia isn’t what queerness needs now; but instead this ability to connect – with one another, with histories both individual and shared – and to understand that queerness, and queer space, is something will continually be redefining itself.
What’s so good about this?
The last decade has seen vast numbers of queer focused spaces closing, something that’s been made even more stark by the impact of COVID. To see the (re)emergence of queer space is a moment for celebration, as it opens the door for a more inclusive conversation around the idea of queer culture and history.
For Queercircle in particular, this moment has been a long time coming, after years searching for a space, and being able to offer up something that can function both culturally, and as a hub of resource and learning, in an attempt to capture the ever-changing lightning of queerness in a bottle. As they say themselves: “we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going anywhere.”
Meet the writer
Sam Moore is a writer, artist, and editor based in London. Their freelance work on queerness, culture, and identity has been published by Frieze, i-D, and the LA Review of Books, among other places. They are the author of All my teachers died of AIDS (Pilot Press, 2020) and Long live the new flesh (Polari Press, 2022).