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Out of space: changing homosexual geographies

State control over homosexuality in public has given way to spatial divisions brought on by economic and technological pressures

For web

For web

Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Marcia Weisman Duane Michals. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

Nine images from Things are Queer series of 1973, photographed by Duane Michals, highlight how we compartmentalise things, normal/abnormal, gay/straight, decent/obscene. Art historian Jonathan Weinberg explains, ‘The queer of Things are Queer is not a matter of specific sexual identities but the world itself. The world is queer because it is known only through representations that are fragmentary and in themselves queer’

It was a cold night in early January 1968, the middle of a rough winter. Mr George Lucas, a polite, well-mannered civil servant in his early 40s, was disturbed in the early hours by three men knocking at the door of his London home. After they identified themselves as police officers, Lucas opened the door, and found himself in the middle of a nightmare. He was being robbed, done over, by three young men. His hands tied behind his back, and shoved onto a chair, he stoically endured watching the men rummage through his private possessions, stealing his silver heirlooms, gloves and umbrella, before ripping his phone from the wall and leaving.

‘For gay men, the sharp delineation between public and private space has never existed’

Following such a violation of one’s private space, the immediate response most people would have had would be to call the police. But Mr Lucas was gay – he suspected the robbers of having been past lovers – and for gay men the sharp delineation between public and private space has never existed. The modern homosexual subject was created through a fear of their corrupting influence on public space, and their limited early rights won through an appeal to a specific bourgeois idea of domestic privacy. Housing, class and privacy are enmeshed in the story of the liberalisation of sex, and today continue to shape our sex lives more than 50 years after the Sexual Offences Act passed through Parliament. For men like Mr Lucas and the thugs who robbed him, the law was a blunt instrument; it was where it made contact with other social pressures that it became sharp.



Film still from Victim (1961) directed by Basil Dearden and starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia SIms. The first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’, on release in the UK it was highly controversial to the British Board of Film Censors, and failed to achieve a seal of approval from the American Motion Picture Production Code

‘The road I have walked to 1968 has been stony and sorrowful enough,’ Mr Lucas wrote the next day, ‘and the years will ache worse as I go on from this ambush.’ As he reflected in his diary (sourced by Thomson Reuters Foundation journalist Hugo Greenhalgh, who has begun the long task of archiving them online), the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 was not a panacea for those problems; ‘Why not inform the police? It’s true the police might catch this trio, and recover my missing property; but I don’t fancy being named in the South London Press with the chance of very disagreeable allegations made against me at the trial, and the rogues in the end given a very light sentence. Bald middle-aged homosexuals do not excite much judicial (or police) sympathy when they have the misfortune to be robbed by young men. Though not exactly hors-la-loi (an outlaw) any longer, I would prefer to endure my loss in silence.’

He was right not to drop a sense of caution developed over a lifetime of persecution. The 1967 Act was hardly the sea-change that the 50th celebrations a couple of years ago sometimes made it out to be; it was not a society saying, in the words of Quentin Crisp speaking a year later, ‘Forgive us for having, for so long, allowed our prejudices to blind us to your true worth and cross our unworthy threshold with your broad-minded feet’. Rather, the law marked a change of strategy in the suppression of homosexuality.

Those who were, in their eyes, already afflicted with homosexuality could have sex in private without breaking the law for the first time, but the emphasis on domestic privacy was intended to be accompanied by a complementary suppression of manifestations of gay life that were public. Part of the moral settlement reached between the Wolfenden Report and the Act was that, in being allowed discrete private rights, gays would quietly drop their increasingly visible public lives. One of the main arguments for Lord Wolfenden was built around a concept of privacy, and that ‘moral conviction or instinctive feeling, however strong, is not a valid basis for overriding the individual’s privacy’. Lord Arran, who sponsored the bill, put forth the view in Parliament that ‘I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity … any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful …’ This mirrored the old sexologist theory that men who commit homosexual acts were of two types: inverts, inveterate homosexuals who were born afflicted and could do nothing about it, and perverts, otherwise ‘normal’ men who, given the right situation, could be persuaded to indulge in homosexual acts.




Opened in 1934, the Caravan Club in Endell St, London, was one of a number of gay-friendly clubs in the West End in the interwar years. Attracting considerable controversy, the police raided it that year and the ensuing trial led to custodial sentences

The space of the bourgeois private home was both a legal argument for gay rights, but also a tool with which to limit gay behaviours and desires, and to contain them. Same-sex sexual activity was no longer illegal, but under the strict conditions that it happened ‘in private’, meaning behind locked doors in a private home where the public had no access, only between two men and with no one else present. The class implications are obvious; it was only well-off men such as Mr Lucas who would afford the environment necessary to avoid prosecution. At the same time, the state placed increased pressure on gay men in all other areas of public life. The widespread use of conspiracy laws was harnessed to shut down all forms of public gay life. Bars and clubs were closed, radical bookshops selling titles around gay culture and sex were raided, vice squads increased pressure on cruising and cottaging, and attempts to hook up – even flirting – were also suppressed under laws around importuning. There’s not much use in being legally allowed to fuck if it’s illegal to ask someone if they fancy one. Between 1966 and the mid-’70s prosecutions of homosexuals for relevant offences rose 55 per cent to 2,798.

Today the period from Wolfenden until the 1980s is seen as one of liberalisation of attitudes towards gay men by the state, but for those living under it it could also be seen as a campaign of homosexual suppression. In this manner, the law’s job was to limit the invert to his private space and to remove the opportunity for him to corrupt the pervert into his indecent acts. The strategy of the state was to acknowledge the impulse, to create the identity, to control the act, and to limit the contagion.

For your pleasure map tc

For your pleasure map tc

Source: Courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute

For Your Convenience by Thomas BUrke (or ‘Paul Pry’), 1937, included a map showing toilets in London. According to historian Matt Houlbrook, this guide to London formalises ‘men’s knowledge of these sexual possibilities’ and codifies ‘their knowledge of the tactics needed to use these sites safely’

Today’s gay sexual world is, in many ways, the result of this toxic mix of subjectivation and liberalisation, and yet recent technological developments are reshaping the relationship between the private sphere, the home, and homosexual identity. The Gay Liberation Movement bucked against the desire to push homosexuality back into the private home, advocating that gay people ‘come out’ as a precursor to forming a political class within public space that was conscious of its shared oppressions; indeed, in the UK, the Gay Liberation Front’s house magazine was called Come Together. This changing atmosphere produced a lively and convivial public gay life, with bars, cafés, bookshops and clubs providing a public world for gay people to meet, form friendships and find sexual partnership, as well as a growth in gay communes.

‘If the police can nab you in bed just as easily as in the toilet stall, privacy doesn’t really exist’

In recent years, however, that world of gay public spaces has begun to recede. According to a recent report from UCL Urban Laboratory, the number of gay nightlife spaces in London shrank by almost 60 per cent between 2006 and 2017. The causes are complex – a mix of rising rents, gentrification and changing consumer tastes is only the beginning of the story. But the growth of hook-up apps such as Grindr and Scruff have changed the way gay men can find sexual partners. Their location-based browsing has inverted the old public/private dichotomy; while gay men are more visible and open than ever in public life, what used to be regarded as ‘importuning’ has retreated largely into the private sphere of the bedroom. For many, this is a happy conclusion, demonstrating the ‘acceptance’ of gay men by straight society by mirroring its norms. Yet it returns many of the old material pressures to the equation. The ability to host a sexual encounter determines many meetings, with flatmates or even family members limiting people’s sex lives. In the five years before 2014, the number of people aged between 45 and 54 living in a flatshare rose by 300 per cent, while the number of people aged between 20 and 34 living with their parents has increased by 25 per cent in the past two decades. Many people I spoke to, gay, queer or otherwise, reported their sex lives being as much determined by finding a place to fuck as any other concern, well into their thirties. Meanwhile, almost a quarter of homeless youth in the UK are LGBTQ+.

Homosexual behaviours challenged the state’s control over morality in public space, and that was made possible because of the de facto absence of private space for gay men within it. If the police can nab you in bed just as easily as in the toilet stall, privacy doesn’t really exist. The uneasy truce formed during liberalisation in the UK allowed for the creation of a recognisable gay identity, but that relied on a stable division between public and private. Today, new economic and technological pressures are challenging that spatial division, and material concerns surrounding housing and privacy continue to shape not just the ability of LGBTQ+ people to have fulfilling sex lives, but their very concept of sexual identities.

This piece is featured in the AR March 2019 issue on Sex + Women in Architecture awards – click here to purchase your copy today