London: Fit for a Queen

By Kevin Isom

For years, people have been traveling to London to get a glimpse of a Queen. Gay men may feel the summons of a fellow Queen. Lesbians, on the other hand, never feel this attraction, because everyone knows that a Goddess out ranks a Queen. Still, lots of lesbians and gay men travel to London, and there are a few things they should know.

London is an exciting city filled with history, sights, and things to do. Most of those things, you can find in any guide book. To limit your guide book reading, however, if you've never been to London before, there is a list of "musts". You must try out the plethora of theatre, whether you like Shakespeare or show tunes. You must visit the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London (and see the Family, er, Crown Jewels), the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul's Cathedral, Hyde Park, Westminster Cathedral, Picadilly Circus (London's Times Square), Harrod's (the famous department store), Covent Garden, and, if you have time to be really cheesy, Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum (it's truly creepy). Whew.

Then there's the room with the queer view. If you haven't gotten your bearings already, try one of the ubiquitous open-top two-level buses for a driving tour around the city. Then travel the Tube--London's mildly suggestive term for the subway--to your chosen destination. The Tube is one of the simplest and largest subway systems in the world, and there's always a stop within walking distance.

Take the Tube to visit gay and lesbian shops like Clone Zone on Old Compton Street (Leicester Square stop on the Tube), for a collection of clubwear; the Don't Panic store on Dean Street (Leicester Square) for clever T-shirts; and Gay's the Word, the gay and lesbian bookstore on Marchmont Street (Russell Square).

After you've seen the sights and done some shopping, try to relax. A quirky but fun suggestion is the terrace bar at the top of Harrod's. Sipping tea and looking out over the rooftops and chimneys of London makes you feel like Mary Poppins. For a more adult theme, you can try one of the gay and lesbian oriented pubs scattered throughout London. London is a place where there are pubs for all tastes in practically all neighborhoods, so there are very few "must see" gay pubs. Still, there are some worth noting.

The Old Compton Street Pub, located on Old Compton Street, of course (Leicester Square) is smack in the middle of SoHo, London's predominately gay district. On any afternoon, you'll find the pub full and friendly. The clientele ranges from pretty boys to pierced men. (Body piercing is really big in London--don't be surprised.) Slide up to the bar and order a pint. Of beer, that is. Though a pint looks huge, don't order a half-pint. It looks, and is considered, unmanly. Even for lesbians. You can also buy your admission to Heaven at Compton's (explained below), so that you can breeze past the long line to get in.

A couple cultural words of warning. Don't expect buffed looks in London. England is filled with men and women with interesting features. Unfortunately, they rarely go together. But they can charm your pants off with their many varied accents, which indicate immediately to their English listeners their class and geographic origins.

You should also realize that Brits are terribly stand-offish by American standards, and it's very rare for someone to speak to you the first time they see you. Don't take it personally, and try to be outgoing yourself, knowing that your friendliness may well send them running. On holiday abroad, Brits can be wild. Back home, they're repressed. But if you get past that British reserve, they really will charm your pants off, and there's something beguiling about beautiful eyes above a slightly crooked smile. Look at Princess Di.

Finally, you should know that pubs close by law at 11 p.m., and the dance clubs are not as crazy as some in, say, San Francisco. Which seems surprising until you realize that Britain has more repressive laws than its European continent counterparts. The legal age of consent for gay sex, for example, was lowered to 18, the heterosexual legal age, only in 1994.

Given the early closing hour for pubs, if you're planning to go out, have dinner early. I can't make many recommendations for restaurants in London, because, well, the English are not known for their cuisine. When I studied in England for a year, I lived on unidentifiable meat pies (my advice is to order pies with recognizable names like "kidney pies" so at least you'll know what's in them, and to avoid generic "meat pies" at all costs--trust me). I also ate so much fish and chips that I nearly grew gills. Speaking of which, Japanese restaurants are surprisingly good and plentiful in London, and raw fish starts to look really good compared to a few favorite English foods, like baked beans or spaghetti on toast (those are breakfast foods).

Still, if you want to spend a pretty penny, try The Atlantic on Glasshouse Street (Picadilly Circus), a hidden but luxurious place with fabulous food, where high fashion models and other Beautiful People hang out. Even the coat check girl is stunning. You won't find any tourists there, unless, of course, they're rock stars. The crowd is very Euro and truly fascinating. It's a place where Princess Di might just walk in. Without Charles.

After dinner, 1/2 Way to Heaven on Duncannon Street (Charing Cross) is a pleasant pub with a professional clientele on weeknights, while on Saturday night it becomes the obligatory stop before the largest nightclub: Heaven. Various nightspots have come and gone in London, but Heaven always draws quite a crowd. Located next to Charing Cross Station, Heaven is a Under the Arches, Villiers Street (turn completely right out of Charing Cross Station and literally go under the arches).

Heaven is a very dark club with several levels and two dance floors. The cool-hip-funky dance floor upstairs has better gyration music, while the larger one downstairs has the lasers, the crowds, the house music, and the show on the stage above the dancing. And don't bother with muscle shirts. Slouchy and baggy is in. The fitness craze hasn't sunk in yet, and the English tend to view "body fascists" with disdain. Trust me, they'll ignore you, and they'll do it with glee.

Clubs tend to be fairly mixed between men and women, but one of the more interesting women's clubs, even if only for the name, is Clit Club on Wharfedale Road (King's Cross). Clit club is a women-only fetish club with a women's toys gift stall. A place to keep a stiff upper lip, indeed.

For an evening at an upscale cabaret club, try Madam JoJo's on Brewer Street (Picadilly Circus). You'll see lavish professional drag shows, but be warned that the audience will, oddly enough, be mostly straight. And the straight women in the audience hate the men's legs on stage.

Finally, there are trendy Sunday raves that change as often as the guard at Buckingham Palace, so check the gay papers, like Gay Times or Attitude to learn more. Or ask a queer bartender. They know everything.

When all is said and done, London can be a proper escape from the daily American world. It's a place where a Queen can be a queen, and a Goddess can go to Clit Club.

Kevin Isom is a writer and attorney in Atlanta, Georgia. His work appears regularly in gay and lesbian newspapers and magazines throughout the US.
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