The Hoist was this glorious, irreverent, sacrilegious queer space for perverts, deviants, faggots, dissidents. These people didn’t fit in to the nice squeaky-clean image that so many gay people want to cultivate. It was the place for the sexual out-laws.
—Peter Tatchell, from documentary, Age of Consent (2014)
[It struck as more than coincidental that these words were being blasted to a full audience at the BFI LGBT Film Festival in exactly the same month that the law for gay marriage equality was being passed in the UK.]
This quote is referring to a gay nightclub in Vauxhall known as The Hoist. Presenting itself as a medieval dungeon, with its self-convicted prisoners in sado-masochistic uniforms of leather, rubber and PVC, the club has been an underground haven for sexual ‘perversion’ since it opened in 1996, hosting nights for gay men into anything BUT vanilla-sex—fisting, pissing, humiliation, bareback sex, gang bangs, and then begin to use your imagination. This space formed the subject of a ground-breaking documentary that premiered at the BFI LGBT Film Festival earlier this year—Age of Consent: a brave and daring foray into Vauxhall’s erotic hide-out, complete with jilting and unfiltered footage of the club’s nightly happenings. A lot of the footage I had expected and prepared myself for, but some moments truly shocked me.
I think the collective audience gasp came at the segment of the film concentrating on pissing, with its visual account of hose pumps spraying urine onto the bustling dance floor, straight from the club’s actual urinals. In this portion of the film, the club’s beady-eyed and genuinely job-satisfied janitor details how urinals often have to be fixed and replaced, due to customers unhooking urinal bolts so to drink piss straight from their pipes in drug-induced fits of passion.
Peter Tatchell, Age of Consent, (2014)
At points in the documentary, images of these kind of irreverent sexual activities are played alongside interviews with the man who spoke our opening quote: a campaigner for gay marriage equality, Peter Tatchell. Peter looks somewhat out of place, dressed in a blue collared shirt and tie, and, despite his own snide remark, seems weirdly and exactly to ‘fit into the nice squeaky-clean image that so many gay people want to cultivate’. The visual disjunction of confusing Peter in his work shirt talking about a sado-masochistic piss-fest points to the documentary’s very relevant politicality; how it invokes the discussion of how many gay men today – some of whom are showcased in the film – are publically antagonistic towards the law for marriage equality being passed. Indeed, there is currently a very potent fragmentation in the gay community between those who renounce the continued existence of publically ‘irreverent’ places such as The Hoist, and those who reject the potential assimilation of ‘queer identity’ into hetero-normative culture in the realisation of marriage equality. (Obviously every individual gay man does not neatly fit into either of these positions, but lets stick with the binary for the time being). Why might this be the case?
Amongst a historical minority often positioned as deviants and ‘monsters’ (this especially being the case during the AIDS epidemic in the 80s), what seems to be happening at The Hoist is a defensive re-claiming of this en-fringed position. Instead of being labelled as a pervert by mainstream hegemonic institutions, many gay men now proudly adopt this position themselves, taking ownership of their irreverent status. That The Hoist is architecturally reminiscent of a prison is no surprise under this logic: it acts, then, as what Michel Foucault called a ‘heterotopia of compensation,’ meaning a space that is genuinely excluded from actual societal space. [1. Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces”, The Visual Culture Reader, ed. N.Mirzoeff, (London, 2002), p.231.] At The Hoist, however, we observe a self-imposed exclusion from the laws of everyday space—not one of banishment, but willing exile.
Pertinently, there exists a growing group of queer theorists and academics that intellectually mirror this position, arguing against the law for marriage equality in a defence against hetero-normative constructions. In That’s Revolting; Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore argues that ‘wilful participation in U.S. imperialism is crucial to the larger goal of assimilation, as the holy trinity of marriage, military service and adoption, and has become the central preoccupation of a gay movement centred more on obtaining straight privilege than challenging power.’ [2. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, “There’s more to life than platinum: challenging the tyranny of sweatshop-produced rainbow flags and participatory patriarchy,” That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, (2008, California), p.1.] The paranoia is that the law for marriage quality is masked as a queer triumph, but in actuality only helps to enforce the hetero-normative constructions that queer culture has been so hell-bent on unshackling for so long.
‘Leather Crotch,’ Robert Mapplethorpe
Whether or not this is the case, it is more than a little coincidental that homophobia is currently most prevalent within the gay community. Indeed, in today’s ‘it’s now normal to be gay world,’ gay men who are externally ‘too obviously queer’ are being attacked as not ‘straight-acting’ enough. Genuinely, this abhorrent term is currently EVERYWHERE. ‘STRAIGHT-ACTING.’ Could we please just take a mere moment to pause upon this ludicrous phrase, a phrase that is so painfully emblazoned upon a 1/3 of all Grindr and Gaydar profiles right now. Anti-assimilation queer theorists would most certainly argue that the ‘cultural realisation’ that gay men can now have everything that straight men can (being lawyers, doctors, getting married and having kids), is responsible for this internalized antagonism towards gay men who don’t fit into the image associated with such dogmas from gay men that do.
In light of such happenings, there now exists an event known as ‘Gay Shame’ in New York, which was set up as ‘a reaction towards how Gay Pride was becoming gentrified…and had become little more than a giant opportunity for multinational corporations to target market gay consumers. The goal of Gay Shame was to create a free, all-ages space where queers could make culture and share skills and strategies for resistance, rather than just buy a bunch of crap.’ [3. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, “Gay Shame: From Queer Autonomous Space to Direct Action Extravaganza,” That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation, (2008, California), p.269.] The ethos of such a group sits alongside the self-entitled perverts of The Hoist, harnessing their ‘excluded’ status as one that is politically progressive and self-righteously counter-cultural.
Now, although all attempts at confronting and debunking hetero-normative ‘straight white male’ constructions should always be propelled, there are, of course, many philosophical and sociological problems with the strategies being discussed here. The most complex of which is the assumption that identity and sexuality are intrinsically always bound together; the positioning of a solid ‘queer identity’ that a gay man should ‘have’ automatically enforces the existence of a ‘straight’ identity as something equally stable, hence helping to scaffold a binary that we’d hope was being dismembered. The argument of a ‘queer identity’ resisting a ‘straight’ one seems reductively still knotted in imagistic categories, which is why I don’t think it can function productively with longevity. Furthermore, implicit in the argument is that heterosexual people are altogether denied from a subversive, ‘queer’ identity. If we utilize the contemporary academic conception of the term ‘queer’, which literally means anything that does not conform to a solid binary, which by extension umbrellas itself to just about anything and everyone – as no one perfectly conforms to set ideals – then that ‘queer identity’ is an isolated plateau not accessible to heterosexuals reduces its real political mobility. Returning to the the discussion of The Hoist, then, feeling like a transgressive, perverse, unlawful dissident should be an opportunity open to everyone. And in any case, let’s not kid ourselves by saying heterosexuals aren’t also littered with ‘sacrilegious’ sexual desires.
Should The Hoist exist? Absolutely. Should Marriage Equality exist? Absolutely. It is the definitive fragmentation of the two as completely separate categories that shouldn’t. Who’s to say that a gay married couple couldn’t be lawyers if they wanted to be lawyers, and pop downstairs to The Hoist for a session of pissing if that’s what they also really wanted to do? I think what’s ultimately crucial is that being ‘queer’ is a position open to everyone, so that the looming ceiling of hetero-normative ideals is what crumbles. And as for the internal fractures we see happening among gay men, it’s a tricky terrain, but if we all collectively let go of these objective categories and positions, and instead celebrated individual choice in each and every separate subject, we might, paradoxically, begin to feel a shared unity in seeing that we’re each completely different.