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Ben Walters: Royal Vauxhall Tavern becomes the UK’s first ever building to be listed because of its LGBTQ heritage

The following is an edited extract from the 30,000-word application to make the Royal Vauxhall Tavern a listed building written by Ben Walters on behalf of the RVT Future campaign. On September 9 2015 the RVT was indeed listed by Historic England and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – the UK’s first ever building to be listed because of its LGBTQ heritage.

The 1980s were not an easy time to be queer, with high levels of both economic hardship and homophobic violence.

“You have to remember what else was going on at this time in our lives,” says the writer Neil Bartlett. “In the same way that I didn’t know anyone who had a job, I didn’t know anyone who hadn’t been beaten up.” Life seemed like “a constant barrage of hatred with a big capital H. So to go into this absolute knockdown ramshackle old pub with all of these extraordinary people… and then to have this magnificent queen [on stage] going, ‘It’s all right to be unemployed. Fuck ’em…’ It was meat and drink. It was lifeblood… To turn all that misery and hardship around with that much panache and sheer bloody nerve!”

That queen was Lily Savage – aka Paul O’Grady – and that ramshackle old pub was the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. The importance of the RVT as a site of moral and practical support for an embattled minority was made painfully clear when the advent of AIDS turned an already tough time into a devastating community tragedy. “It was a war against AIDS and we were on the front line down at the Vauxhall, every single night,” recalls O’Grady, who developed Lily Savage during an eight-year RVT residency at the time.

The impact of the disease accelerated rapidly in the early 1980s but was initially met with minimal government action, widespread media hostility and a police crackdown on gay socialising. Homophobic violence showed a marked increase in these years but many were reluctant to report it to the police, who often ignored such crimes and still regularly entrapped gay people. In one far from uncharacteristic instance, a gay man who was hit on the head with a hammer in a fight was arrested and left in a cell with his wound untreated and the words “Beware AIDS” chalked on his cell door.

In the absence of help from the state, the Vauxhall Tavern quickly became a key site of organised support and information exchange. “A lot of people felt that the Vauxhall was like the campaign headquarters,” recalls the writer Rupert Smith, an activist and RVT regular at the time. “The Vauxhall was one of the first places where I definitely remember buckets being rattled and people collecting money… Most of the people who went to the Vauxhall were quite involved in fundraising and counselling.”

“We were doing charities nearly every other night of the week,” says O’Grady. “The Vauxhall raised thousands. Absolute thousands! We used to buy things like mattresses for them in the hospitals, pillows, sheepskin rugs… I think people tend to forget that as well. We were the soldiers.”

As well as being the soldiers, acts like Lily Savage and Adrella were entertainers – the ENSA of the era, if you like. Drag performance was never more vital than at this time. “We were the Vera Lynns of south London!” O’Grady suggests. “Meanwhile, we had the same problems [the audience] did, and they knew that. Bloody great camaraderie. There was a very strong community spirit.”

The defining incident of this period was a police raid on the RVT. In fact, according to a report by the Gay London Policing Group (GALOP), there were two raids, on December 17 1983 and January 24 1984. The second, which took place during a Lily Savage performance, was the “more dramatic and alarming in its consequences”.

“35 police officers raided the pub, some of them wearing rubber gloves. Eleven men were arrested for being ‘drunk on licensed premises’ and later released without charge,” though they reported suffering verbal abuse at the police station. The evening’s performer was among those arrested; when told to give a name to the desk sergeant, she said “Lily Savage”. The officer pressed for a ‘real’ name. “Lily Veronica Mae Savage,” came the reply. Morale thrived on such camp defiance.

The raid instantly entered the city’s LGBTQ lore. The rubber gloves stood out for their combination of symbolic marginalisation – they were assumed to be an attempt on officers’ part to defend themselves against potential exposure to HIV-infected blood, intimating both the threat of violence and abhorrence at queer bodies – and their sheer camp value. It was the subject of political cartoons and found its way into at least one novel.

In the days after the raid, Adrella delivered from the RVT stage an update about the situation and other legal challenges facing the venue. She also advised those present “if you see anyone taken away in a police van at any time, hang around, watch what happens and then go down to the police station because you are their witness, and if there is going to be harassment in this pub, it’s your duty to look after your own.”

The incident also marked something of a turning point. The wide perception was that it was carried out with the intention of intimidating the LGBT community. “It felt like a really deliberate strategic assault on the HQ of the gay scene,” says Rupert Smith. “‘We’re going to hit you where it hurts. We’re going to close down the Vauxhall Tavern’.” This seems borne out by the 1984 Report of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, which discusses targeting “symbolic locations”.

But, Smith suggests, “the Vauxhall was such a symbolic place that once that had been attacked once too often, I think the tide turned.” GALOP’s report on the incident notes “the negative publicity generated by the raid on the Vauxhall (it became the subject of a television documentary and numerous press reports)”, including sympathetic coverage in the Guardian. The case also attracted the attention of the gay MP Chris Smith, who attended a public meeting at the RVT in the wake of the raid.

The event was arguably the catalyst for starting the slow process of ameliorating relations between police and the LGBTQ community that has resulted in today’s largely harmonious relationship – the difference between night and day. In this respect, the ‘rubber gloves’ raid is analogous to the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York that catalysed the American struggle for LGBTQ rights.

So while the Royal Vauxhall Tavern was a haven and a shelter in the 1980s, it also played a role in making the 90s that bit less hostile to its community.

You can read the full 30,000-word application here. Despite the historic listing, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern still faces an uncertain future. To find out more go to RVT Future’s website.

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