I sat down with London LGBTQ+ Community Centre’s organisers before their launch
The Centre aims to be an accessible space where the community can meet ‘without having to scream over each other in a bar’
The team behind London LGBTQ+ Community Centre Pop-up invited The London Tab for a chat and a glimpse behind the scenes before their opening on December 1, following our previous article on their project. So there I was: trudging tentatively across the Blackfriars Bridge with the non-existent confidence of an amateur journalist, armed with nothing but the horrible camera of my iPhone and “interview questions” that couldn’t keep most people talking for more than three seconds.
But as I entered the centre, the welcoming atmosphere and the friendly team immediately calmed me down. Marta, the project’s communications leader, showed me around the space built over an impressively short span of two weeks. And the project’s directors – Sarah, Megan, and Jay – sat down and responded without judgement as I stumbled over words I’ve practised a million times in my head.
Needless to say, I am very excited to share and be a part of this “exciting experiment” after my visit. So let me show you around this stunning new addition to the city’s LGBTQ+ spaces.
Not gonna lie, I was late for my scheduled visit because the train was delayed and I wasn’t as fast as I thought I’d be at running with a heavy backpack. But if you aren’t disorganised like me, getting here should be fairly straightforward. The Centre is almost directly across the Thames from the Blackfriars Station – about a seven-minute walk after exiting the Tube. The Southwark Station is also within 15 minutes by foot. There are numerous buses arriving at the nearest bus stop, which is about a four-minute walk from the Centre.
From Southwark Street, turn and head straight down Hopton Street and you’ll see the Centre tucked away in the left corner of the building complex ending the road.
Alternatively, if you’re a romantic and love a stroll by the river, you really can’t miss the vibrant art and blatant signs on the glass windows when you pass by.
Not your stereotype
As much as we don’t want to admit it, the image immediately popping up when we think of an LGBTQ+ space is most likely a nightlife venue of some sort. So while I expected the Centre would be different – as they made it very clear in their name and press release – I was still quite nervous before seeing it.
To my relief, the space ended up looking very much like my uni department’s common room – with colourful chairs, bookshelves, and even a specially designated corner for reading.
This is actually something at the core of the project’s initiative: being “sober.”
“I think for quite a lot of queer people of all ages, their first entry point into community spaces and social settings is through nightlife – which are always, you know, associated with alcohol and drugs,” Jay said.
While he went on to say that nightlife venues are “completely valid” and “serve a purpose,” he warned that because of these spaces becoming the norm – and, for many people, the only option – the community is exposed to “increased risks of drug abuse and alcohol abuse [without] specific interventions necessary to help those people that may be most vulnerable.” By replacing the bartender with barista, Jay hoped the Centre could become “where people can come and create sort of meaningful connections that they can remember the next day.”
And, recognising that LGBTQ+ societies in unis often can’t hold a social event “without having to scream over each other in a bar,” the Centre welcomes bookings from queer student societies on Mondays and Tuesdays – when the space will be “reserved for closed event bookings by LGBTQ+ groups to ensure privacy.”
“I know that it would have helped me quite a lot when I was younger. Especially when I was navigating university, my entry point into ‘queer settings’ was usually through drugs. And I think I would have benefited from a space like this a lot earlier on: somewhere to come and read a book, have a coffee, watch a movie, and actually meet people with a similar background.”
Designed with you in mind
Looking around the space, something that caught my eye was a secluded room at a corner. This was the “sensory room” for private services or just anyone feeling overwhelmed, which all team members seemed very proud to highlight to me. As a disabled person with sensory sensitivities, it’s touching to be considered in the Centre’s design. In fact, the architects also did their best to make sure the space is wheelchair accessible.
Adding onto this, Sarah told me that “the accessibility of everyone is paramount” to the team, and this includes London’s uni students.
Having been a uni student in London herself, Sarah “vividly remember being unbelievably broke” and “completely understand the pressures of finances for students and graduates as well.” As a result, she and the team “really want to create something that’s really holistic – 360°.”
Specifically on budget, the Centre’s cafe would be serving coffee from Grind, but the team made sure that “95 per cent of the events are free” and “the most expensive drink that we serve is two pounds.”
“We understand that can still be unaccessible for some people, so we have a ‘pay it forward’ scheme – where you can pay two pounds on top of your purchase that pays for somebody to have a free drink. We’re not going to be asking any questions. We’ll also have a board with Post-it Notes so if you choose to pay it forward, you can write a note to somebody, stick it on the board. And if someone is tight of cash and can’t pay that day, they can just grab a post it note and pay with that instead,” Sarah elaborated.
The team also highlighted a variety of events and services suitable for queer students. Megan emphasised that they will open be open for bookings from LGBTQ+ students societies “with a sliding scale of costs,” hold book clubs and exclusive screenings of films by queer creators on the weekends, provide community-oriented mental and sexual health services, and plan for practical skills sessions like CV writing workshops to help level the playing field of young queer people who often “don’t receive the education they deserve” due to bullying and discrimination.
“But we’re open to ideas. So really, if people want to suggest anything: email us at [email protected]. We’d love for students to come and tell us what they need.
“One of the great thing about this space is that there isn’t a cost to come in. You can bring your own food – you don’t have to buy it. You can come here chill without spending a single penny and hopefully get some benefit from it. We ask people to donate if they can, but we fully accept that students of all ages can’t always do that,” Megan added.
By the community, for the community
While recognising there are existing LGBTQ+ spaces in London that are valuable to the community in different ways, I sensed from our chat that the distinct level of community involvement in the Centre is something the team takes pride in. For example, the project planning has been largely shaped by the two rounds of surveys into the community in 2018 and 2021.
Sarah said: “it’s always been incredibly important to us that what we do isn’t just the opinions of a handful of LGBTQ+ people with different privileges. We want it to be based off what the community wanted and needed. So that’s what we’ve always done – opening our ears and arms to those [who’d like to contribute].”
For Megan, while “there doesn’t need to be a specific difference between us and existing LGBTQ+ community organisations,” what made this Centre unique is that it’s “a bit of a one stop shop.”
“We find lots of other LGBTQ+ charities, individuals, and creatives to come here and help built this space so people can access different things at the same time. You know, one ticket here can get you a whole day of different services. And I think that’s what makes [us] accessible.”
But both of them stressed that they “only ever really wanted to add to the kind of incredible rich tapestry of [community spaces] that already exist” and would like to see more spaces across the huge city for the underserved community.
As our chat came to an end, I asked whether the team had anything to say to London’s students and young queer people. Jay said: “I know university can be an incredibly difficult time for everyone, but specifically LGBTQ+ students as often it’s the sort of time when people are discovering their place in the world. [So] utilise this space. It’s here for six months. There is no judgment for coming in whether you are ‘out proud’ or questioning – this space is for everyone.
“It’s for our community, by the community, so please just come and enjoy it. It’s all for you.”
The Centre is open as a six-month pop-up offering a cafe and meeting space open to the public from Wednesdays to Sundays, 11am to 8pm. Check out the their website for volunteer opportunities and exciting upcoming events – including a two-day winter market with queer creatives and speed-dating sessions for trans and non-binary folks.
Some profile photos in feature image were taken by Ant Belle and used with permission from London LGBTQ+ Community Centre.