Words Ezra Axelrod
Portraits Astrid Schulz
“It was an environment of pure excitement and a universal sense of defiance…”
Coming to Soho after graduating university in rural Vermont — where my partner and I had grown accustomed to us being “the only gays in the village” — we found ourselves hypnotised by the parade of out-gay men that poured from every corner. As we started fumbling our way into adult lives, Soho took us in like two stray puppies. It all started with Castro, the sexy personal trainer at Jubilee Hall, who said he was looking for flatmates. With weak knees I frantically dialled my hubby, and three days later we were living with Castro and his Brazilian boyfriend at 72 Old Compton Street. The four of us hardly fit in the one-bed-turned-two-bed flat, eating dinners on the floor of the entrance hall and clambering over each other for the daily peep show of male escorts in the flats across the street. Here, I observed a neighbourhood that celebrated its history of hedonism and tolerance while constantly reinventing itself; a fast-paced mishmash of bohemian legends and capitalist exploits. The neighbourhood’s energy is a beacon for gay men around the world, who flock here in search of community, sex, intimacy and ambition.
Clayton Littlewood’s partying days might be over, but the wide-eyed awe that led him from Weston-upon-Mare to Soho at the age of 19 remains. He came in search of the enticing underground world of dive bars and misfits, described by his idol Marc Almond on Soft Cell’s 1981 classic Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. “He was so flamboyant and committed to being himself. I knew that if Marc Almond lived in Soho, I wanted to be there too,” Clayton tells me over coffee and macaroons. In the early ‘80s, Clayton’s main priority was making enough money to afford going out. He cleaned the Apollo Theatre in Victoria by day and frequented the clubs of Soho by night. In Soho, Clayton felt part of a tribe of people just like him, all misfits carving out a place for themselves in which to assert their gay identities. “It was an environment of pure excitement and a universal sense of defiance.”
Today, Clayton is best known for his book Dirty White Boy, a chronicle of Soho’s eccentrics as witnessed from behind the counter of his eponymous shop on the corner of Old Compton and Dean Street, catering to gays but attracting an endless cast of characters. From politicians to pimps, no one is spared in Clayton’s account. In the tradition of Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp, and Clayton’s dear friend Sebastian Horsley, Dirty White Boy celebrates Soho for being a unique melting pot of classes, sexualities, tastes, and everything in between. The shop lasted for two years on a corner of Soho that has seen a slew of ventures come and go. Although Clayton has nothing but gratitude for Soho, he details how he hit “rock bottom” when his shop’s collapse bankrupted him. This moment of Soho-induced desperation catalysed self-discovery, propelling Clayton into a career as a writer. He bemoans how often the press ask him to comment on the demise of hedonist Soho as though he were some sort of Grim Reaper. Despite the incessant change, one can’t help but feel that the history captured by Clayton transcends economics that Soho will continue to be the stage on which gay men from around the world chase their ambitions, confront their baggage, and reinvent themselves.
For David Stuart, Substance Use Lead at Soho’s landmark 56 Dean Street Clinic, that process of reinvention started 28 years ago, when he found himself working as an escort, addicted to hard drugs, and diagnosed with HIV. David is direct and open about his past in order to contextualise his current role as a public health professional. Originally from Australia, David’s adolescence in his new home crashed head-on with the AIDS epidemic, a time scarred by premature funerals, a media offensive against gays, and a morbid fear of sex. “You would be lying in bed with a partner thinking to yourself: AIDS, AIDS, AIDS,” David recalls. David eventually found an opportunity to volunteer for the Turning Point charity, supporting homeless heroin and crack users, which gave him focus, sobriety, purpose, and a full-time career. Since 56 Dean Street opened five years ago, David has seen it become a kind of de facto LGBT community centre in the heart of Soho. Through his work there, David is dedicated to helping gay men develop the tools necessary to build healthy relationships and habits, in sex and substance use. “What we might have failed to do during the 30 years of the AIDS epidemic is communicate what good sexual and mental wellbeing is,” David reflects, “that sex can be a fundamental part of forming fulfilling relationships.”
David is concerned that today’s gay community suffers a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, making decisions out of the fear inculcated during the fight against AIDS as opposed to studied self-awareness. He sees a new generation of young gays equipped with a plethora of sex-facilitating apps, but without any frame of reference for how to navigate this space. “In school, did that kid learn to understand his sexual desire and how to incorporate his emotional needs into that?” David hopes that programmes like Dean Street Wellbeing will serve as a backbone for the gay community in London, and foster a wider conversation about how to live a happy, healthy life as a gay man.
As dusk falls on Soho, 22-year-old Glaswegian Tom Legatt skirts the timeless throng of pint-guzzling bears in front of Compton’s. He takes a left at Frith Street and disappears through the stage door of the Prince Edward Theatre, where he works as an assistant stage manager on Miss Saigon. “I think parents have a sixth sense when their kids are gay, because mine constantly bought me musical theatre CDs throughout childhood,” Tom recalls. Although, as a teen in Glasgow, Tom dabbled with the idea of becoming a lawyer, he applied to the Guildhall and moved to London to complete a degree in stage management at the age of 17. His career since could only be described as a theatre-buff’s dream. Armed with a lawyer’s attention to detail, he has been part of some the world’s most prestigious stage management teams, including those for the London 2012 ceremonies, Sochi, Les Misérables and now Miss Saigon.
As Tom tells me about his professional highlights, I note that he seems to have his life sorted. He chuckles and says, “Come back in a few years, and maybe I’ll be a washed up mess.” Although easy to dismiss as a self-effacing comment, Tom is aware of how quickly circumstance can change, especially in the fast-paced world of lust and ambition that is Soho — a theme echoed by Clayton and David. Although struggle and transformation take different forms for the men who come here, they seem to be an inevitable fate. I ask Tom if he feels like working in Soho has changed him. “Definitely,” he says, “I’ve started going to a personal trainer. I just can’t be this skinny here…” Tom is referring to a preference for six packs and biceps that permeates the neighbourhood. In the windows of clothes stores, sex shops and clubs throughout Soho, models display statuesque bodies with bursting packages and gravity-defying bums; a fantasy aesthetic that many gay men work hard to achieve.
To be a young gay in Soho is to encounter a world where for centuries fantasy and reality have seamlessly collided. Like Tom, Damian Yanes came to London with a tireless work ethic and determination, qualities that saw him moving through job promotions at Wahaca, Ku Bar and the now defunct Manbar. He was set on leaving behind the tumult of his life back home in the Canary Islands, but he never dreamed that soon he would be rechristened as the porn actor Damian Gomez. Reflecting on his relationship to sex, he recounts how he lost his virginity at the age of 12 when a classmate followed him to the toilet. With age his sexual thirst only grew: “I loved that I was young and small, but could take control of men with my gaze,” says Damian, reminiscing in graphic detail about his adolescent conquests. Longing for intimacy and connection in London, he eventually started dating a man he met on Grindr, only to discover he was the porn actor Rio Silver. “In the beginning, I was jealous, but I learned to accept it.” Part of accepting his boyfriend was watching his films, an experience Damian calls “arousing.” Although Damian says that acting in porn had never interested him as a profession, soon after breaking up with Rio he went online and submitted applications to porn producers. “They responded immediately, it was so easy! I had an open mind, and I thought it would be an experience,” Damian says. A year later, he’s completed 10 film shoots, a whirlwind he finds hard to fathom. “I thought that acting in porn would consist of doing the shoot. I never could have imagined the fans, the trips, the parties, the freebies, the interviews.” I ask Damian whether he’s found intimacy in his new career. “Yes, strangely enough, even with the lights and the crew, sometimes there’s such an intense connection with your partner on set.” Damian felt especially close to Rocco Steele, an actor of 25cm fame with whom he filmed Daddy’s Boy. For now, Damian seems content to be single, feverishly working at establishing himself as a seasoned porn actor. In the future, he’d like to become a Soho restaurateur, but he’s keeping the concept of his debut eatery a secret so that no one copies it.
Millionaire financier turned conservative politician Ivan Massow feels that the kind of entrepreneurialism that lights up Damian’s eyes is typical of the gay men who frequent Soho. I meet Ivan as he prepares his bid for Mayor of London. The 47-year-old is eager to see more of his gay brothers “come out as conservative,” a typically bold statement from Ivan that incites rage from commentators quick to remind the electorate of the Tories’ record on gay rights. But Ivan persists. “If you were to break down what most gay people are, they are actually quite conservative: they’re keen on small government and owning their home; they want as few regulations as possible and don’t want state interference in their personal lives. Most of those are pretty conservative values.” His conservatism is a by-product of a life in which he says he was left to fend for himself. After a childhood in foster care, as a late teen he landed a job at an insurance company in Bristol, discovering a “good old boys’ club” that translated AIDS-fuelled homophobia into a policy that denied gays access to insurance or charged them 600% more than what straight people paid. Seeing a socially conscious business opportunity, Ivan moved to London in 1990 to open Massow Financial Services, providing the gay community with otherwise unavailable insurance and mortgages at competitive prices. Seven years later, Ivan was a high-rolling poster-boy for the gay rights movement, with an office and flat in Soho. His meteoric rise came with a price tag. His conservative politics jarred with gay activists, who, Ivan says, accused him of ‘cosying up to the enemy.’ “I was trying to convert the Tories from within so that they weren’t an enemy,” Ivan states, in defence of his party affiliation.
After a series of unsuccessful business mergers, an ugly lawsuit, the suicide of his boyfriend, and a struggle with alcoholism, Ivan hit rock bottom against the familiar boom and bust backdrop of Soho. Emerging from rehab in 2009 with a new sense of direction, he has since managed to build and sell a new business and re-launch his political career. He now has his eye on Boris Johnson’s baton in 2016. And, if his Instagram account is anything to judge by, his life today reads like a bourgeois fantasy: travelling the world, horseback riding, art galleries. Among the collection is the odd selfie of Ivan looking chiselled and happy, a resilient gaze fixed on the horizon.
It is here in this neighbourhood that gay men from around the world converge in pursuit of their ambition, so often face their downfall, and ultimately find purpose. Soho is the ever-changing, thumping heart of the world’s greatest city, and whatever becomes of it, I have no doubt that it will be immortalised in the folklore of gay men around the world for generations to come.