I started TheirStories in Summer 2021 and it was really just as things were easing in terms of events and what we were able to do after the pandemic. Prior to March 2020, I had been running a late-night venue, queer space in Camberwell, The Chateau. It was a lot of amazing and incredible nights, but generally, it was very high intensity. It was late-night. It was loud. It was alcohol-focused, and it was a particular version of a queer space. I was missing some of the quieter and more thoughtful spaces, and also somewhere where I could find these intergenerational connections that I’d been looking for within the queer community. It is something that I’d been thinking about for a while and then as the pandemic eased a little bit, I was talking to a good friend of mine, Nick Hadfield, who runs the programming at the Standard, London and an opportunity came up to try something new and different in The Library Lounge. It is a beautiful space. It’s a very relaxed space. It’s a very informal space. It’s a space that is filled with books, filled with learning. So it really felt like the right place to try and create something that felt a little bit more thoughtful and a little bit more nourishing for the queer community.
What impact do you hope these events will have on LGBTQ+ individuals and their allies?
I think TheirStories offer two things: It offers space for people within the community to hopefully find some of these nourishing intergenerational connections and it also provides space for those who are not within the queer community to learn and to educate themselves. I always really welcome allies coming to TheirStories events because we’re talking about really important subjects and we are going really deep. I think that it’s really important that the allies have that opportunity to learn these things and to hear the context, to hear the histories of our communities, and to hear about the important narratives that often sit underneath the surface of the community that maybe you wouldn’t see talked about in mainstream press or in more mainstream depictions of what being a queer person is. So it’s really beautiful running TheirStories events. They’ve all been so amazing. There’s a feeling in the room after these events... it’s hard to describe. There’s an amazing energy because I think that sharing these stories in a space like The Library Lounge has had a really profound effect on many of the attendees and that’s why we do it, that’s why we create events and that’s why we create space like this.
TheirStories is such a community-building piece of programming, can you speak a bit about how identity defines the communities you are a part of and seek out?
The queer community is made up of a whole range of incredible different identities. It is extremely, extremely diverse and a lot of spaces are catering to more specific parts of the community and the specific needs of those parts of the community, which is really important. And I think it is a really significant shift. But I think also there is this glue that binds together queer people in general. I think that otherness and that queerness sit very deeply inside us and with TheirStories, what we try to do with the program is to speak to many of the different identities and stories and narratives that exist within our beautifully diverse community.
We’ve done events that focus on the Drag Queen Community. We had an amazing event with Drag Syndrome, which is a crew of kings and queens with Down Syndrome, so looking at disability within the community. We’ve had incredible music events from amazing DJs, filmmakers, artists, many of whom are queer people of color and trans people of color. We’re really trying to speak to so many of these different identities that sit within this queer community as a whole. I think we do need to stick together really as a community. Whilst there’s been so many progressions and many improvements in this country in terms of rights for queer people, we’re still fighting a battle. We’re still fighting a battle across the community, especially if we look at our trans and non-binary siblings, they need a platform to celebrate and uphold the entire community. It is still really important.
So with TheirStories, in terms of identity, I think I try to touch on many of these different intersecting identities that exist within the community, so that, hopefully, as a whole, we can support each other.
Can you share some standout moments or performances from past TheirStories events that have left a lasting impression on you?
I’m usually buzzing after TheirStories events. They give me so much life. The energy that comes off those events is super special. I think the event that stands out for me would be Drag Syndrome. Definitely! It was a really, really, really incredible night! The energy the Drag Syndrome bring into a space as people is phenomenal. It’s infectious. It’s like pure joy. People learn so much when they come to a Drag Syndrome event, just from being around these incredible kings and queens. First and foremost, they are amazing performers and amazing people with incredible charisma and they also happen to have Down Syndrome. It was an extremely powerful event and to platform a group like that within the context of a space like the Standard, I think, was something really unique and really special. You just felt this amazing energy in the room. Not just the audience but the staff members as well. I had people who work on the floor at the Standard coming up and saying, “It was the best event they’d seen there.” Something magical happened that night.
How do you feel about Pride as commercial capital?
It’s an important conversation to be having right now, as we are in pride month and every year, this month comes around and it’s really interesting for queer people. I think especially for the performance community and for working queer people who are potentially going to be booked for these pride campaigns by corporations, it’s a double-edged sword. I think it has become toxic in many ways because it speaks a little bit to a narrative of queer people are only worth something this one month. Many brands now look to jump on this LGBTQ+ bandwagon in June and, yes, it’s great to be paying members of the community to do things, but where’s the allyship for the rest of the year?
This work needs to be done year-round. I get to the end of Pride month, the end of June and it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. I feel personally a sense of emptiness, a little bit at the end of Pride month. Lots of big corporations really do not believe in the values of the queer community. The queer community at its heart is radical, so it is at odds with big-money corporations, and capitalism. It just is. It’s a really interesting point in this conversation because the Standard is obviously a high-end hotel and in many ways, a space like the Standard could be seen to stand at odds with some of those values of the queer community. So, when agreeing to work with the Standard in the first place, it was something I was very conscious of. It was something I wasn’t sure whether it was going to work. But I continue to work with the Standard because I feel especially the team around the work that I do there really believes in sensitively supporting the LGBTQ+ voices within the programming and that shows year-round. That is what makes the difference. The Standard is an example of how larger organizations can work sensitively with the queer community, with queer artists, and to create space for queer people. It’s not always perfect and there’s always work to be done, but when you compare that work and the work that we do at the Standard to the way that so many corporations might approach Pride Month, for example, the difference is very stark. The work needs to be consistent and it needs to be deep. It involves a huge amount of time, work, and effort on the part of corporations and often, they’re not really willing to do that work. They just want to show up for Pride Month to show that they’re inclusive in some way, but really do not support a diverse cross-section of the community behind the scenes day-in-day-out throughout the year. It’s become a cultural capital to work with queer people. People don’t realize the heritage of art, culture, and music that comes from the queer community. Suddenly in June, everyone is like celebrating us. And it’s a bit like, “Where were you when the shit was going down?" So many trans people are facing so much hatred within the mainstream press, within social media, and from the government. It’s like, “Where are you on supporting those people day-in-day-out through the year?” Because they think, it’s a contentious issue. They don’t want to alienate people by supporting the trans community. If you’re not going to support the trans community, don’t put a rainbow flag on your logo. Just don’t do it because it’s not authentic.
Outside of the hotel, where else is doing queer programming in London that you find really meaningful and think more people should be engaging with?
There have been a lot of discussions around it over the last 6-8 years around the loss of queer space in London. And there has been a general decline in queer spaces. I think that is really tricky. It’s really difficult. There’s a wide range of factors that contribute to that. But I think that actually... Despite that, there being less bricks and mortar permanent spaces in London, there is so much amazing, incredible, innovative, and forward-thinking work being done in some really fantastic spaces. And I think that some of these aren’t necessarily specific LGBTQ+ venues. But they are venues with a DIY ethos that support a cross section of the community in their programming consistently. So because the Chateau is a southeast London-based organization, a lot of the venues that I interact with are in southeast London. So there’s some great spaces like the Triangle LGBTQ+ Cultural Centre, which has opened in the last year or two in Deptford, which is a space that has some evening events, but also, it’s got studio spaces. They do exhibitions and workshops. It’s a more daytime into nighttime space. It is not so alcohol-focused, which I think is great. It’s run by an amazing group of artists who just wanted to create something. There’s a space called the Matchstick Piehouse in Deptford, which hosts a number of really incredible queer events. There is Venue Mot in Surrey Quays which has Big Dyke Energy, which is an amazing night, and loads of other cool nights. There’s Avalon Cafe which is also in Surrey Quays, Bermondsey area. These are some really, really forward-thinking groundbreaking DIY venues, that are consistently creating space for the queer community to run events in a way that is authentic and not financially-focused, because running events, and running nights and parties are often straight towards commercialism, because you have to make money at the bar. There’s a whole financial model around nightlife that needs to operate. But I think a lot of these venues are prioritizing the work. They’re prioritizing the culture. They are prioritizing the community over financial gain, which for me, is what creating space is all about.
TheirStories is a monthly series of engaging LGBTQ+ conversations, carefully curated by Laurie Belgrave, the founder of The Chateau. Held in the elegant setting of The Library Lounge at The Standard, London, these discussions seek to investigate, celebrate and uplift the diverse narratives and stories of London’s vibrant LGBTIQA+ community, with intergenerational talks, performances, cultural moments and music. It is a meeting point and platform for knowledge exchange between generations of queer creatives, artists & humxns.