Queer Footprints – A Guide to Uncovering London’s Fierce History (Pluto Press, 2023) is a combination of 200 interviews, secondary research, oral herstory* and many stories derived through activism. Its author Dan Glass shares what he realised through its creation.
Serendipity was singing sweetly when it emerged that Queer Footprints was due to be published in 2023, the 20th anniversary of the achievements of the activists who helped overturn ‘Section 28,’ the lethal legislation that forbade the promotion of homosexuality in public institutions. With the latest Conservative government attack on our trans community, the ‘Police Crime and Sentencing’ Act, the ‘Immigration and Borders Bill’, all cracking down on our fundamental right to exist, protest and resist, remembering the strength and vitality of our community has never been more important.
I didn’t want to write Queer Footprints in a detached way. I chose not to write, ‘in this building this happened …’, or ‘In this street someone said …’ because the reality is we create community together, continually, all the time. Through my involvement with movements such as ‘Aids Coalition to Unleash Power’ (ACT UP), ‘Gay Liberation Front’ (GLF), ‘Sexual Avengers’ and beyond, these connections blossomed many fruits since I began the process. Whilst the main orbit of the book is the genealogy of queer liberation in London, it connects with movements for revolutionary transformation across the world and catalyses a toolkit for change everywhere as well as being a practical guide for all queer herstory geeks when visiting London.
It soon dawned on me that my street and grassroots activism has a very different energy from writing. Activism is constantly being on the go, sharing paths with people and navigating different emotions, traumas, legal aspects, protests and organising. So, writing for me was a really beautiful challenge because it enabled me to more deeply explore sexual-spatial geography: who owns our cities?
There are so many incredible examples of how we have emerged and sometimes thrived amongst the cracks of the city, whether that’s cruising or the backwards glances or creating underground meeting spaces. Learning about them all, it blew my mind. I was swept up in this world. The twists and turns, the fear, the violence, the sadness, the loneliness as well as the total shape-shifting displays of affection and bravery on this journey are mammoth. Often gritty, always exploratory and adventurous, these acts of ownership and reclamation at first seemed random. And then I realised, the total awe-inspiring cacophony of it all is what brings us back into a field of empowered vision – with all its complexities and mayhem, and every single person re-addressing the imbalance of power, contributing together to huge advances in the sea of life, so much to learn, so much to celebrate and, really, in such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. It felt so hopeful, this rewilding of our imagination for human possibility, and it soon dawned on me that, without a doubt, we have everything we need to achieve absolute freedom for all life out there.
The difficult part was cutting it down because I ended up with 2000 case studies of queer protest or parties or revolutionary happenings or shags in alley ways, and the difficult part was how to choose from among those stories. The line that really captures my priorities about which options to platform, that personifies the lessons from queer movements of the past, is, “nothing scares the police more than oppressed people organising together, demanding their freedom.” That is in the context of the Mangrove restaurant, a hub of organising activity, connection and a sanctuary for community healing, explored in the Ladbroke Grove chapter. An intersectional approach is not just vital on a moral level, to elevate all the incredible people and movements who have made the necessary change.It is vital on a written level, because we have to honour everyone who made the changes.
It is also vital on a political level. The powers that be want us to be isolated. They want movements for transformation to be pigeon-holed, as in “that’s what an environmental activist looks like”, “that’s what an anti-racist activist does” or “that’s what LGBTQIA+ activists care about.” They thrive on separating us and not letting us connect. In recent history this stems from Margaret Thatcher who did a great job of that with the mantra, “there’s no such thing as society.” Because of this, throughout the creation of Queer Footprints I chose to include movements that are see injustices as connected, because we’re all impacted by the same dominator culture of patriarchal, sexist, racist, ableist, etc, violence. We’re all affected within that framework, so we all have to work together on the ground.
One thing which is always stuck in my head is the principle that 90% of the efficacy of social transformation is relational and reciprocal. The intimacy of everyday life is equally as important as the high profile political stances and press stories. It’s how we look after each other on an everyday level. It’s having a cup of tea with your friend when they’re depressed or marginalised by the system or going to hospital with someone when they need to get a checkup or get information about queer or trans healthcare. This is the human connection that is vital in the face of adversity. The everyday acts of love and solid action which are the stepping stones to help us cross the river to the next stage of revolutionary action.
We have all been reduced. We live in such a reductive society because of capitalism. When we can take a step back and cherish the fact that we’re all multidimensional human beings we can take joy in the fact that we don’t have to be crushed into a single entity because of the economic and political paradigm we live in. Once we clock this, we can thrive in multiple ways and reach our full individual and collective potential. Hope, and genuine, authentic optimism are the political principles that can carry us there, as the great Angela Davis reminds us: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.”
Can Queer Footprints provide some answers for how we can all continue to challenge systems of oppression so that we can one day, all be free? I hope it does.
Dan Glass is an award-winning activist, performer and writer based in London. He is the author of Queer Footprints. Buy it here from Lighthouse Books.
*herstory: history told from a feminist perspective.