Forget jolly olde London; Brighton is the new gay capital of Britain
By Doug O’Neill
London used to be the go-to destination for LGBTQ visitors to the UK. Queer folk automatically flocked to the trendy bars,
clubs and clothiers of Soho, or hopped the tube to Vauxhall for its popular drag acts and after-hours warehouse clubs. But that’s been changing. Big time. Even Londoners, along with visitors from abroad, now head south to Brighton to party and play—especially during Brighton’s Pride festival, which now outshines London’s festival in popularity and size. And, yes, size does matter. This sassy seaside city has the highest percentage of same-sex households in all of the UK. Has Brighton truly become London-by-the-Sea?
Welcome to Brighton
Café Coho, on Queen’s Road outside the Brighton train station, was jam-packed but subdued when I stopped in on a Monday morning last August, the day after the annual Pride Festival. The café had that Boxing Day quiet that settles in the morning after a big celebration, when streamers are scattered, hangovers abound and everyone is waiting to go home. That’s where Rhys and David were headed, home to London.
The two thirtysomethings flopped down at the counter next to me, overnight bags at their feet and return tickets to London’s Victoria Station stuffed in their pockets. David introduced himself with a voice so hoarse it obviously pained him to speak. His boyfriend, Rhys, simply blinked a “hullo,” barely looking up from the doppio espresso he cradled in his hands like it was a vessel of life-giving nectar—which it probably is if you’ve been partying for 48 hours and only want to go home to bed.
“We never carry on like this in London,” David explained, “only when we come down here to Brighton.” “Ee’s right, ya know,
only in Brighton,” offered the tousle-haired Rhys, who on this morning had that adorably dissolute look reminiscent of the flamboyant bisexual poet Lord Byron—who, if you’ll recall, romped his way through Brighton back in the 1800s. David and Rhys were simply following a tradition established by the LGBT crowd long, long ago.
Piers, queers and pleasure palaces
“Brighton has become an LGBT destination because it’s a holiday city,” says Ric Martin, who leads an LGBT-themed walking tour of Brighton called Piers & Queers. “In a town devoted to recreation rather than industry—transient population, lots of leisure time—the rules can be a bit different.”
Standing on the iconic Brighton Pier with the English Channel in the background, Martin explains to a group of LGBT visitors that “people have been letting their hair down and being unconventional in Brighton for over 250 years.” The liberal lifestyle, he says, goes back to the turn of the 19th century, when the then-Prince Regent (later King George IV) entertained upper-class toffs in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion—away from the prying eyes (and raised eyebrows) of the conservative set back in London. “Then, as now,” says Martin, “Brighton was the first-choice destination to escape your everyday life, and it’s the one most influenced by the cosmopolitan capital.”
Much of the “loose living” that Brighton became known for back in the 18th and 19th centuries took place in what is probably the seaside city’s most-visited tourist site today: the Brighton Pavilion. Originally built as a royal residence for that naughty Prince George, the Pavilion is unlike any castle in all of Britain. Historian Sandeep Singh Brar once quipped that “the Brighton Pavilion appears to be designed as if for a children’s fairytale book.” With its huge domes and minarets, the Pavilion looks like a grand mosque or palace right out of the Mogul Era of India. Inside, it’s all palm-tree columns, lacquered furniture, Chinese dragons and gilded everything.
But the decadence (some say debauchery) that transpired inside the Pavilion drew more attention than the campy décor. Not only did the Prince Regent host lavish parties in the sprawling complex, but his seaside pleasure palace afforded his pals a discreet rendezvous spot for romantic (often illicit) assignations. The bisexual poet Lord Byron “made merry in the extravagant Banqueting Room” while the flamboyant opera composer Gioachino Rossini performed in the grand Music Room.
It’s only fitting that one of the very first same-sex marriages in the UK took place inside the Brighton Pavilion after the stroke of midnight on March 29, 2014. But naughty George can’t take all the credit for the social and sexual liberation of Brighton.
“A large attraction to Brighton was the city’s large number of garrisoned soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars,” says tour guide Martin. “Single, unmarried men with time on their hands? Say no more.” By the 1920s and 1930s, Brighton was well-known as a place to “enjoy yourself and let your hair down” as bars catering to lesbians and a gay clientele flourished. Then came World War II, when Brighton once again bustled with uniformed soldiers, many of them Australian and Canadian. The gay history chronicle OurStory quotes a gay man who lived in Brighton at the time: “You used to meet the soldiers round the Clock Tower and off you’d go, there was plenty of places because of the blackout.”
Brighton today: anything goes
Recent polls suggest that from 13 to 17 per cent of Brighton’s population of 250,000 is gay. It was reported three years ago that 15 per cent of Brighton & Hove council staff identify as LGBT. Many of Brighton’s estimated 35,000 LGBT residents have come down from London; in fact, the trend of Londoners buying up homes in Brighton grew so much in the early 2000s that it prompted local entrepreneurs Kevin Newman and Richard Briggs-Price to set up Britain’s first gay real estate agency in Brighton-Hove.
LGBT tourists and transplanted Londoners flock, of course, to Brighton’s thriving gaybourhood in Kemptown, which is easily walkable. Pubs and clubs catering to gays, lesbians, bears and everything in between—some date back a few decades—cluster along St James’s Street and the Old Steine, a stone’s throw from the seafront. “The beauty of Brighton’s gay life,” says Martin, “is that it’s all so accessible. We even have the UK’s first-ever official nude beach just a short walk east of of Brighton Pier.”
And then there’s the Brighton-Hove Pride Festival, which is where many visitors get their first taste of queer-friendly Brighton. It’s the biggest Pride festival in the UK, drawing 350,000 people in 2016—in contrast to the 40,000 who attended London Pride. “Our Pride committee puts a lot of effort into the post-parade entertainment,” said Pride director Paul Kemp. “We have a huge festival site that features more than 14 stages, tents and areas for all sections of our diverse and glorious community.” This is one up over London, says Martin: “London Pride no longer offers a huge post-parade event. I think that explains why we draw so many to Brighton Pride.” (The headliner for Brighton’s post-parade party in 2016 was none other than Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen.)
Brighton’s year-round appeal includes a growing arts and culture scene. Brighton Fringe Festival (May 5 to June 4 this year), for example, is Britain’s largest arts festival. And there’s plenty of good wining and dining, especially in The Lanes, Brighton’s historic maze of twisting alleyways and shops.
Only in Brighton, you say? Pity
Residents and tourists naturally gravitate to Brighton’s seafront, which is where I enjoyed my last meal in Brighton. Knackered after a four-day visit (and a few too many pints in Kemptown), I sat down with my mates in the award-winning Jetty Restaurant, only to accidentally set fire to my beautifully crafted menu, thanks to a misplaced candle. Our Brighton-born waiter didn’t bat an eye: “Oh trust me, dearie, we’ve seen more outlandish sights here in Brighton, believe me.” Oh, I believe you, I most certainly do.
MAKING THE MOST OF
Piers & Queers Tour: Ric Martin offers his LGBT-themed walking tour of Brighton year-round.
Save the Date: Brighton-Hove Pride 2017 is August 4–6, 2017.
Rejuvenate post-Pride in quaint Hastings, a one-hour drive from Brighton. Book yourself into the the lesbian-run Old Rectory B&B, which is within walking distance of the seafront, art shops and fish market.
Night in a castle
You’ve travelled all the way across the pond, partied your heart out in Brighton…now it’s time for a Royal treat. Hop on the A23 for a one-hour drive to Hever Castle, where you can book a suite for the night. The 700-year-old, double-moated castle was once home to Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Everyone slept here. So should you.
Official visitor site: visitbrighton.com
DOUG O’NEILL is a Toronto-based writer who aspires one day to write The Happy Homo Hiker. His travels have landed him smack down in some of the world’s largest Pride Festivals (i.e., Brighton, England, and New York) along with some of the smallest (“there was that time in Saskatoon”).