It only took three days for my 2023 New Year’s resolution to falter. But, to my surprise, it wasn’t the usual lack of motivation that got in my way: it was a man in a black raincoat, shoving me and calling me a faggot.
I tried to keep my resolution simple. I decided I would take a short walk around my local park, once a day, every day, for all of 2023. I figured it would be good for me to get outside, be in nature and move. It’s well documented that physical activity has benefits for mental health, something I’d struggled with over the last few years. But ever since the traumas of high school phys-ed, I’ve found it hard to make any type of exercise work for me. I’ve tried yoga, climbing, basketball, weightlifting and running, but none of it stuck for more than a few weeks. I really wanted to keep it up this time. My girlfriend agreed to join me, and that would help. Despite the cold London weather, the first couple of walks were lovely. A bit bracing, sure, but with bright sunlight and a lot of small dogs to say “hi” to—some of them even wore little sweaters. In this city, it’s nice to be somewhere you can see the sky, or at least some trees, when you look up. I felt good about this plan. And then the incident happened.
It’s hard to recall the moment when his body hit mine, shoulder to shoulder. I remember noticing him from a few hundred metres away, taking note that his demeanour seemed a little angry, a little scary. And I remember right afterward, the feeling of something heavy falling all the way through my abdomen as I realized what had happened. Looking incredulously at my girlfriend, affirming and comforting each other. But the impact itself, accompanied by the sound of the slur, is a hole in the middle of the memory. I know it happened though. And I know it hurt.
After the incident, we completed our planned loop of the park, but it didn’t feel the same. I felt shaken, and shaky. I didn’t want to be there anymore. All the reasons why I normally feared the outside world—why I wanted to stay in my flat or in a few safe LGBTQ+ community spaces—came flooding back. It’s not just about the people who actually say or do something, it’s more about the sense they create that I’m not welcome, that I’m out of place. Sometimes I feel afraid that cars won’t stop for me at crosswalks, because once a man yelled “dyke” at me and tried to hit me with his car as I crossed the road. As a visibly queer person, I find it hard to trust that people will treat me with basic decency in public places.
On the way home, I thought about the last time I had been physically harassed by someone in public. It was before the COVID-19 pandemic, in a supermarket in Bloomsbury (incidentally the historical home of queer author Virginia Woolf, and the eponymous Bloomsbury Group she was part of). I was trying to buy grapes and an older woman pinned me against the shelves with her shopping cart, demanding to know if I was a man or a woman. I didn’t know what to say, so I just waited for her to leave me alone. Eventually she gave up, but at least a dozen people saw what happened, and no one did anything. I went home without my grapes. I never went back to that supermarket. But I wanted things to be different this time. I didn’t want to give up on my resolution. I didn’t want to let that man take my park from me.
But, how could I keep walking? I felt like the park wasn’t safe anymore, and in some ways, that was true. I considered how I could reclaim the space for myself, or at least shift its meaning. I wondered if there might be LGBTQ+ events that took place there, maybe in the bandstand or café—or I could wait until the weather warmed up for a picnic. Either way, I thought maybe being there in a group of queer people might help me, and turned to Google to find out if an organized community event of some sort already existed.
I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I found something else that excited me even more: the park had a queer history that I hadn’t known about. Highbury Fields, my local park, was the site of the U.K.’s first-ever gay rights protest, about a year and a half after the Stonewall riots, and, relatedly, had historically been a cruising ground. In fact, there was even a plaque to commemorate the Gay Liberation Front demonstration there, though I’d never noticed it before. Queer history nerd that I am—I do love a research task—I quickly accumulated a lot more information.
According to No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: An Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front 1970–1973 by Lisa Power, on a winter night in 1970, 150 members of the Gay Liberation Front gathered in Highbury Fields. They were demonstrating against the recent arrest of a man named Louis Eaks, who was charged with importuning (the act of offering or seeking sex in public, typically by a sex worker). Eaks had asked a male police officer for a light, which was construed as flirtatious, although he claimed he had no such intention. Eaks’s arrest was part of an ongoing pattern of police harassment toward queer people, where so-called “pretty policemen” posed as gay in public places, in order to entrap men who were then arrested for soliciting sex. Eaks denied the charges, but in the end he was convicted and fined £60—about £800 today (approximately CAD 1300 or USD 1,000). At the protest, queer activists lit one another’s cigarettes in a reference to Eaks’s request for a lighter, and kissed openly.
When I imagine this moment, I think about all those tiny flames, the warmth and the light. Stuart Feather, a Gay Liberation Front activist, is quoted in the aforementioned book, describing the “release” of kissing openly and being able to just “carry on.” This happened more than five decades ago, but I can relate to that feeling. As a queer person, kissing a partner in public still feels like a risk, and the moment when you notice nobody paying attention is still a relief.
Louis Eaks died of complications related to AIDS in 1991. He had been a journalist and worked on the Stop the Seventy Tour, campaigning against sports tours to apartheid South Africa, among other political causes. Eaks was arrested again in 1971, for gross indecency at Hyde Park, another famous cruising ground, and the address he gave in court at the time is about a 20-minute walk from my current front door. He was part of the National League of Young Liberals, who described themselves as “libertarian socialists.” Eaks and I have some things in common; I felt connected to him.
Reading about these stories didn’t just interest me, it gave me the confidence to go back to the park. After spending the night of the incident researching, I felt ready to return the very next day. As we embarked on our walk once again, I said to my girlfriend, “This is a canonically gay park! We own this park!” She laughed. But I was serious. I felt a new comfort level in the space, and a kinship with my “faggot” ancestors. It felt like the backdrop of an old family photograph of sorts.
We went to see the plaque, which was put up in 2000. I’ve seen a lot of plaques on walls in London, to the point that they almost blur into the brick buildings they’re on, but this one felt meaningful. It served the fundamental function of these objects, for me: to commemorate things, to ground stories in their specific geography, to make meaning. That’s what I needed. When memories of the harassment welled up, I thought about the plaque and instead visualized the Gay Liberation Front activists, men cruising, Eaks himself, and I felt welcome again. The spot where my harrassment happened was no longer just a trigger, it was part of a historical landmark. I still felt the impact of what had happened, but it was softened.
It meant a lot that we continued our new walking habit, and kept up with our resolution. Thinking back to the supermarket incident, I was glad I had been able to do things differently this time. I’ve experienced harassment like this since I was a teenager, and I’ve never really known how to respond to it. In the aftermath of each incident, I’ve usually felt powerless and afraid, and I’ve often internalized these experiences as a reminder that, as a visibly queer person, my access to public space is conditional.
I’ve spoken to a lot of other people who share variations of my experiences, and the helplessness I’ve felt isn’t unique. When I speak to other visibly queer people about these experiences, they tend to either focus on commiserating, or strategizing about how we can avoid future incidents. I’ve spoken to friends about wearing a beanie and face mask while out and about to prevent ourselves from being identifiable as trans at a glance, never making eye contact with strangers, or even avoiding whole areas of the city. These strategies do have their place; avoidance has definitely helped me in the past. For example, I’m glad I never saw that woman and her shopping cart again, even if I did have to walk an extra few blocks to the next nearest supermarket from then on. This time, though, I made an effort to reclaim my right to be there. Remembering the queer people who had occupied it before me, how they had shaped and created my city, helped make London and its public spaces feel safer.