Revellers were drawn to Birmingham’s gay village by the buzz of the bars, pubs and clubs. Just beyond the bright lights, drink fuelled merriment and music are quiet corners, secluded spots and secret places. A nest of backstreet hook-up hideaways. Birmingham’s gay beat… just off the beaten track. The scene unseen.
Cruising sites in the city centre have diminished over recent years, with residential developments encroaching on our gaybourhood. The gays have been driven from their traditional hunting grounds and forced to seek refuge in ever dwindling nooks and crannies, as the shadows recede.
The remnants of Kent Street Baths and its surroundings were once a hive of post club/predawn activity. Dozens of men cruised the alleyways and abandoned spaces, seeking brief encounters.
Gatherings would spontaneously erupt in empty units or behind crumbling walls.
I remember one Christmas shopping expedition concluding in a group session in the shadows of one of the billboards that dominated the corner of a Southside carpark. The number of participants rapidly increased, as sharks circled and joined the feeding frenzy, the inevitable pilot fish floated on the periphery, hoping to pick up scraps. This impromptu happening lost its appeal once someone tried moving the whole affair to the mundane privacy of his flat in Dorothy Towers and it disbanded as quickly as it had begun. Oh well, the alfresco orgy was over, so I scooped up my gift bags and headed home.
Policing in the area has waxed and waned. During liberal administrations, the gay boyz would be left undisturbed. The attitude seemed to be, ‘If it isn’t hurting anyone, let them get on with it, in the same way people turn a blind eye to antics on Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common or in NYC’s Central Park, embracing it as ‘local colour’, and knowing, like Little Red Riding Hood, not to stray from the path.
Other periods would see increased police presence and the word on the street would be to stay vigilant.
An acquaintance and I were disturbed by approaching headlights, so we rearranged ourselves and strolled casually along the cobbles of Henstead Street, a forgotten byway that acted as the express route between the Birmingham scene’s two surviving traditional pubs, The Wellington and The Fountain.
The police car pulled up alongside us and an officer enquired, “Excuse me guys, may I ask what you are doing here?”
“Just talking to this friend that I bumped into,” I replied, innocently.
“Oh, I see,” the officer said, unconvinced. “By the way, your belt is undone.”
In the dying days of that beat, I got the distinct impression that the occasional police presence was there to ensure the safety of the gay community, rather than controlling our moral impropriety.
The area could undoubtedly be risky. My partner was robbed by a gang at knife point. He gave evidence in court but was so disgusted by the system that he never bothered checking in on what became of them.
I myself escaped a mugger by turning on my heels (I wasn’t actually wearing heels) and running hell for leather towards Sherlock Street, hoping to seek sanctuary in Eden, but could see from a distance that the lights were off and the bar had closed for the night, so I turned up Hurst Street and dashed toward Medusa Lodge, a burlesque and gentlemen’s club incongruously located in the gay village.
When I breathlessly explained to the bouncers on the door what had just happened, the four of them immediately formed a protective barrier around me.
“You are safe now,” the towering head bouncer assured me. “Order a taxi and we won’t let anything happen to you.”
I felt like the US President, surrounded by his personal bodyguard (Not THAT president, obviously, but a decent one).
One early morning in Birmingham’s favourite XXX-rated carpark, my partner and I spotted a steamed-up car with a couple of guys heavily petting in the front seats. The driver was a badass dude, while his passenger appeared a timid slip of a thing.
I made eye contact with the driver and received a look, which I interpreted as a come-on, so we both opened the backdoors and jumped in the rear seats.
“GET OUT MY CAR. MAN,” the driver shouted. “WHAT THE FUCK YOU THINK YOU DOIN’?!!!
We leapt straight back out, quickly joined by the lad from the front seat, who had instantly lost his ardour from the driver’s aggressive outburst.
The three of us took one look at each other and exploded with laughter. I was doubled over by the outrageousness of the situation.
Suddenly the driver’s door burst open and he stormed towards us hurling threats and yelling, “DON’T FUCKING LAUGH AT ME!”
This boy from the hood was not someone to tangle with in a desolate carpark, but I stepped forward with my hands raised in contrition.
“We are not laughing at you, honestly,” I explained. “We are laughing at ourselves. We are the idiots who just climbed into a complete stranger’s car.” I offered him my hand to shake, “It was our mistake. I am so sorry.”
“Don’t get closer,” my partner warned, “he may have a knife!”
“It’s fine. He won’t hurt me,” I replied, realisation dawning, “we’ve met before.”
The guy looked puzzled momentarily then a smile of recognition broke through the scowl, showing a cute gap in his two front teeth, “Hey man, how are you?”
We shook hands and I introduced him to my partner, “I know this guy, we have hooked up in a few places,” I explained.
He smirked and asked, “Can I come back to yours?”
This time with an invitation, my partner and I jumped back into his car and the three of us drove off, with a scrape of gravel, leaving the other chap stood abandoned in the carpark, bewildered by this sudden and unexpected turn of events.
Hot boy from the hood became a semiregular nocturnal visitor to our home, although turning up at ridiculously inappropriate times of the night.
Sometimes, on weeknights, we would ignore his knocks and pretend to be asleep, which in retrospect, I can’t believe we did, as he possessed the physique of a superhero, with muscles that I didn’t even know existed beyond the pages of a comic book.
The first time I saw his abs, I gasped, “Oh my God, I could grate cheese on those!”
He looked like he had been carved from marble, with a hue of darkest midnight, which had the unfortunate drawback of vividly showing up light pet hairs if his visit coincided with our dog’s moulting season. There were occasions when we would have to brush down his ripped torso to prevent him leaving the house looking like the Abominable Snowman, which, to be honest, was hardly a chore.
We hadn’t seen our superhero for many years but did recently discover that a cherished friend is now the recipient of those unannounced late-night visits.
“He will do anything you ask him,” our friend told us. “I make him perform naked press-ups, so I can watch those muscles at work.”
Coincidentally, a few days after learning of our shared connection, I ran into Superman on Lower Essex Street. He was the most gregarious I had ever seen him. Giddy with excitement that he had just been talking about us with our mutual friend only the day before, he bound over the road, with a wide beam that showed off that delectable gap.
Although not highlighted in the brochure, those dark corners are a vital part of any gay scene and usually the reason that they became established where they did in the first place. There is a reason that the scattered venues of Liverpool’s scene are hidden down dumpster strewn alleyways; and what would Canal Street have been without those bridges?
I recently took part in a research project on how Birmingham town planners could consider the needs of the city’s gay community. Along with conventional suggestions, I stressed the necessity for fabulous dark corners, and suggested incorporating them into plans for the gentrified gaybourhood. I would love to be in the council chambers when that is proposed.
Apparently, when a Mayor of Brighton was approached about installing CCTV along the beach front to curb cruising, he refused, stating that he came to Brighton thirty years earlier to cruise men and that was part of gay culture. He was not going to be the guy who put an end to it (so there is a president…from Brighton’s President).
He knew, only too well, that it may be the lure of the bright lights and the beat of the music that attracts the punters… but it’s the dark shadows of the beat that keeps the lifeblood of the scene pumping.