It's Friday evening at iconic New York DJ Larry Tee's club night at XOYO in east London. There's a man propping up the bar in what can only be described as Hasidic glam and another doing his best impression of a granny in drag. Meanwhile, round the corner at the monthly Sink the Pink night at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, one man is rocking a look he describes as "deformed couture", while Lewis Burton (page 23) has chosen tonight to lift his skirts and unveil a fake vagina giving birth to a squid.
Drag queens in the East End are nothing new. Just ask Jonny Woo, who has been a pioneer on the scene for more than a decade. But recently there has been something of an explosion of flamboyance and eccentricity. These aren't drag queens trying to look like supermodels. These people are radical, reckless and out there.
"I think the reason drag is booming right now is because we are living in bleak times," says Glyn Famous, co-founder of Sink the Pink. "We are deep in recession with a Conservative government at the helm. All of a sudden it's a grey day, so people really want to express themselves and celebrate otherness. We have a different take on drag – it's a DIY ethos; you can be anything you want. It's comparable to that time back in the 1980s, when, again deep in recession, the brilliant radical artist Leigh Bowery was doing his thing."
It's not surprising that this younger generation of lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) people are reaching deep into their wardrobes to find new ways to express themselves. As well as the gloomy economic outlook, there is also currently the global debate about gay marriage, which could have huge implications for their identity and culture.
While gay couples have been allowed to enter into civil partnerships since 2005, the recent passing of the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill means that it won't be long before gay couples can walk down the aisle just like their straight counterparts. There is a consensus that moving towards equality is a good thing, there are some troubling aspects, too. What does the passing of the Bill actually mean? Didn't the original Stonewall radicals call for liberation rather than equality? Wasn't marriage itself deemed as oppressive? And do we really want it done in a church?
"I don't believe in gay marriage, not in a conventional sense, absolutely not," says Famous. "I believe in equal rights but I don't want equality in terms of the same social blueprint as straight people. We are diluting who we are to gain the right to get married. Soon we will be living like straight people in suburbia. Screw that: I want to live on the fringes of society."
It's a sentiment echoed by many young East End club kids and drag queens who worry that the shift towards the mainstream could have a heteronormative effect on the world they inhabit. They fear that in future, the colourful, queer and highly accepting scene that welcomed them in might one day be no more.
Holestar, a female drag queen, or, if you like, tranny with a fanny, agrees. "What of the queers who don't want to conform?" she says. "For me, queer is simply other, regardless of sexuality or gender. Queers shouldn't be forced into conventionality. Look at the queers in the media. Alan Carr and Graham Norton are fab but they are a camp, asexual, non-offensive type of gay. Your nan likes them – they aren't going to bum you into next week. In the 1980s, there were naughty queers such as Boy George, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Kenny Everett, who showed a sexualised and alternative version of gay life. k Where are their counterparts now? It's all been watered down to a safe face of gayness."
Many also find it deeply troubling that it is a Conservative government which has been pushing the bill through. "I have got as much in common with David Cameron and Boris Johnson as I have with Stalin," says Famous. "They use that awful jolly British, foppy thing to hide a huge amount of horrible fascist opinions. They do not give a shit about gay culture."
Famous also thinks the fight for same-sex weddings to take place in a church is a big problem, simply due to the fact that he feels it is an institution that shunned the gay community for so long. "Wanting to have any sort of religion, especially the Catholic Church, validate gay marriage, is just ridiculous. It's like being a vegetarian butcher. You just can't."
Some people wonder whether the whole thing hasn't been one big unnecessary distraction from other more important battles. There is, for example, the horrific shutdown on gay rights in Russia. Or the fact that in countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and Mauritania, homosexuality is now punishable by death. And then there is the worrying fact that hundreds of thousands of French people felt the need to take to the streets to protest against gay rights in May.
So nobody knows what the fall-out will be when the first happy couples start heading to the altar. What we can be sure of is that in one corner of the East End, there will be a group dressed in all their finery fighting to stay loud and proud.
"And," concludes Megan-Deth, a 30-year-old drag queen and singer, "if you let us get married, it also means you'll have to let us get divorced. And that will give us a chance to spend our [settlement] cheques on all the young gay lovers and boob jobs we want."
Jordan Gene Bowden
"It's a great shame that in 2013 there are still people who are desperate for affirmation. This idea of being accepted by an institution comes from lack of self-acceptance. It's a shame that some people think their friends and family want to see them married in a church just like everybody else.
"For some people there is desperation to be normal, which they are mistaking for a desire for their families to accept them and love them. By walking down the aisle like their parents did, they think they will get this affirmation. It shouldn't be the only way they feel accepted.
"We have fought for a long time for our rights – to stop harassment, arrest and murder – because we wanted to explore our freedom. To choose to go back into an institution seems like a wasted opportunity.
"I never trust a Conservative on gay issues. This whole debate stinks of Tories."
31, student of fine art at London Metropolitan University
"We must remember our history. It's thanks to pioneers such as Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman and Boy George that I can walk down the street dressed like this. It was their acts of rebellion that have helped make the gay scene so creative and accepting. We have a brilliant culture because of our history as outcasts.
"And it's because so much work has been done that I can sit here and say I don't ever want a gay marriage. If other people want to, that's fine, but for me, being gay enables you to be as different as you want to be, and marriage is all about conforming. I feel blessed to be gay. I'm glad I was born this way. But I worry that we are becoming normalised.
"I was brought up Catholic – you could say it's either really homophobic or the biggest gay club in the world. Either way, I know I don't need acceptance from any religion."
26, artist and musician
"The whole gay marriage question seems to me like an old-fashioned debate about what is deemed normal. We are obsessed with viewing marriage in terms of male and female and who is allowed to be with whom.
"To me it feels like various institutions – the media included – are talking about us rather than talking with us. We need equal rights but we also need cultural difference.
"I do worry that we are moving towards a more heteronormative society. And I worry that it is partly being policed within the gay community – we are putting restrictions on things that are stopping us from thinking beyond definitions. Maybe the gay-marriage debate has diminished the way we think."
21, model, DJ and student of menswear at London College of Fashion
"I have different feelings about gay marriage. On the one hand I'm for it – if one thing is being offered to one group of people, it should be offered to everyone. But another side of me is asking why we even want to be part of something that historically has failed to include us and has totally disenfranchised us.
"However, I do see normalisation as progress – it's a movement towards acceptance. In some ways it's very similar to the race issue. Look at how the world used to be so racist against different cultures and how we have become absorbed and welcomed.
"I feel like there are other important issues as well as gay marriage to focus on. What about the plight of the transgender community? Perhaps that will be the next battle."
33, founder of Sink the Pink club night
"If I was in love, I would like the option to legalise my relationship and have it validated, but do I want that done by a church? Do I want it done by any sort of religious group? Hell no. I think religion is a load of old tosh.
"Sometimes I want to shake gay guys who want that to happen, because there are different battles that need to be fought. I think there is a lot of confusion about what we are fighting for at the moment and I think a lot of people are scared to speak up. Now is the time for us to create our own social blueprint. We have been existing within the straight parameter of how to live since time began.
"Also, considering how things are in the world right now, gay marriage is not the most important thing. It's too comfortable. I think we should be focusing on gay rights in the rest of the world, where people are actually being killed on account of their sexuality."
21, studying fine art at Sir John Cass School of Art and Design
"I don't believe in marriage. The fact that you can just get divorced makes it seem redundant to me. When Henry VIII decided to introduce divorce to justify his own personal gain, it lost all its meaning.
"Of course we have equality now and that can only be a good thing, but marriage is an idea that is closely tied to the Church and religion, and the idea of one man getting married to one woman.
"Having said that, there is something very raw and punk about the gay community hijacking this very narrow definition. The Church must be horrified. They condemned the gay movement for such a long time that it's a bit of a nice big fat middle finger back to them for all the years of persecution and mistreatment."Reuse content