Gay capital of Europe

Forget Berlin and Paris, London is streets ahead. And it's all down to the English psyche, says Nick Walker
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Today, 250,000 people are expected to march through London and then assemble on Clapham Common to celebrate the 25th Gay Pride, or to give it its full title: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Some Friends, the Occasional Mum and Dad, John's Straight Flatmate, Susan, and Anyone Else who Comes Along for the Fun Fair and Free Music, Pride '96.

London is the gay capital of Europe. Similar celebrations to London Pride elsewhere in Europe rank as school discos by comparison. Over the past eight years, London has been transformed. Soho is now a gay village. Just as New York has Christopher Street and San Francisco has the Castro, London has Old Compton Street - Comptons. The Edge. The Village. The Iron Bar. The Yard. Bar Code. The Old Compton Street Cafe. Balans. A hairdressers. A cab company. And all this within a street or two. Homosexuality is emblazoned across Soho in chrome and neon.

Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam have all got a lot going for them, sure, but there is something in the English psyche that is peculiarly homosexual, something that would inspire a friend of mine to comment that the French, by comparison, just don't, well, you know, gay very well.

I was brought up in Scotland. By the age of 10, I had learnt a simple playground equation - English equalled posh equalled gay. All three were to be avoided as one. To this day, I have relatives who still refer to effete Scotsmen as English-Scotsmen. Ask anyone north of the border, and you will be told - the English are a bunch of fairies.

Take Hugh Grant: a man whose red-blooded heterosexuality can be doubted by few. But 10 minutes in the playground of my youth, glottal stops beautifully stoppered, it would take one foppish flick of that fringe, and his number would be up - complete poof. You just know Grant runs like a girl, doesn't play football and spent his playground days learning to skip.

John Major - a man who actively tries to personify an England of warm afternoons and warm beer - doesn't so much bang the Commons dispatch box with clenched masculine fist as flop down a limp-wristed slap. You half expect him to purse his lips and the words "Oooo, matron!" to issue forth. All the notions that Imperial England gave to the world - wit and decadence, literary leanings and intelligence. England has always been perceived as being this way, and that way. What else do you get from a public school education? You learn how to "fag".

England never really had a choice. What do you expect from a country whose figurehead is a Queen? The role of hostess to the continent's gay capital was scribbled on Britannia's dance card before the guest list was drawn up and the invitations sent out. When former French prime minister Edith Cresson said that the Anglo-Saxon male is less interested in the opposite sex than his Gallic counterpart and that one out of four Englishmen is homosexual, her arithmetic could be called into question, but she had a point. The English gay very well.

The Americans have to be thanked partly. Walk down Old Compton Street and you see the American influence right down to the soles of the Timberland boots. The gay village is, after all, an American concept. Gay rights began with the Stonewall riots in Sheridan Square on Christopher Street in New York's Greenwich Village.

London's status as the gay capital of Europe is partially an expression of the fact that England is an American cultural colony, and nowhere is this expressed with such apple pie enthusiasm as on Old Compton Street. It's partly a hangover from the early Eighties and the Village People, the checked shirt and moustached "clone" look. Tinker, tailor, soldier, construction worker. The gay scene didn't just ape masculinity, it mimicked American masculinity.

"The pattern of gay culture is very similar in Australia, America and England. There is something about the Protestant liberal experience in the English speaking world that is articulated in gay culture," says Terry Harding, a consultant with the events organisation, Pure. Heavy stuff, but Harding, himself a native of Australia who moved to London in the Eighties, is on the right track.

At the end of the day, what earns London the title of gay capital is its bars, its clubs, its shops. Yes, they are just bars, only shops. Yes, as such they are vulnerable. Look to New York where the regime of a right- wing mayor has seen the end of some of the best gay clubs in the world. Of course, Old Compton Street has given London its gay village, but it has only done so for a short eight years: and to see "Gay London" as only running the length of a small street in Soho is to ignore everything that Oscar Wilde et al got up to in Covent Garden 100 years previously.

Still the London gay scene has emerged out of a culture that - consciously or not - is as limp-wristed as you like, and whose only notion of masculinity is imported with its jeans and its lager. And (horror upon horror) the neighbours in France and Scotland have been twitching their curtains for years. The only person who will be surprised by this is the Englishman. And people say gay men don't know who they are. Happy Gay Pride.