Norwich: The Queer Capital of the East

“Norwich is a fine city.” This often remarked and equally mocked slogan, which you first encountered driving down the A11 towards the outer limits of the city, has become just as iconic and intertwined with the city’s DNA as UEA’s Ziggurats or Cathedral Close. You take a walk around the city streets, visit some of the local attractions and taste the local cuisine, some of which have already been written about in this section previously, and think “sure, Norwich is a pretty fine city.”

When I think of Norwich, it is as though it were in the process of performing a very delicate balancing act between the past and the present, the historic and the new. This is by no means an easy feat – just look at Liverpool, which recently lost its prized UNESCO World Heritage status for demolishing some of its iconic features. What is unexpected, however, is Norwich’s status as the LGBT and now Queer capital of not only Norfolk but also East Anglia. 

Like a lifejacket in the deep blues of the North Sea, Norwich has for the past several years appeared to be a refuge for those which society has deemed to be degenerate, subversive, or else. As the largest city in the East of England, its position as such seems, at least at first glance, almost the default option. Its reputation as such was no doubt helped by the establishment of UEA in 1963, and the modernization of the Norwich University of the Arts in 1994, both of which attracted swaths of new students and young people to the area the majority of which held socially liberal values. However, Norwich’s historic ties with Queer culture and history extend far beyond the confines of the university campus, which can already feel at times like a world apart from the real world. 

For example, during the late 1990s and early 2000s Norfolk and Norwich based magazines such as ‘Evolve’ and ‘Oasis’ offered help, advice, information, and support to transgender (or ‘transexual’, to use the magazine’s language) people many years before the socio-cultural awakening we are witnessing around us. During the height of the AIDS epidemic a few years prior, citizens of Norwich established a number of helplines and prevention services, including translating terms and phrases in various booklets such as “only with a condom” into several languages for those who needed it. This was done, once again, before the later realisation of what AIDS was and did was acted upon by the UK government. 

Today, Queer culture in Norwich continues to thrive with annual pride marches and events being held since 2009. Restaurants and Bars aimed at providing a safe environment for Queer people include MJ’s Tavern and The Wave which are open all year round. Local museums and galleries have also gone the extra mile and incorporated Queer history and art exhibits into a more permeant position within their collections. Of course, this is without mentioning the support and community groups available throughout the city and on our very own campus.

All this having been said, why talk about Queer culture now? The more general answer is that as noble as the idea of a Queer history or month is, to confine it to a single span of 30 or so days before promptly forgetting us is to be, in one sense, self-defeatist. Queer history, Queer culture is history, is culture. The other, more pressing reason relates in events in the United States. As Florida Governor and potential future Republican nominee for President of the United States, Ron DeSantis prepares to sign the ‘Parental Rights in Education Bill,’ otherwise known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay Bill’ by its opponents, into law, it becomes necessary for us recognise and remember the importance of history and culture in our community. The legalization of Gay Marriage took place less than a decade ago, in 2014. The equality of the age of consent in 2000. Just as quickly as time’s arrow marches forward, so to is it true that it can turn just as quickly into sand.  

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Tristan Pollitt

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August 2022
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