The Joiners Arms was first established in 1997 as an LGBTQ+ space that welcomed people from all walks of life, acting as a hive of political activity, hosting discussions, exhibitions and fundraisers that supported and raised key concerns for the local queer community.
Fast forward to 2014 and, like many places in the rapidly regenerating capital, the late-licence pub became threatened by closure. The statistics tell a gloomy story: since 2006, the number of LGBTQ+ venues in London have declined by more than half. But the community weren’t going to let that happen to their space and together they formed Friends of the Joiners Arms (FOTJA).
The Joiners Arms used to be part of a triangle of LGBTQ+ venues, with the Nelson’s Head and George and Dragon nearby. All three venues closed in early 2015 and an area where you could spend the entire night pub-hopping just vanished. FOTJA launched a campaign to save the pub, as it was due to be demolished to build a new luxury housing development.
“The Joiners is now forever lost because no one can recreate it and we are not the people who ran it,” says Amy Roberts, chair of Friends of the Joiners Arms. “This is true when any venue or space is closed – it is lost. However, our campaign was born out of that energy. What we aim to create is a not-for-profit, truly accessible space that centres the needs of the most marginalised within the LGBTQ+ communities. We want to reimagine what a queer space can be by reinvesting profits back into the services and events we can offer.”
Often this is where the story ends, but FOTJA successfully secured Asset of Community Value (ACV) status for the venue, giving priority to the community group to purchase the building and determine its use. Then in 2017, thanks to the group’s campaigning, Tower Hamlets council made a historic planning protection arrangement, granting developers permission to build on the site, but the plans must include a pub, which should be run as an LGBTQ+ venue with a lease of 25 years. Further to this, the opening hours must mirror those of the original pub. Even better, the developers should pay for the first year’s rent and contribute to the fit-out costs of the new venue.
“We fought to highlight that it was not a bar that had been lost, but a bar that specifically served the needs of the LGBTQ+ community,” says Amy. “When the replacement bar is ready, we will be able to bid for the lease, but others will too.”
The group set up as a community benefit society (CBS), run by its members for the community and will bid for the lease on the new pub in the development. “We’re a mix of people who got involved for various reasons; some of us loved the Joiners, others had never been, and some got involved with the campaign after attending one of our own club nights!” says Amy. “What links us is our passion for the importance of queer spaces.”
The CBS are busy hosting events at multiple venues as they search for a ‘meanwhile space’, which they plan to be designed by LGBTQ+ architects and designers, with involvement from the community to ensure that the space serves their needs, whilst offering opportunities to gain new skills and get involved.
Throughout this time, the community group had been recruiting new members, including Joe who had seen the LGBTQ+ nightlife in London becoming “decimated” and, searching for an activism campaign, found Friends of the Joiners Arms via a 38 Degrees email. Joe had been involved in activism before, but this is the first time he has felt like a proper member.
“The people in this campaign are so great, they’re the sweetest people you’ve ever met,” says Joe. “They really listen, they take any suggestions you may have and are open to all ideas. It’s a lot of fun.” Joe’s role in the campaign is secretary on the board and disability champion. The group have met many challenges to find an accessible venue – a surprisingly difficult task in London – after finding the perfect space, it closed during the pandemic – so the challenge continues.
“We’ve been running drag king nights, featuring non-binary and trans people of colour,” says Joe. “Money raised through ticket sales goes into the campaign, to carry on running these events and keeping our community afloat, we pay the performers, who have been really challenged because of the loss of nightlife [due to the pandemic]”. He describes FOTJA nights as “a place where people can just exist freely without being constrained by everything. Where you can be yourself and be surrounded by people like you, and people who are not like you and I think that’s really important.”
“As a trans person it honestly feels like coming home when I go to a space like this, a rare opportunity to feel truly comfortable in London, I’m still buzzing the day after!”
The importance of places like the Joiners Arms is clear. “We want to be part of queer history, we can create this community space for people, and ensure a permanent space for the future,” says Joe.
FOTJA started out as a group of Sunday evening Joiners Arms’ regulars (pre-closure) who formed meetings, allowing anyone to input and take responsibility for tasks. The group have undertaken community surveys, to gain information and opinions from the LGBTQ+ community, as well as hosting a bi-monthly drag king night to test ideas, offer paid opportunities and raise funds.
“Community businesses are empowering and enable a collective of people to create something they are passionate about,” says Amy. “But young people, particularly young people in London, are currently not represented in community businesses. The more young people can get involved, the greater the possibilities of what we can create.”
Friends of the Joiners Arms is an on-going campaign and collective. “People can reach us through our socials and our email to get involved!” says Amy. “We always welcome new people to attend our meetings to talk about the campaign and where we’re going. You don’t need any experience – you just need to like queer spaces!”
“However, we are aware that there are economic barriers for people to get involved with campaigns like ours because it relies on volunteer work, and so we are trying to create more paid roles at our bi-monthly nights,” adds Roberts. “Later in 2022, we will launch our community share offer and anyone can become a member of our community benefit society and be part of creating a new, not-for-profit, accessible queer space in East London!”
The Joiners Arms sits within a wider development which is earmarked to be turned into a hotel. However, since getting planning permission in early 2021, nothing has happened to the site. “This is the second time we’ve been in this situation, the first being in 2017, where planning permission was granted but the developers did not go forth with their plans,” says Roberts. “Meanwhile the Joiners has sat empty for seven years. At least each time they go back to planning we are able to secure increasing protections for the Joiners.”
The CBS plan to use the ‘meanwhile space’ model of turning a vacant building into socio-economic value for the local community – creating a “fun, radical queer place to socialise and hold events,” says Roberts. “It will also give us a chance to test and develop our ideas, particularly around operating as a CBS, and will allow us to launch our share sale with a clear plan around the space.”